Is there any credibility to the sighting reported a couple of months later?

I could make a strong argument that the NHSP have a person of interest in the Maura Murray case.  I can also make an argument – a little less strong – that they know what happened to Maura, but somehow lack the evidence to take the next step.  I’ll revisit this in another blog post. All of that said, I can’t make an argument that I have heard any solid, convincing evidence against this apparent person of interest (Forcier).  It seems that most everything we cite as evidence is either a rumor, a misunderstanding, or simply odd behavior.  I will grant you, he has been uncooperative, and probably worse. But without any knowledge of the official investigation, I have yet to see anything persuasive.

I will focus this post on one incident that seems to have put him on the radar of investigators – the sighting that wasn’t. 

On May 6, 2004, The Caledonian Record reported that a man had come forward with a potential sighting of Maura Murray on the night of her disappearance:

“There may be a break in the case involving 21-year-old nursing student Maura Murray who disappeared the night of Feb. 9 after she was involved in a one-car accident on rural Route 112 in Haverhill.  New Hampshire State Police Troop F Lt. John Scarinza said a witness has come forward with information he may have seen Murray about four to five miles east of the accident scene. Scarinza said a man, whom he declined to identify, was returning from a construction job in the Franconia area when he spotted a young woman matching Murray’s description hurrying east on Route 112, about an hour after her accident.

We later learned that this construction worker was local resident Rick Forcier who lived at the intersection of 112 and Bradley Hill Road. (In this post I will generally refer to him as CW: construction worker, adapted from Topix).

At the time, LE considered it a credible lead and a search was conducted in the area of the sighting.  However nothing was found and it seems that the CW then became a key person of interest in Maura’s disappearance.  Although we have heard that he had become a person of interest much earlier based on statements he made to LE and the media [that Maura had come to his door], I have been unable to verify that he made these statements.  From my own read of the timeline, he came onto the radar of the investigation with this sighting a couple of months later.

On August 3, 2011, James Renner offered an explanation on his blog of how the incident transpired:

I spoke to Diane and Rusty Cowles, who lived across from Forcier on Bradley Hill and still see him to this day. Forcier explained to them that it was only when he was going over his bills that he pieced together that he had been working in Franconia the night Maura vanished and must have been coming home about a half hour after the accident. He thought back on that night and figured it must have been the same evening he saw what he thought at the time was a teenage boy in a hoodie crossing the road quickly in front of him, near 116, several miles East of the crash site. He wondered if it could have been Maura.

Earlier on Topix (Jan 12, 2009), poster “White Wash” provided consistent information about the sighting:

CW and some neighbors where talking and he mentioned seeing someone running but wasn’t sure when and then he went to look at the missing poster and call NHSP. In the mean time this person told the Store owner who was in almost daily contact with Fred. It was my understanding Fred immediatedly contacted CW.The EX saw it in the news then she jumped on the ban wagon with the LE/PI’s.

It has traditionally been thought that the construction worker saw a female, wearing a dark coat and light colored hood.  Questions were raised about whether this matched the previously unreleased ATM footage. In other words: did this witness have information that had been “held back” by law enforcement?  And indeed, when the ATM footage was released we saw she was wearing a light jacket – did it possibly have a light hood consistent with the sighting? However, if we look more closely, there is no indication that he claims to have seen 1) a female; 2) a dark coat or 3) a light hood.  In fact, it seems that he described seeing what he thought was a “teenage boy” in a “hoodie”.

The Caledonian Record 5/6/04 calls the sighting “about an hour” after the accident, whereas the Boston Globe 5/7/04 notes “The witness said he saw Murray around 7 p.m. on Feb. 9, around the time she disappeared.”  Law enforcement verified his work records and a Topix poster indicated that it was confirmed that he left Franconia at 7PM.  If we estimate that it is a 27-36 minute drive from Franconia (generalized) to CW house, then this sighting would be around 7:15-25 and he would have arrived home at 7:27-7:36.  We can move these time estimates around to look at different scenarios.

We know that CW didn’t see Maura at 7PM or 7:15 or 7:25.  Now, he might have seen her at 810PM+ if we believe she was running at high speeds.  Or he might have seen her at 8:30-9PM if she was running at slower speeds. But if LE verified that he left Franconia at 7PM then we know he didn’t see her on his way home.  And if we believe that he left Franconia at 7PM, there is no reason to think he saw her after 8PM. In other words, he might have seen someone but there is no basis to believe that he actually saw Maura that night.

