All we know for sure about Maura’s accident on Feb. 9 is what can be discerned from the police report, the GCSO log, and what the few witnesses and police spokespeople are able to tell us. From the police report (which can be viewed in its entirety here), we know Officer Smith arrived to find the Saturn had been abandoned. He also reports (highlighted below): 1) red liquid on the driver’s side door and ceiling; 2) Franzia wine in “plain sight” behind the driver’s seat; and 3) a coke bottle containing a red liquid with a strong alcoholic odor under the vehicle (see note 1). Given this evidence, there is a compelling case to be made for theorizing that Maura fled the scene that night to avoid a DUI.
But it is far from being the only possibility. No doubt the report gives us the impression that there had been drinking and driving, but impressions are just that – feelings formed on the basis of little information or evidence (see note 2). The fact is - the report does not state that the box of wine was open, nor does it mention any open containers at the scene at all. If there had been an open container in the cabin of the vehicle, it would be unambiguous evidence of at least one crime, and as such, would have been noted in the police report.
Alternatively, on the basis of Fred’s statements about the car’s mechanical issues, as well as evidence recovered from the Saturn, I believe there is a strong possibility that the red liquid at the scene was ethylene glycol, or red ‘anti-freeze’ automobile coolant. I outline this “mechanical explanation” below and follow it with a quick rundown of the logical problems presented by drunk driving theory.
Mechanical Explanation(s) for the Red Liquid:
Coolant comes in two standard formulas, typically distinguished by color – red and green. Auto manufacturers stipulate which type of coolant is required for each make/model vehicle. By the end of 1996, all GM engines required “DexCool” – the red type (see note 3). The red type (pictured below) is comprised of ethylene glycol [C2H6O2]. It is a compound derived from ethyl alcohol [C2H6O], which is what we know as “drinking alcoholic.” It can be purchased in a pre-diluted formula, but traditionally (and much less expensively), is made by mixing an anti-freeze concentrate and water (usually in a 50/50 ratio) in a third container, for instance, an empty milk jug…or a coke bottle. Is it possible the coke bottle containing red liquid was coolant?
Well, we know Fred is quoted in Boston Magazine having stated the car “kind of blew a cylinder” and was “smoking something fierce,” which is a reference to a blown head gasket – the part that prevents oil and coolant from leaking into the cylinders. So if Fred was correct, then we might expect there to be coolant leaking under the hood. And if coolant was leaking, then we might also expect Maura to have been travelling with some extra coolant.
But that isn’t the only explanation for the coke bottle in this scenario. One cheap and easy remedy for a leak due to a blown gasket is to create a makeshift coolant overflow tank with the use of – you guessed it – a coke bottle (examples pictured below).
So based on Fred’s statements, there are at least two logical reasons for there to have been a coke bottle containing red coolant at the scene. But several other items recovered from the car offer even more evidence that the Saturn was (or had been at some point) leaking coolant– specifically AlumAseal and a yellow radiator funnel.
The sole purpose of AlumAseal is to repair damage in the radiator and heater core, and stop coolant leaks that have occurred as a result. The specific type of AlumAseal (the can version) is combined with coolant and poured directly into the radiator. So we have the AlumAseal, and we have the radiator funnel, and the only piece missing from this equation is the coolant. That is, unless it was the red liquid in the coke bottle.
Furthermore, in addition to leaking coolant, a busted heater core will lead to other mechanic issues including:
1) No heat. The telltale sign of a bad heater core is that the heat in the cabin will stop working. This could explain why Maura was reportedly cold and shivering after the crash (when one would think the cabin would still be warm).
2) Coolant will leak through the vents (typically the floorboards and dashboard) and into the cabin of the car, which can stain the interior. If coolant was leaking in the cabin, and the airbags deployed, it could explain the red liquid got on the interior (example below).
3) Foggy Windows. The windows will fog up as a result of the vaporizing anti-freeze 'steam' flowing into the cabin. Mostly it’s a nuisance, but the fumes may cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea (particularly when using the pink coolant as it’s significantly more toxic than propylene glycol, or the ‘green’ type).
I have to think foggy windows and a noxious ooze might result in an accident under any conditions, but especially at a hairpin turn like the one near the WBC. But that doesn’t explain the rag in the tailpipe. For that I offer a few suggestions, first for why I think it makes the most sense that the rag was put into use for mechanical purposes, then for how it ended up in the tailpipe.
Explanations for the Rag:
In order to replace coolant that was leaking, Maura would have to remove the radiator cap. Since the car’s engine would be warm, the cap would be hot. The rag could have been used to protect her hands from the heat and coolant leakage.
Given the blown head gasket, she may have needed to check the oil and ensure that coolant hadn’t gotten into the oil. She’d still want to protect her hands/clothes from the fluids, but would also need to check the dipstick. For this, you would need a rag.
If coolant had leaked into the vehicle, she may have used the rag to clean some of it off of herself or her things.
Why it was In the Tailpipe:
It could be as simple as not wanting to put a fluid-filled rag it back in the trunk or cabin and have it permeate through her clothes causing them to smell like oil or coolant.
As Fred has suggested, it may also be as simple as an effort to temporarily prevent the exhaust from putting out a white smoke (telltale sign of a blown head gasket).
