CONCORD, N.H. – Ten years ago, Maura Murray packed her car, lied to professors about a death in the family and left Massachusetts. That night, on a rural road in the northern part of New Hampshire, the 21-year-old nursing student crashed her car.
Then she vanished, leaving a tormented family, vexed investigators and a case rife with rumor and innuendo. Lead investigators say there hasn't been a single, credible sighting of her since minutes after her car spun into trees and a snowbank along Route 112 in North Haverhill just before 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 9, 2004.
The disappearance of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst student is one of the most intriguing among scores of New Hampshire cold cases.
"No one knows for sure where Maura is or what happened to her," said Jeffery Strelzin, senior assistant attorney general.
Fred Murray believes his daughter is dead, the victim of a crime. But he wants to keep her case in the public eye in hopes of finally knowing what really happened that night on the threshold of the White Mountain National Forest.
"There's no letting go," said Murray, a medical technician in Bridgeport, Conn. "My daughter wouldn't want me to quit on her. She'd want me to keep trying to find out who grabbed her."
Her father and some investigators believe she just wanted to get away for a few days. It had been a rough stretch for the standout student who had attended -- and quickly left -- the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She had recently resolved a criminal matter involving use of a stolen credit card and caused extensive damage to her father's car during a late night crash.
Then there was a mysterious and traumatizing call four days before she disappeared. She was working her security job at UMass-Amherst when the phone rang, and she burst into tears. A supervisor ended up walking her home. The caller -- and the subject of the call -- remain unknown.
But two days before she vanished, Maura was in good spirits as she and her father shopped for a used car for her and then went out to dinner.
Before she left that Monday, she had already called several lodgings, including one in Bartlett, N.H., that her family regularly visited. In her car were directions to Burlington, Vt., said retired state police Lt. John Healy, who has continued to investigate the disappearance.
Headed east on 112, she lost control of the 1996 Saturn, tagged a tree and spun around so the car was facing west.
A couple who live within sight of the scene called police. Butch Atwood, a school bus driver who lived nearby, told police he stopped by and asked Murray if she wanted him to call police. She said no. Atwood, who has since died, called anyway and appears to be the last person known to have spoken to Maura.
A police report says the windshield was cracked on the driver's side, both air bags deployed and the car was locked. There was a box of wine on the back seat and a strong odor of alcohol.
Healy, one of many investigators who have volunteered countless hours on the case, thinks Maura was the victim of a "crime of opportunity."
"She got into the wrong car. She went to the wrong house," Healy said last week. "One minute she's there, 10 minutes later she's not."
"In Maura's case, we're one step away from thinking alien abduction, it happened so fast," Healy said.
Theories abound that Maura fled, possibly to Canada.
Strelzin said it's unlikely -- but not impossible -- that the young woman had gone off to start a new life, but he and Healy agree that kind of disappearing takes careful planning, help and resources.
Her father doesn't believe it.
"I don't think she'd put us through this," he said. "She would have called me. I can't imagine her not calling. We were close, you know?"
Murray is frustrated and angry, convinced New Hampshire state police didn't call in the FBI 10 years ago and still won't for fear of exposing their own foibles.
"She was out there helpless," her father said. "Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. No one to ask for help. I think some local dirt bag grabbed her."
He fought in vain all the way to the New Hampshire Supreme Court to get the investigation's records.
"If I saw the case records, I would know what I have to chase myself," Murray said. "You get frustrated and it gnaws at you. You can't get rid of it."