Many find it odd that he didn’t realize she went missing on Monday 2/9.  So the next question: would he have seen lights and vehicles when he returned home?  Given everything happening on 112, it would seem that he would have seen all kinds of activity as he pulled into his driveway.  But it turns out he parked on Bradley Hill Road – so it’s not clear that he would have seen much of anything. In addition, it wholly depends on the exact time he arrived home.  Some moments he might see Maura’s flashers. Other moments he might see police lights. But there are other times when he might see nothing at all. According to one person who is local to the area “I could easily see him going home and noticing nothing at all”.  So it begins to seem possible that he could have arrived home without seeing the commotion on the road. 

True it is odd that CW didn’t realize that Maura had disappeared on this particular night.  It would seem that quite a bit of activity was happening on the street – both that night and in the days to follow.  On Wednesday the NHSP ran the sniffer dog. The following Monday police set up a blockade to stop cars to see who was coming through on the same day (Monday) at the same time as Maura’s accident. But he might be extremely private, busy or whatever the case. We might find many of things a little odd. But none of this rises to the level of making him a suspect in a potential criminal disappearance.

Is there any chance that CW saw Maura that night?  I would say that if LE verified that he left work at 7PM it seems impossible that he saw Maura.  If he left at, say, 8PM then we might want to reconsider the sighting. The next question: did CW suspiciously come forward a couple of months later to divert attention from his own location?  That perception seems wholly incorrect.

What if the initial dog track was accurate after all?

I have been critical of the initial dog track that was done on Wednesday, February 11th.  And although I still believe there is significant reason to question the validity and integrity of that process, in this post I am going to propose: what if it was accurate?  I can’t concede that the track was absolute proof of anything, but it’s worth considering the evidence it would give – or negate – if it’s accurate.

On Wednesday, February 11th, 36 hours after the crash, a dog from the New Hampshire State Police was brought in to track Maura’s scent.  The track was ultimately run about 39-40 hours after her accident on a “clean clear morning” with no fresh or additional snow since the accident.  The wind speed was estimated at between 2 and 4 MPH – considered low (good) for tracking a scent as wind disperses scent particles.  On the other hand, running a track after 39-40 hours, on a paved road with cars possibly dispersing the scent, is less than optimal.

The bloodhound ran the track twice. Both times the dog headed east and stopped down the road “within sight of the accident site”.  This track has been quoted as being “under 600 feet” “100 yards” and “near Atwood’s driveway”.   But on the Oxygen show, Todd Bogardus of the New Hampshire Fish and Wildlife, who was the supervisor in charge of Maura’s search in 2004 noted the dog track ended “at the intersection of Bradley Hill Road”.  However, the subsequent illustration done on the show references “Butch’s cabin” and the end of Butch’s driveway.  As you can see from the photo, the exact location where the dog stopped would be helpful to better understand the relation to the Atwood home, the Forcier trailer, and the relation to Bradley Hill Road. †

It has been widely quoted that the dog stopped “in the middle of the road” but on the Oxygen show, Bogardus didn’t specifically state that the dog stopped in the middle of the road. I can only find the reference to the “middle of the road” in the Conway article. [For now, I will assume that we don’t know if it was in the “middle” of the road.]

The NHSP dog was given a scent article – reportedly a leather glove that Maura had been given for Christmas.  Fred and others were disappointed in this choice since it was a new glove that Maura may not have even worn.  Another problem with the scent article: it was reported by at least 2 witnesses that the door to the Saturn was open after police arrived at the scene on February 9th –  with at least one witness reporting that police were “searching” the vehicle.  This should at minimum give us doubts about the integrity of any article taken from the car.

It has been proposed that the dog was actually tracking Cecil Smith who went over to Butch’s home after arriving at the scene on 2/9. This is another reason it would be helpful to know the exact location where the dog stopped. It would, of course, also be helpful to know if Cecil was in Maura’s car on the evening of 2/9 and may have touched the glove.

On the other hand, the NHSP dog was affirmatively tracking something.  The dog was not confused or meandering, did not give vague indicators and repeated the same track both times.  John Healy of the New Hampshire League of Investigators (who was not involved in the case at the time of the dog track) notes that the initial track didn’t give us anything probative aside from possibly “… the direction she chose to walk in”.  On the other hand, Bogardus the supervisor notes on the Oxygen show “… it’s possible she may have been picked up by a vehicle there”.  [We should obtain the full transcript of his interview to determine if this was his ultimate conclusion, or just the clip shown on the show that didn’t represent all of his thoughts on the topic.]  In any case, the lead supervisor of Maura’s 2004 search seems to believe it is possible or likely she went off in a vehicle.