If she did get a ride and was in a rush, and if the car had already been locked up, maybe it was easier to put the rag in the tailpipe for the time being than it was to unlock the car.
Problems with the Drunk Driving Theory:
I alluded to this already, but bluntly stated, I see no reason to assume the box of Franzia wine had ever been opened. I also do not believe there is any reason to presume Maura had been drinking and driving that evening for the following reasons:
Problem #1) "Concealing" the Coke Bottle Under the Vehicle:
A coke bottle is 7.78 inches and the ground clearance of the Saturn was 6 inches. The physics of that suggest Maura had to go out of her way to pour it under the car when she could have more quickly and easily tossed the bottle over the snowbank and into the woods, or across the street, or put it in the trunk (which is actually a legal place to store an open container), or best yet – taken it with her when she fled.
Problem #2) Box of Franzia Wine Left in Plain Sight:
If she was concerned about a DUI, then why would she leave the Franzia wine in plain sight behind the driver’s seat of the vehicle? Again, why not toss it over the snowbank or lock it in the trunk, or take it with her when she fled? None of this adds up. The only way it makes sense for her to leave it in plain sight is that the box was never opened (I believe it was not). And if the box was never opened then where did the red liquid in the coke bottle come from?
Problem #3) Eye Witness Accounts:
The one witness (we know of) stated that Maura appeared cold and shaken up but said nothing about possibility that she was drunk. In fact, when false reports and rumors that she had been intoxicated began to surface, he went out of his way to denounce these claims. (The origin of these rumors that she “appeared intoxicated” remain a mystery.)
Problem #4) No Evidence of Problems with Alcohol from Past (Despite our Impressions):
We have no evidence of any other instances of drinking and driving in Maura’s past (if any existed, Renner would have found them). Nor any reason to believe Maura was an alcoholic at all. As far as I can tell, maintaining a high GPA, being a member of a Division 1 athletic team, and holding two jobs wouldn’t leave a whole lot of time left over to be much of an alcoholic (though I know enough high functioning alcoholics to know it doesn’t rule it out either, but it’s still unlikely).
Problem #5) The Words of the NH State Police:
They state that there was “evidence of open containers,” but do not say there were in fact open containers. We don’t know what “evidence” they are referring to. It could be the red stains in the interior. It could be the bottle under the car (which might be coolant). It could be her quirky choice of road trip snacks. The fact is, we have no way to know what this evidence is and therefore no way to assess how strong it may be. It might seem like I’m arguing semantics here, but these types of distinctions are the fundamental basis of the judicial/criminal justice system(s).
Problem #6) False Equivalence Between First and Second Accident:
Yes Maura had gotten into an accident several days before after consuming at least some quantity of alcohol. But the fact is, she was not cited for drunk driving. This first accident occurred during a short drive (max of two miles) on familiar roads late in the evening on a Saturday night. There was no open container in the vehicle. And for all we know, she may have been sober by that point. Evidently Hadley police believed she was sober enough that they didn’t bother to cite her (see note 4).
But if we are to believe alcohol played a role in the second accident, then we have to believe Maura had been quite literally, drinking while driving, and on a 100+ mile interstate trip on unfamiliar roads, that began during daylight hours. To think these scenarios are comparable, or that the first logically or necessarily implies the second, seems far-fetched. (This is not to say drinking and driving is ever acceptable, but I would imagine many of us are ‘guilty’ of scenarios similar to the first accident but find the second unthinkable.)
When we believe a conclusion is true, we are also very likely to believe arguments appearing to support it are true – however unsound they may be. Personally I believe the reason the drunk driving theory seems so compelling is in large part due to bloggers (chiefly James Renner) picking a handful of events from perhaps the worst moments of Maura’s life, and using them to insinuate motivations and draw conclusions about her character. Statements like the one below (from Renner's book) made without any disclaimer or qualification are dishonest, misleading, and may be ultimately damaging to the case. And unfortunately such statements frame the way we interpret other pieces of information.
By contrast, I believe Fred when he says the Saturn’s mechanical problems were bad enough to warrant purchasing a new car. And among items recovered from the vehicle, there is solid evidence pointing to issues with the cooling system. Maybe the red liquid was coolant and maybe it wasn’t. But the nice part about this theory is that if those stains on the interior are still there, then presumably they at least can be tested to determine their origin.
1) Additionally, the NH State Police recently confirmed the presence of a circle of red liquid in the snow under the car.
2) This is not to cast doubt on Officer Smith’s impression of the scene. Frankly it seems perfectly reasonable for him to have come to the conclusion someone fled a DUI based on what he saw and recovered that night. How could he have known about the Saturn’s mechanical issues? We can’t expect every cop to be a mechanic (or to know that the ‘ceiling’ of a car is called a ‘headliner’).
3) Can also be shades of pink or orange. Saturn was the last GM brand to fully transition exclusively to DexCool (by the end of 1996). So while it’s probably true that Maura’s car would have required the red type of coolant, I can say that with 100% certainty.
4) For all we know, the accident was due to lack of sleep. After all, we know she had a tendency to stay up quite late and sleeping pills were found in her car. ‘Guilty’ is in quotes here because again, she was not cited for drunk driving.