I used to feel weird that I’ve always had a fascination (obsession) with the darker side of life. I thought there was something wrong with me (Oh shut up! I’m well aware there’s something wrong with me) until I heard that Stephen King used to keep a scrap-book of murder and other mayhem folks are wont to get up to. He had the same worry that I did: that people would think he was nuckin futs by being interested in the unsavory until he figured out it wasn’t an obsession so much as it was a lesson on how to spot maniacs and how to avoid them. I don’t keep a scrap-book of heinous images and the evil that people can do to one another. But I squirrel everything away in my head in storage boxes and occasionally rifle through those packed and dusty boxes the way a raccoon cleans something in water.
James Renner is a fantastic novelist. I came across his novel The Great Forgetting while I was working at the library one day. Then I read his first novel The Man from Primrose Lane. When I get passionate (again, obsessed) with something, I google the hell out of it. I googled James Renner (well that sounded downright filthy) and read that he has a keen interest in true crime that stemmed from his childhood. As a young boy a girl named Amy Mihaljevich was kidnapped and murdered not far from where he lived. The crime has gone unsolved for years. I know what you’re thinking: a novelist who can also write nonfiction? That’s like watching Madonna make attempt after attempt at an acting career. But James Renner wields a deft hand when writing both fiction and nonfiction.
Renner’s nonfiction book True Crime Addict opens on a seemingly ordinary Monday. Monday, February 9th, 2004 to be exact. Maura Murray, a nursing student at the University of Massachusetts, wrote an email to her professors saying that there had been a death in her family and she wasn’t going to be able to attend her classes that day.
There had not been a death in her family.
Say what? Tell me more.
Maura emptied her bank account, went to a liquor store, bought booze, and then headed north into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This was pretty bizarre behavior but many people would knowingly nod their head with a faint smile and remember their own college days of drinking and not knowing whose floor (or bed) they woke up in. At 7:30 that night, Maura Murray crashed into a snow bank hard enough to make the car inoperable. A man who heard the crash came out of his house to inspect what was going on. Maura seemed fine (later he would say he could smell liquor on her) and he went back to his house to call 911. By the time the police arrived, Maura was gone, never to be seen or heard from again.
Most of us leave our mark on things every day without realizing it: a hair stuck to the driver’s headrest, CCTV footage of you from the convenience store where you stopped for bottled water and a bag of Cornuts. Voice mail messages about nothing in particular. We also have to accept that time is a trickster. Both time and memory are tricksters. How can a seemingly ordinary girl be there one minute and then (poof!) be gone?
The police noted a crack in Maura’s windshield, red stains on the car door that looked to be wine (I still want to know why they think it was wine. My first thought would be “My God! Look at all this blood on the door!” But duh. They would have taken samples of it to see if it was human blood). The driver and passenger’s airbags had deployed, an empty beer bottle and a damaged box of Franzia wine was on the rear seat. They found two different Mapquest printouts for Burlington, Vermont and another to Stowe, Vermont. There was also a book about mountain climbing. Her debit and credit cards were left behind as was her cell phone.
In the beginning, the police didn’t see her disappearance as foul play because she had made preparations as if she was headed somewhere by emptying out her bank account, buying booze, and emailing her teachers. But Maura’s family felt something sinister had happened and didn’t buy the idea that she had wanted to disappear.
Maura’s father arrived in the town she disappeared from and you know what? Her dad gave me bad vibes. Not bad vibes as in “He killed her” but something felt off about the guy. Maura’s boyfriend and her father held a press conference and after it the police stated that Maura was now “listed as endangered and possibly suicidal.” How’d they go from “She’s just a missing young woman” to “Oh, she is a danger to herself and suicidal?” An enormous search was then launched to find her.
This is when the crackpots came out of the woodwork as they always do when something horrible happens. Maybe some of them meant well, but some were just mentally unstable. A man gave Maura’s father a rusty knife and told him it belonged to his brother who had a criminal past. There were various Maura sightings that never panned out. At the beginning of March, Maura’s father went home and returned every weekend to help with the search. The police believed there were two scenarios for Maura’s disappearance: She could have crashed into the snow bank and then caught a ride with someone or someone could have abducted her.
Twelve years went by without a Maura sighting or any clues to point to what happened to her. I’m sure after twelve years of worrying and waiting her parents would have moved on from hoping she was still alive to wanting her body found so they could have some peace of mind. The lives of everyone involved with Maura Murray ground to a halt. People began to be haunted by what had happened to her after she crashed her car. Before she disappeared she got into trouble with credit fraud, using a “discarded” credit card to buy $79 worth of delivery pizza. Those charges had been dismissed. If she was cleared, why was she running away? I think that something so awful happened that the only thing she could think to do was put miles between herself and that awful thing.
On the anniversary of her disappearance a man with the screen name 112dirtbag posted a video on YouTube. It shows a man laughing maniacally into a camera. At first the guy looks like someone’s grandpa who’s relaxing with his model train set in the basement of his house. But this grandpa has rotted teeth and glasses coated in greasy thumbprints. He still looks like somebody’s grandpa but the kind that keeps dead bodies in corners of the basement. His laughter is a light chuckle at first and then it becomes creepier and more ominous as time goes on. It’s the laugh of someone at 3 A.M. locked away in a windowless room of an asylum. The name 112dirtbag wouldn’t make sense to a lot of people unless they followed the investigation closely. Maura’s father had said that she’d probably been kidnapped by “some dirt bag on Route 112.” The disturbing old guy was taunting Maura’s loved ones, almost telling them that he might either know what happened to Maura or he IS what happened to Maura.
As with many deaths (be it a celebrity or not) each anniversary causes loved ones to play the “What if” game. “What if Maura hadn’t crashed her car that night?” “What if Maura had taken some time off school?” “What if she had talked to someone about the things going on in her life?”
But Maura Murray will never have children and what will be remembered of her is a car crashed into a snow bank and abandoned by its driver. She will be forever linked to a goblin uploading hyena-like laughter onto the Internet, hinting that he knows what happened to Maura but he’ll never tell. She will be that vanished girl none of us ever get to know.
She will be the girl who disappeared forever.