The week of February 21, 2016

Maura Murray and the Internet sleuths trying to find her

By Christopher Peak

Twelve years ago this month, Maura Murray vanished. Sometime around 7:30pm on Feb. 9, 2004, the 21-year old nursing student crashed her car on a rural stretch of road along the border of Vermont and New Hampshire. On that cold night, her vehicle apparently slid, spun, and finally stopped, facing the wrong way on the opposite side of the road.

The aftermath of the crash has fueled speculation for more than a decade. A school bus driver returning home from work saw Murray and stopped. He later told police that she said she’d already called for help and asked him not to call 911. He acquiesced, but said he offered her a ride to his house, within sight of the crash.

Again, she declined.

He drove away.

And then she was gone.

On July 23, 2011, journalist and author James Renner published a blog post titled “A New Search Begins.” In it he described spending several months investigating Murray’s disappearance and uncovering unpublicized facts in the case. “There is something about this case that resonates with so many people,” he wrote, and he hoped he’d talk to many more people while he gathered material for a book.

That was nearly five years ago. His book, True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray, is scheduled for release in May. It’s been a long time coming, and via email he says he likely couldn’t have written it without the Internet. “Maura disappeared the same week Facebook launched. Hers is the first major mystery of the social media age,” he says. With social media he can connect with both sources and investigators, and his blog acts as a digital billboard for anyone with new information—“stories from friends, people who knew her from school, from West Point.”

In its broadest outline—a woman disappears seemingly into thin air, never to be seen again—the Maura Murray case offers plenty of open space for speculation. And speculation has bloomed on numerous other blogs, podcasts, and inevitably, a Reddit forum. It’s become an Internet niche, with all the insider jargon, debates about obscure factual points, and bilious infighting that you’d unfortunately expect.

But Renner says at the beginning it was the details that hooked him.“It’s a confounding mystery because of all the weird circumstantial evidence,” he says. A rag was found in the wrecked car’s tailpipe. Before she vanished, Murray had a breakdown at work, the cause of which has never been publicly explained. She emptied her bank account the afternoon before she went missing, while her father had withdrawn $4,000 from eight area ATMs in the preceding days. She emailed professors to say she’d miss the following week of classes due to a death in the family—a death that never happened. Connecting the dots on these details, significant or not, is like rolling in catnip for Internet sleuths. “You can take the evidence and spin any theory you want, really,” Renner says.

He’s done his part to get more evidence, uploading and publicly sharing more than 500 pages of documents. The case is officially in the hands of a cold case unit, and Renner encourages his blog readers to send their tips to the authorities. He says he’s sent Freedom of Information Act requests to authorities in Murray’s hometown and around the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she attended school. He’s gathered information from her time at West Point, where she’d spent three months as a cadet; he’s successfully appealed for files on a potentially related hit-and-run. And he’s collected the many possible sightings of Murray in the years since her disappearance.

“You can take the evidence and spin any theory you want, really.”

In other words, he’s provided valuable fodder for the people still enthralled by Maura Murray’s disappearance. One of those people is John Smith—and yes, that’s his real name. He’s a 57-year-old former Littleton, New Hampshire, police officer who has worked with Murray’s father since since April of 2004, two months after she went missing.

He’s still working. “I dig every day,” he says via email. “And I won’t stop. So don’t think that I will.” He says he isn’t doing it for the money, and that save for $20 in gas money he received years ago, he’s hasn’t taken compensation from the Murray family. There’s no fame to be had here, and the only thanks he sees coming will be on the day he’s able to tell Fred Murray what really happened to his daughter.

The case has so consumed him that in 2008 he quit his job. And a few months after that, he lost his vehicle “and pretty much my life,” he says, including breaking up with his girlfriend of 10 years. “I pretty much spent every waking moment on the case, working the forums, driving the roads, talking to witnesses,” he says. “By this time, I was spending all of my time and money on the case.” He estimates he’s spent $12,000–$15,000 of his own money to help find Maura Murray.

Of course, he does much of his work online, under a number of aliases. “Detective Columbo was the persona used most often and have had that for 12 years,” he says. “Some call that being dishonest and deceiving, but I call it smart and resourceful.”

Where Smith chooses to conceal his identity online, Lance Reenstierna and Tim Pilleri go the opposite route: They’re completely open about their research, sharing it on a podcast called Missing Maura Murray. Reenstierna, a New Hampshire native, discovered the case while researching another story; a Google search for “missing persons New Hampshire” led him to Renner’s blog. The more he read, the more he wanted to make something out of the story. He pitched Pilleri on a documentary, and the two friends had their project.

But they found it hard going. “We were having difficulty connecting with locals and gaining trust with the dozen or so folks who had already been looking into the case for years,” Pilleri says. “The politics in producing this is so bizarre. You just gotta be careful and conscious of who you get info from and who you give info to.” They decided to try a podcast instead.

In the beginning, the production was raw. Listeners were treated to the sound of dishes being washed in the background or the occasional purr from Reenstierna’s cat. But the show seemed to connect with listeners.

“The number of downloads we were getting kept surprising us,” says Pilleri. “It seemed to immediately work and we were soon able to reach some folks who had information that weren’t out there in the public or any of the online forums.” People seemed more willing to talk to a couple of podcasters, where they didn’t have to worry about who might see them.

“At some point during the run of the podcast we began to think we might have a chance to make a difference and actually help solve this case,” says Pilleri. With more than a million downloads, and even some interest from television producers, what began with two guys recording themselves at a kitchen table has become something bigger. “We never expected the audience to be as large as it is,” says Pilleri, “and we either didn’t notice, didn’t think people would notice, or didn’t think people would care.”

“Even if we find Maura, living or deceased, all of the questions we have about who, where, when, why, etc., will never really be answered.”

One person who noticed was a 20-something woman who contacted the two hosts asking how she could help. As a child, she says, she was obsessed with Nancy Drew novels and Murder She Wrote. Now, going by the alias “KF,” she’s become the podcast’s all-purpose researcher. “There’s very little I don’t do in terms of investigation,” she says via email. (She uses the pseudonym to cloak her investigations.) “I research and request records from courts, police departments, and government offices. I investigate the backgrounds and identities of people involved in the case and those in the online community. I organize information, evidence and documents and write them into a format the guys can use on the air.”

But for all that labor, she admits even if the case is solved, nagging questions will remain. “This case is different from other ones I’ve followed,” she says, “because I know that even if we find Maura, living or deceased, all of the questions we have about who, where, when, why, etc., will never really be answered.”

Maura Murray has been missing since Feb. 9, 2004. She disappeared from a dark road on a cold night at the dawn of the age of social media. So many questions surround her life and disappearance, and they fuel the online discussions among strangers, most of whom have never met her but find themselves nonetheless entranced by her story. Maybe she was kidnapped; maybe she was murdered. Maybe she fled to start a new life. Maybe she doesn’t want to be found. Maybe she is alive or dead, but her story, for many, remains unresolved—and perhaps unresolvable.

James Renner sees the Internet as a boon, connecting like-minded investigators. “Look at Reddit,” he says. “Some of these message boards allow Internet sleuths to work together, to bounce ideas off each other, in order to uncover new clues that police may have overlooked.” In other words, it might help us get closer to the bare facts of the case.

But Renner also suggests there’s a deeper allure to these true crime stories. “I think it peels back the curtain and reveals the indifferent world in which we live,” he says. Maybe it’s a kind of existential crisis, he suggests: “We’re trying to figure things out and these stories get us closer to some truth about life.” Whatever that truth may be, the search continues.

Illustration by J. Longo