Episode 8 of the 107 Degrees podcast featured an interview with Katharine Dolin, an Assistant District Attorney from Missouri.  Ms. Dolin has not worked directly on Maura’s case but comments based on her experience: “… if the dog sniff died – which it sounds like – in the middle of the road, from my experience it’s much more likely that that person was put into a vehicle or got into a vehicle.”  She notes that if (Maura) had walked to a home or trailer, the dogs would have tracked her there (to her final location) and not just stopped.  She concludes “It sounds much more like she was transported from a vehicle from the area“.

This leads to one of the more puzzling aspects: why didn’t Butch see her? At this point we can’t assume he did or didn’t. We don’t know if he was a reliable witness. Some of us assume he was covering up for RF, but I can’t think of any plausible scenarios where RF picked her up in front of his house and drove her 10 feet into his driveway.

​It is also important to underline this finding: the dog didn’t track her going up to someone’s door, or hiding behind a tree, or ducking in the woods.  This may be one of the more important findings: we can’t simultaneously claim that the dog track lends suspicion to RF when it doesn’t lead up to his door or trailer.  We really can’t have it both ways.

I’m skeptical of the initial dog track.  I think there are many reasons to call it into question.  But if it tells us anything, it seems to tell us that she got into a car. Maybe more importantly it does not support the theory that she walked up to someone’s door – at least not at that intersection.

Were police in the Saturn the night of Maura’s disappearance?

In an article published in the SOCO Magazine in April 2011 “What Happened to Maura Murray?” local resident Susan Champy reports driving by the accident scene the night of Maura’s disappearance and seeing the door of the Saturn open:

When she drove by, Champy remembered noticing that police officers had one of the doors of Maura’s car open. She recalled reading in the newspaper afterward that they’d obtained a search warrant the next day to search the vehicle, which made her wonder whether they should have had the door open without first getting a search warrant.

In 2018-2019, Erinn Larkin interviewed Champy again and she reiterated that the door was open and police were “searching through the car” and “searching for something”. (See the 107 Degrees podcast: Episode 16 – “Witness B” and a New Lead in the Case).

At least one additional witness, separately, also reports that the door was open. In episode 26 of the Missing Maura Murray podcast, Tim and Lance read an email from (now called) witnesses C:

Myself, my friend and my cousin drove by Maura’s car that night she went missing. I can tell you the car was on the wrong side of the road facing the wrong direction. I didn’t see anyone in or near the car I didn’t see any lights either. I can’t recall the exact time but I was driving to the jail to leave money for a friend. I don’t think they keep a record like that this long but I had to sign in the money. I wasn’t there that long as I do know it was past visiting hours so I would say I was there maybe 10 minutes. After I left I went back the same way I came and stopped at the Rite Aid maybe there 5 minutes and headed back to Lincoln. On my way back I saw a cop car not 100% sure if it was a sedan or SUV, fire truck and an ambulance.

In a reddit discussion, this clarification was added:

This just in: One of the followers of the case told me that there was disagreement among those witnesses and “it was determined that the ambulance and fire trucks were NOT at the scene when they drove by. Only the police sedan. ( Witness C ) was mistaken. Her passenger said she also remembered seeing The Saturn’s door open when they went by.

The timing of this second pass by witnesses C is unknown as it would have to be either very early (before fire and ambulance arrived at 7:56) or much later after these emergency vehicles left at 8:49PM. We can revisit the timing of this later – for the purposes of this post the interesting fact is that it reiterates Susan Champy’s assertion that the car door was open.

In the police report Cecil Smith notes: ” .. the vehicle was locked and there was no one in the area”. and “A later search of the vehicle indicated the driver was Maura Murray”.

In his Oxygen interview Cecil Smith notes again that the vehicle was locked when he arrived. and when asked directly by Maggie Freleng if he opened the vehicle he answers:

Maggie: Did you ever get the car doors of that vehicle open that night?

Cecil Smith: I did not, no.

I tend to believe these witnesses who saw a car door open in part because there were at least two, separately, describing the same thing. (The accuracy of the first BOL could also support the theory that the car was opened although that discussion is beyond the scope of this post). It may be that Cecil himself didn’t open or search the vehicle as he says “I did not, no.”. It could have been related to the tow truck although Susan Champy apparently tells Erinn Larkin that “police” were searching the vehicle.

The issue here is not whether or not they had the legal ability to open or search the vehicle. I believe it is likely that they could have opened the vehicle as one person states: “… the police do not need permission to search an abandoned vehicle and a crashed vehicle sitting alongside a state highway with no driver is considered abandoned.” (source: facebook Maura Murray official group). Rather, the issue is the discrepancy here. In any case, when police talked to Fred the next day, they requested his permission to open/search the car, further suggesting they perceived that they needed permission and certainly inferring that they hadn’t opened/searched previously.

