Lost On The Road

Date Published 11.13.09
This is a story about two young women who embarked on road trips four years apart.  No one knows exactly where the young women intended to go;  they were at that age --- roughly 19 to 23 --- when one has a driver's license, and a car, but no real responsibility just yet; freedom, and the wistful sense it will not, cannot last, have always inspired young people to take to the open road, to pack their favorite books and music and drive deep into the night, absorbing the landscape, collecting experiences, searching for answers while strapped in the safe cocoon of their cars.

This is a story about two young women who went searching for something on the road.  Did they find it?  No one knows.  Their cars were found --- damaged, abandoned, full of personal belongs and maddening clues --- but they were gone, and are still missing.

Maura

Monday, February 9, 2004.  It was a cold evening in New Hampshire; snow was on the ground.  The car wound along the heavily wooded road.  Inside, the driver may have been drinking some of the liquor she bought earlier that day.  After the accident, a police officer would find a coke bottle nearby with red liquid that smelled like booze.

There aren't a lot of people in Woodsville, a rural village just west of the White Mountain National Forest, not far from the Vermont border.  But one of them was home that night, and around 7 p.m. she heard a thump.  She peered outside and saw a car stuck in a snow bank, facing west on the eastbound side of the road.

The woman thought she saw a man in the driver's seat lighting a cigarette.  Later, her husband would say when he looked out the window he believed he saw a young woman using her cell phone --- it's possible the red light on the cell phone looked like a cigarette tip to his wife, he said.  Their contradictory impressions are one of the more puzzling aspects of a deeply puzzling case.

Another neighbor remembers seeing a car with trouble lights flashing and someone walking around the car.

A local bus driver rounded the bend in the road and, coming upon the accident, stopped to offer help.  The night was pitch-black.  He was a big man, nearly 350 lbs, with a mustache, and he may have cut a scary figure suddenly appearing alongside the car.  He later said the driver, a young woman, looked "shook-up" and cold, but not injured.  He offered to call the police, but she asked him not to.  She said she'd already called AAA.  But the bus driver lived just 100 yards away, and knew that there was no cell phone coverage in the area.  He called the police.

At 7:46 p.m., a police officer arrived at the scene.  It was only seven or eight minutes after the bus driver had talked to the young woman.  The car, a 1996 black Saturn, was still there, stuck in the snow bank, but the young woman, Maura Murray, 21, was gone.

Maura's cell phone hasn't been used since that day; same with her credit cards.  She left clothes and personal belongings behind in the car.  Her family came to Woodsville and scoured the woods for her.  They frantically drove a hundred miles in every direction, stopping at bus stations, putting up fliers.  Searching.  Calling.  Questioning.

Did a car stop for Maura?  Was there someone else with her, or following behind her in another car?  Is it possible she walked into the woods on that cold night and died?


Maura Murray


Pictures of Maura show a pretty young woman who seems self-assured but also somehow diffident, like she's holding back in order to protect herself.  Reports are she was driven and private, but that in the period before her disappearance she was loosening up, adopting a more flirtatious, spirited personality.

Maura, who grew up in Hanson, Mass., one of five children of divorced parents, began her college career at West Point.  She was an excellent athlete, a determined, prize-winning runner, and she loved the outdoors.  But even though Maura fell in love with a fellow cadet, she ultimately decided West Point wasn't for her, and she dropped out, transferring to University of Massachusetts Amherst to study nursing.

There were bumps.  Money was a concern.  Her relationship with her boyfriend, Billy Rausch, was occasionally rocky, and the long-distance didn't help.

In early February, Maura began to exhibit signs of emotional distress.  On Feb. 5, just days before she disappeared, she received a mysterious phone call while working at her part-time job at campus security.  Something about the call reduced her to tears.  She was so upset that she had to be escorted back to her room by her supervisor.

On Saturday, Feb. 7, her father, Fred Murray, arrived in town to help Maura buy a new car.  Her old one, the Saturn, was running on only three cylinders and wasn't reliable.  After car shopping they ate dinner together, and Fred said she could borrow his new car, a Toyota Corolla, to go out that night.

Maura attended  a small dorm party with friends where she reportedly drank some alcohol.  In a move that others found odd at the time, she suddenly decided she wanted to return her father's car to his motel.  While en route, she slammed into a guardrail, doing reportedly at least $8000 worth of damage.

She called her boyfriend in the early morning hours.  He later said he felt there was more on her mind than the accident.

Fred assured her that his insurance would cover it.  She seemed upset, he said later, but not unstable.  On Monday, phone records show she called a couple in Bartlett, New Hampshire who rent vacation condominiums.  The couple doesn't recall the nature of their conversation with Maura, but they're certain they didn't rent a condo to her.

Her actions began to grow more peculiar.  She e-mailed her boyfriend and said she loved him but didn't feel like talking.  She e-mailed a work supervisor and some professors and told them she'd be gone for a week due to a death in the family.  No one in the family had died.  She packed up her dorm room and put her things in her car, including objects of special importance to her, like a favorite stuffed animal, and, curiously, the book Not Without Peril, which details deaths in the White Mountain National Forest, a favorite hiking area of Maura's that is very near where she was last seen.

