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The Maura is Missing series was written by Maribeth Conway and edited by Josh Cutler.

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Maura is Missing Part II: The Accident
Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

The site of the accident on Wild Ammonoosuc Road

N

estled in the Connecticut River Valley, a stone's throw from the Vermont border, Woodsville is a rural village within the town of Haverhill, New Hampshire. Woodsville has a year-round population of 1,080 and was best known as the home of America's oldest covered bridge -- until the night of Mon. Feb. 9, 2004.

Sometime after 7 that evening, 21-year-old Maura Murray found herself in a snow bank off Wild Ammonoosuc Road in Woodsville. How and why she arrived at that point, and what happened next is the source of great mystery, conjecture and heartache.

Wild Ammonoosuc Road, also known as Route 112, winds along the northern end of Woodsville near the town line with Bath, New Hampshire. The road is named for the nearby Wild Ammonoosuc River, which starts in the White Mountains and snakes west for about 15 miles, eventually flowing into the Connecticut River.

Little is known about Maura's trip north after she left the UMass campus in Amherst, Mass around 4 p.m. Presumably she drove Route 116 out of Amherst, picked up U.S. Route 91 North in South Deerfield, Mass. and headed toward New Hampshire. Considering that Maura landed on Route 112 in Woodsville, she likely took exit 17 off of Route 91 to reach Route 302. Maura was presumably headed to the town of Bartlett, a family favorite vacation spot and home of the Attitash ski resort in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Maura continued to visit the White Mountains with her father into her college years and even brought along her boyfriend, Billy, on a family trip several months before her fateful journey.

In winter, local travelers know to take Route 302 if headed to Bartlett, N.H. instead of the faster, but snakelike Route 112, which later turns into the Kancamagus Highway. The entire journey from Amherst would have taken Maura 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

There was snow on the ground, but it was a mild February evening in Woodsville.

It had been quite cold earlier in the day, but by 2 p.m. a warming trend drove the temperatures above freezing and they hovered around 33 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the night. (Later reports would erroneously state the high temperature at 12 degrees.)

Shortly after 7 p.m. Faith Westman heard a loud thump outside her white gambrel-style home at 70 Wild Ammonoosuc Road. Her house is located inside a sharp left-hand bend in the road; Westman lives there with her husband, Tim. The couple also owns The Weathered Barn, a well-known local landmark, which is across the street at 69 Wild Ammonoosuc Road. In this barn, Tim Westman, a renowned craftsman, restores antique musical instruments.Shortly after 7 p.m. Faith Westman heard a loud thump outside her white gambrel-style home at 70 Wild Ammonoosuc Road. Her house is located inside a sharp left-hand bend in the road; Westman lives there with her husband, Tim. The couple also owns The Weathered Barn, a well-known local landmark, which is across the street at 69 Wild Ammonoosuc Road. In this barn, Tim Westman, a renowned craftsman, restores antique musical instruments.

Faith Westman peered out her window and saw Maura Murray's black Saturn lodged in a snow bank a short distance from her home. The car was facing west on the eastbound side of the road. From the look of things, it was clear there had been some kind of accident.

At 7:27 p.m. Westman called the Grafton County Sheriff's Department to report the vehicle, which she described as being in a "ditch."

Westman told dispatcher Ronda Marsha she was not sure if there were any injuries. Notably, the log reports that Westman said she could "see a man in the vehicle smoking a cigarette."

Maura never smoked and was vehemently anti-smoking, according to her mother and father.

In a later interview with Maura's father, Fred Murray, the Westmans could not agree on an exact description of the person in the black Saturn. Faith Westman believed she had seen a man with a cigarette, while Tim Westman believed it was a woman at the scene on her cell phone and that the red light from the phone looked like the tip of a cigarette.

An investigator who later interviewed the Westmans confirmed that the couple did not fully agree on a description.

When asked to clarify for this story the Westmans declined comment. "We've been down that path too many times. It's worn thin," Tim Westman said.

Meanwhile, across the street, neighbor Virginia Marrotte was standing in her kitchen with her husband, John, who was peeling an orange.

"From our kitchen window we saw a car down the road with trouble lights flashing and someone walking around the car," Virginia Marrotte wrote in response to a set of questions sent for this series. 

"From our kitchen window we saw a car down the road with trouble lights flashing and someone walking around the car," Virginia Marrotte wrote in response to a set of questions sent for this series. 

John Marrotte told the same story to private investigator John Healy after the incident and added that he believed he saw Maura's car back up parallel to the road, indicated by the car's rear lights.

While the Marrottes were watching from their kitchen window they observed another neighbor arrive on the scene in a school bus.

Arthur "Butch" Atwood is a former Taunton, Mass., resident, who worked as a school bus driver for First Student Inc., the second largest school bus operator in the U.S. according to the company website.