What are the implications of such a search the evening of 2/9 if it happened?

  1. It could explain the accuracy of the first BOL put out 2/9 at 7:54PM accurately describing the missing person as a 5’7″ female
  2. It could further compromise the integrity of the initial dog track which relied upon a scent object from her vehicle
  3. If they were “searching for something” a logical question is – what and why?
  4. It seems to be a case where someone is not telling the full truth.

​In conclusion, I think they opened her car, searched it, and then later said they didn’t.

What is the linkage between the October 2003 trip and Maura’s February 2004 destination?

In October 2003, Maura and Fred took a trip to four sites: Mt. Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, Owl’s Head, and West Bond. Two of these are near Stowe, VT and two are in the White Mountains. These sites link very closely to Maura’s web searches and phone calls prior to leaving Amherst. Last year I created a series of maps to lay out these linkages.

Without drawing too many conclusions, I wanted to note the following:

– Maura was looking at effectively two areas: Stowe/Burlington and The White Mountains. These “areas” are 135 miles apart.

– Maura had a map to Burlington, VT and a note card mentioning Burlington, VT (leading to or mentioning the Winooski VT exit 15 off of I-89) However, at some point she would have bypassed the exit to Burlington (Exit 108 near Lebanon) and continued north on I-91 (unless she went up 93, etc.). In any case, at least that night, she seemed to have made a choice to head to the White Mountains rather than Stowe/Burlington.

– She could have been choosing a single destination or she could have been planning a multi-stop trip. Or she could have had no destination or a “type” of destination. [I personally think the party or meet up theory is less likely given that she was calling places so far apart.]

– My own thought it that, these four locations would be worthy of further look.  My additional thought is that the map provides a powerful visual with the linkage to the prior trip – although I would stop short of drawing any conclusions about her psychology. I would say it indicates a lack of firm destination, and a very clear linkage to her prior trip.

– What do others see when they look at these maps? What would be next steps in looking into these locations?

Map : Larger map showing all calls, web searches, combined with the October 2003 trip

Map: More general route map

Thank you to Clint Harting for spurring my thinking on this and for many others who added to excellent discussions on Reddit.

My Visit to The Crash Site

I spent some time, today, at the site of Maura’s crash in New Hampshire. I will upload the video I took as soon as it transfers from my phone to my laptop. Of note was my conversation with Mr. Westman, which I will describe here.

Mr. Westman, shaking out a rug in his front lawn, was nice enough to answer some of my questions about his observations of the crash.

He had been in his office, with Mrs. Westman, when he heard a crash. In response, he and Mrs. Westman went to the kitchen, which is in the smaller section of the house.

Maura Murray

They looked out the side windows (the ones closest to the ribbon) and saw Maura’s car facing westward in the eastbound lane.

I asked Mr. Westman whether Maura might have impacted a snowbank in front of his house. He stated that she could not have done so; she “definitely” impacted by the trees near her ribbon. He explained that he had heard the impact and he was certain of its location.

I asked Mr. Westman about the red dot — what did he believe that it was? He stated that, originally, he and Mrs. Westman believed that it was a cigarette. Later, “a family member” of Maura’s “told” him that it was not a cigarette and that, instead, it was a cellphone charger.

I asked Mr. Westman why he and Mrs. Westman stopped watching the site. He stated that Mrs. Westman remained in the kitchen until the cruiser arrived, but acknowledged that she had not made it a point to watch the scene the entire time. He believes, however, that Mrs. Westman would have seen Maura traveling west had she done so.

Does any of this information alter your perceptions of the case? If so, how?

Lost and Found in the White Mountains

I read this today, and thought it worth reblogging.

Great Northern Ink Spot

(This story was written in May 2004 and published in the New Hampshire Sunday News.)

Image A Blackhawk helicopter in a search of Waterville Valley.

If nowhere is a place where no one has trod for decades, then Mount Kancamagus is in the middle of it.

A hiker found himself there last week on what the Appalachian Mountain Club’s White Mountain Guide describes as a “trail-less mass of round, wooded ridges” and where he stumbled upon human remains.

Several law enforcement officials returned with the man the next day to retrieve them and earlier this week, dental records confirmed that they were those of Steven Romines, a Massachusetts man who went missing almost 20 years ago, in October of 1984. Investigators say initial reports had indicated that he was “distraught” at the time and while no cause of death was determined, it is likely that he committed suicide.

“From where…

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