At some point she obtained accident forms for her father's insurance.  She also printed out computer-generated directions to Stowe and Burlington, Vermont.

She withdrew $280 from her ATM, went to a liquor store (surveillance video shows she was alone), and bought roughly $40 worth of liquor.

She didn't tell anyone where she was going, but we know for some reason she got into a car she considered unreliable and headed north toward the New Hampshire wilderness where, hours later, she landed with a thump into a snow bank.

There's a lot of controversy in the Maura Murray case, with Maura's family, particularly her father, Fred, criticizing New Hampshire state investigators for not doing enough to find her, and officials countering that Fred is badgering them and trespassing on local property.  For a while at least, state investigators seemed to be leaning toward a suicide or planned disappearance theory.  The Murray family rejects those theories and believes Maura was abducted.

Here is what is known:

A rag from Maura's truck was stuffed in the Saturn's tailpipe for unknown reasons.

Maura's black backpack, cell phone and a great deal of the liquor she bought were not in the car.

A police dog tracked Maura's scent about 100 yards and then stopped, suggesting she may have gotten into a vehicle.

Official ground and air searches were conducted, including once with a heat-seeking helicopter, but no trace of Maura was ever found.

A local resident believes he saw a woman fitting Maura's description running 4 to 5 miles from the accident site about an hour or so after she crashed.

On Wed., a day and a half after the accident, Maura's boyfriend received a strange voicemail on his cell phone.  The caller, who he believes to be Maura, whimpered and cried and then hung up.  The call was later traced to a card issued to the American Red Cross.

Theories

On the night Maura received the phone call that made her cry, a fellow student was found unconscious in the road, about a mile and a half from where Maura was working.  He's believed to be the victim of a hit and run, though there were no witnesses.  His injuries were quite serious, and for a time it looked like he might not make it.  Some have speculated that Maura took a surreptitious break from work and was involved in the hit and run, or she lent her car to someone who was.

Some believe the damage to Maura's car doesn't match with skidding into a snow bank, and that she was in an earlier accident, or it wasn't her behind the wheel on the road in Woodsville, but someone who took over her car at some point during the trip.

An empty beer bottle was reportedly found in the back seat, which could suggest someone else was in the car with her.  And there's the witness who thought she saw a man smoking a cigarette. 

Maura Murray's case is maybe the most puzzling missing persons case I've ever come across.  Every theory has its flaws. If she fled into the woods to commit suicide, why hasn't her body been found?  And if she was intending to commit suicide, why bring the insurance forms?  And her birth control and cell phone charger?  But how likely is it that, at the very moment her car breaks down on an isolated road, a homicidal maniac happens by?

Leah

Four years before Maura's disappearance, another young woman took a road trip and never returned.

On March 9, 2000 Leah Roberts, 23, got into her 1993 Jeep Cherokee and drove away from Raleigh, North Carolina.  She was just credits shy of graduating from college, but stalled in life, having endured the death of both her parents in the previous three years.  She was also recovering from injuries sustained in a serious car accident years before.

Before her trip, Leah had been spending a great deal of time in a local coffee shop, writing poetry and journal entries.  Those close to her say she was interested in learning more about her spirituality.  She was deeply affected by the writings of Jack Kerouac, particularly his book The Dharma Bums, which is partly set in Whatcom County, Washington.


Leah Roberts

Leah didn't tell anyone about her traveling plans.  She left a note for a roommate, saying she wasn't suicidal but instead fascinated with Kerouac.  She left money for the month's bills and took her kitten, Bea, with her.

On March 10, credit card records show Leah spent the night in a Memphis hotel.  Two days later, she'd made it to Oregon.  The next day a ticket stub shows she went to see the movie American Beauty in Bellingham, Washington.  The trail stops there.

Leah's Jeep Cherokee was found wrecked and abandoned on a logging road off of Mount Baker Highway at the foot of the Cascade Mountains, which is about 85 miles north of Seattle.  Her belongings were found scattered about the vehicle.  Tucked inside a pair of her pants was $2,500.  Blankets covered the windows, as if someone was protecting themselves from the elements.

A witness said he believed he saw Leah at a gas station sometime after her car had been abandoned.  She seemed disorientated.  The witness ended the call before investigators could learn more details, but they believe the sighting is a valid one.

Leah's case is puzzling, but less so than Maura's.  She seemed to be more openly lost than Maura, and I think it's possible that, after wrecking her car, she trekked into the forest and died there, or, disoriented, took up with some group.

Leah and Maura's cases aren't connected in a literal way, but thematically, emotionally, the parallels are uncanny.  Two young women who look so much alike they could be sisters both sought escape in a road trip; they were both inspired by books that invoked a special place for them, so much so that they drove to that place; both sustained damage to their cars, and then, before help could reach them, disappeared.


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