Atwood lived with his wife, Barbara, in a log-cabin style home 210 yards east of the Westmans at 4 Wild Ammonoosuc Road. Atwood was on his way home after dropping off students following a ski field trip. His home is on the town line with neighboring Bath.

Atwood stopped by the scene of the accident and saw a young woman alone in the car whom he later identified as Maura Murray. Her dark hair was hanging down, not in its customary bun, though Atwood said he could clearly see her face. She was "shook-up," but not injured, he reported to police.

"I saw no blood...She was cold and she was shivering," Atwood told the Caledonian Record.

Maura struggled to get out of her Saturn because the car door was hitting against a snowbank, Atwood recalled when interviewed for this story from his new home in Florida. There was as much as two and a half feet of snow on the ground in the area.

Atwood stepped out of his bus and asked Maura if she wanted him to call the police. Maura told him not to bother, saying that she had already called AAA, Atwood said.

A N.H. State Police "synopsis" released by Lt. John Scarinza four months later, painted a different view of their encounter: "When the passerby stated that he was going to call local law enforcement to come assist, Maura pleaded with him not to call police."

Maura’s car sustained damage to the hood and front end. The Saturn’s radiator was pushed into the fan. Both airbags were deployed and the windshield was also cracked. The vehicle had last been inspected in Weymouth, Mass. on Oct. 17, 2003.

Atwood said that Maura remained on the driver's side of her car, about 15 to 20 feet away and stayed there during their entire conversation. A heavy-set man about 60 years old, Atwood may have cast an intimidating figure to Maura. "I might be afraid if I saw Butch. He's 350 pounds and has this mustache," Barbara Atwood told the Patriot Ledger two weeks after the accident.

Atwood offered to let Maura wait at his house until help arrived, but Maura wanted to wait with her car. He advised Maura to turn her car's lights on to avoid getting hit by vehicles coming around the bend. Atwood then left the scene and drove the 100 yards to his home.

Atwood doubted that Maura could have reached AAA due to the sparse cell phone coverage in the area. "I knew better," he said later. Family friend Sharon Rausch also confirmed that AAA did not receive a call from Maura that night.

Based on his recollection and the times reported in police dispatch logs, Atwood's conversation with Maura could only have lasted a few minutes.

After Atwood drove away, Faith Westman noticed the Saturn's interior lights switch on and off and witnessed a flurry of activity at the rear of the car, including a person standing at the trunk, according to private investigator John Smith, who spoke with the Westmans after the accident.

Smith is one of several retired police officers who have been working on a volunteer basis with the New Hampshire League of Investigators.

Meanwhile Butch Atwood backed his school bus into his driveway and went inside to call the police. He had difficulty reaching the 911 operator due to busy phone circuits. Atwood eventually got through to the Hanover Regional Dispatch Center, which in turn alerted the Grafton County Sheriff's department at 7:43 p.m., 16 minutes after Faith Westman's original call. 

Atwood spoke to the 911 operator from the front porch of his house. He could see the road, but Maura's car was not in his line of sight. As he spoke, a few cars passed by but Atwood was not able to identify any of them.

"I did not hear or see anything strange happen," Atwood said.

Three minutes later, at 7:46 p.m., Haverhill police Sergeant Cecil Smith arrived on the scene. He had been dispatched at 7:29 p.m. following the call from Faith Westman.

Atwood saw that a police vehicle had arrived so he went to his school bus to finish up some paperwork, he said during an interview.

Atwood later estimated that seven to nine minutes had elapsed from the time he left Maura to the arrival of the police cruiser, the Caledonian Record reported.

"Evidence at the scene indicated the vehicle had been eastbound and had gone off the roadway, struck some trees, spun around, and come to rest facing the wrong way in the eastbound lane," according to the accident report filed by Sgt. Smith on February 15, six days after the accident. 

Sgt. Smith approached Maura's car and discovered that it was locked. There was no sign of Maura. The driver's side windshield was cracked and both front air bags had been deployed.

 In a window of just minutes Maura Murray had vanished.

"Evidence at the scene indicated the vehicle had been eastbound and had gone off the roadway, struck some trees, spun around, and come to rest facing the wrong way in the eastbound lane," according to the accident report filed by Sgt. Smith on February 15, six days after the accident.

Tire impressions were found in the snow, though none were reported on the road.

Sgt. Smith found a box of Franzia wine behind the driver's seat of the vehicle and a red liquid on the driver's side door and ceiling of the car. (Maura's high-school friend Liz Drewniak recalls that Maura was not a heavy drinker, but often liked to buy wine by the box.) The box was damaged, perhaps in the accident, and reddish spots resembling wine were also found on the road, according to investigator John Healy. Sgt. Smith later recovered a coke bottle that contained "a red liquid with a strong alcoholic odor." None of the other bottles of alcohol that Maura had bought in Amherst were found in the car.

