On the trail of truth

  • Journalist and UMass Amherst graduate Maggie Freleng, right, talks with former U.S. Marshal Art Roderick about the case of Maura Murray, a UMass Amherst nursing student who disappeared without a trace in 2004. Their work appears in “The Disappearance of Maura Murray.” Oxygen Media/SUBMITTED PHOTO

Thursday, September 28, 2017

AMHERST — When University of Massachusetts Amherst nursing student Maura Murray disappeared without a trace in 2004, the mystery drew local and national attention.

How was it that, in the few minutes between when she crashed her car into a snowbank in New Hampshire and when the police arrived, she could have vanished, leaving no footprints in the snow, no scent for tracking dogs, no message?

Why had she withdrawn all her money from her bank account? Why did she email a professor to lie about a fictitious death in the family as the reason she would be missing upcoming classes?

Murray’s disappearance happened to take place the same month that Facebook launched. Her case’s perplexing details took root in the fertile soil of the all-consuming social media age and, cultivated by countless amateur sleuths, blossomed into blogs, forums, comments, books and podcasts.

The latest addition to the media ecosystem surrounding the case follows UMass Amherst graduate and journalist Maggie Freleng in a new six-part series, “The Disappearance of Maura Murray,” on Oxygen, a true crime television channel. The series premiered Sept. 23 and will run, in subsequent weeks, at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The show’s creators say they hope to cut through the internet-age fog and its red herrings and, hopefully, unearth new, useful information.

“The Maura Murray case actually really came to me,” said Freleng. The series follows her as she investigates Murray’s disappearance. “The reason that I wanted to cover this is to put to bed a lot of these wild speculations, and just some theories that are not true.”

The program comes amid a resurgence in the true crime genre, with all of its standard crutches: a cold case revisited, suspenseful music, stylized re-enactments, seductive cliffhangers. But in the program’s first two episodes, Freleng — a seasoned journalist — makes productive efforts to track down facts and manages to get rare access to Murray’s family and friends.

“I just wish people would realize that this is very, very painful for all of us,” Murray’s brother, Kurt, says of internet theories during an interview with Freleng in the show’s first episode.

Freleng also has the help of longtime investigator Art Roderick, who worked 25 years in the U.S. Marshals Service and has contributed as a law enforcement analyst on CNN. Together, the two attempt to get beyond the web-sleuth stories.

Some of the theories they poke holes in are James Renner’s, an Ohio-based author who Murray’s siblings criticize in interviews with Freleng. Renner’s popular book about the case, “True Crime Addict,” was described in a New Yorker review as “a strange beast — one that embodies every problem that arises when online obsessives are infected with delusions of detective grandeur.”

In addition to his book, Renner also created a crowd-sourced online forum for which he has been accused of embracing and giving a platform to malicious rumors.

Other well-known amateur sleuths who have taken up the case, and tried to debunk some of the myths around it, are Lance Reenstierna and Tim Pilleri, the hosts of the “Missing Maura Murray” podcast. The two appear in the first episode of Freleng’s show, handing police logs and other important information to her.

Pilleri told the Gazette that crowdsourced efforts like those they’ve used in their podcast can be helpful, but that the inevitable online chatter can have a nasty side.

“Both sides will be apparent on the show,” he said.

“There are definitely new developments and it will answer the old questions, and I think that was really important for the case,” Reenstierna said of Oxygen’s series. Being unable to reveal on their podcast what they learned during the show’s reporting has been a challenge, he said.

Freleng and Roderick said the new series will hopefully bring much-needed clarity to the case. And unlike Renner, Pilleri, Reenstierna and others before her, Freleng was able to interview Murray’s family.

Roderick told the Gazette that television series have played a role in aiding investigations since shows like “America’s Most Wanted” began airing, and that he hopes their show will do the same. “This is just a newer extension of what we had on a lot of these TV programs,” he said.

Roderick did concede, however, that there can be downsides to putting a case in front of a television audience. “There’s a benefit, and there’s a non-benefit to this type of publicity for any of these types of cases.”

“I think it’s going to bring a lot of truth, I think it’s going to bring forward the facts of the case,” he added.

Freleng told the Gazette that the team discovered new information, though she wasn’t forthcoming about what they found — readers will have to watch the show to find out. She did, however, say that, beyond just investigating the case, the series also has value in drawing attention to the larger issue of missing women.

“It’s also about the nearly 70,000 other women who are missing at any given time in this country,” Freleng told the Gazette. “Hopefully we can start talking about missing people and how the system is pretty broken at finding and identifying them.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.