While later reports would suggest that a witness observed Maura intoxicated at the time of the accident, the source of that information is unclear. Circumstantial evidence suggests Maura may have been drinking wine prior to the crash, but Butch AThe book found in Maura's car Not Without Peril, by Nicholas Howe, is subtitled twood confirmed to a reporter for this story that Maura did not appear intoxicated when he spoke with her. 

Other items found in Maura's car were a AAA card, insurance forms, gloves, compact discs, makeup, computer generated directions for Burlington and Stowe, Vermont, and a book Maura had been reading by Nicholas Howe, Not Without Peril.

Sgt. Smith also found a rag stuffed into the exterior tail pipe of Maura's Saturn. The rag came from the trunk of Maura's car, according to Fred Murray, who said he had stored the rag along with an emergency roadside kit in the Saturn.

Whether Maura stuffed the rag in the tailpipe herself and what her motivation could have been remains unclear.

Stuffing a rag into a tail pipe would stall the vehicle and it would eventually kill the engine, according to Ferry's Automotive in Hanson. Plugging the tailpipe can also be a way to check for leaks in a vehicle's exhaust system. While carbon monoxide poisoning is a common method of attempting suicide, it would normally require a means of feeding the deadly gas back into the vehicle, such as by hose or in a confined space. 

When asked if Maura could have put the rag in the tailpipe, her father said it was possible. If smoke was trailing out of the tailpipe, Maura may have wanted to plug the pipe to avoid attracting attention from police.

After checking the area around the Saturn, Sgt. Smith knocked on the Westmans door and asked the couple what they had seen.

Sgt. Smith then drove the 200 yards east to Butch Atwood's home, and found Atwood sitting in his bus. Sgt. Smith knocked on the bus window. "He asked where the girl was," Atwood recalled and told the officer he hadn't seen anyone since leaving Maura's vehicle.

At 7:56 p.m, 10 minutes after Sgt. Smith arrived, EMS arrived on the scene followed by a fire truck one minute later.

New Hampshire State Trooper John Monahan also stopped by the scene of the accident. It is not clear what time he arrived, if he was dispatched to the accident, or if he stopped on his own accord.

Monahan, who is now assigned to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, did not respond to several requests for clarification. Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin, who is now handling documents for the case, said he was not sure he could provide specifics, but would look into the matter. No further information was available at press time.

Sgt. Smith and Atwood both drove the area searching for Maura. Atwood drove in a loop from Mountain Lakes, a nearby recreational and residential area, to the Swiftwater Stage Stop General Store. {sidebar id=10}

"I took a ride around the back roads. I was gone about 15 minutes. Then I took a ride to French Pond," Atwood told the Caledonian Record.

Sgt. Smith was believed to have driven westbound on Route 112, according to Fred Murray, who said that no search was done eastbound on Route 112.

At 8:02 p.m. EMS had cleared the scene and at 8:49 p.m. the fire crew had also left. Maura's car was towed ten miles to Lavoie's Auto Care Center on Route 10 in Haverhill. At 9:27 p.m. Sgt. Smith was dispatched to another call on Lime Kiln Road in North Haverhill -- a suicidal teenager in danger of electrocuting himself.

The night wore on but temperatures did not dip below 25 degrees.

At noon the next day. Tuesday, Feb. 10, police issued a "BOL" (Be on the Lookout) for Maura Murray. She was described as wearing a dark coat, with black hair hanging past her shoulders, standing five feet, three inches tall, and weighing 120 pounds. A subsequent report from Haverhill Police stated that Maura was last seen wearing jeans and corrected her height to be about five feet, seven inches tall, with brown shoulder length hair and blue eyes. Maura's cell phone was also missing from the scene and police reported she left with a black backpack.

At 3:20 p.m. on Tuesday, Fred Murray got a voicemail on his home phone telling him his car had been abandoned in Woodsville, New Hampshire. Fred was at a contract job in another state and did not receive that message until much later. At 5 p.m. Fred received a cell phone call from his daughter Kathleen; Maura's car had been abandoned and she was missing, Kathleen told her father.

Shortly after talking to Kathleen, Fred Murray called the Haverhill Police and insisted they immediately start searching for his daughter. Police told Fred that New Hampshire Fish and Game Service could start a search Wednesday if Maura was not yet found.

On Tuesday, February 10 at 5:17 p.m. Maura was first referred to as "missing" by the Haverhill Police.

Twelve hours later the formal search for Maura Murray began.

Maura is Missing Part III: The Search

 

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