Black Noise: Was Maura Drinking and Driving?

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[Note: Updated with clarification noted below 1/11/17]

It is difficult for our brains to distinguish familiarity from truth. The idea that Maura had been drinking and driving when she crashed the Saturn has been repeated so frequently in various forums that it has become indistinguishable from the truth – even among the most well-meaning followers of the case (myself included until recently). But given the evidence, is there any reason to presume Maura was drunk when she spun out at the WBC?

We know that about a week after the crash, police told the media that a witness reported seeing Maura intoxicated. Yet we also know that the only witness to have seen her (Butch Atwood) publicly refuted the police’s claim, and specifically stated that she did not appear to be intoxicated when they spoke. Logically this can mean only one of two things:

  1. Police (intentionally or unintentionally) gave the media misleading or false statements about Maura appearing intoxicated;


  1. There was a second witness besides Butch Atwood whose identity has not been shared by police or released to the public.

I can’t explain why this 'rumor' has been repeated with such frequency. Maybe Butch's clarifications were too little, too late. Or maybe it is a function of inordinate attention to Maura's personal troubles and boyfriend drama, in conjunction with an unflattering gender stereotype that seems to expect emotional turmoil to transform otherwise functional women into some version of Jodi Arias. Because everyone has flaws. But not everyone is a normally responsible straight-A student and Division-I athlete with no history of an alcohol problem and no drunk driving record. So it seems a little unfair to assume without question that despite no pattern of similar behavior, she drank so much on her drive up to the mountains that she was noticeably intoxicated by 7:00 PM. And it's downright absurd to suggest the motive for this behavior was to protect an unborn child.

At the very least, the possibility that she had not been drinking prior to the crash deserves consideration. Because if she was not in danger of getting a DUI, then why would she have fled? At present, the police refuse to comment on the matter and clarify the discrepancy, which means the only option is to work through each possibility and determine which makes the most sense. The timeline below is an attempt to do just that.


February 9th

Cecil Smith (H2) arrives on scene at 7:46 PM and finds the vehicle abandoned. EMS arrived ten minutes later at 7:56 PM, but Smith (H2) is not at the scene. According to reports, this is because Smith had driven to interview the 911 caller, Faith Westman, at her residence nearby. At 7:54 PM, Smith puts out a BOL (Be-On-Lookout) for a female about 5’7” on foot that had been a victim of a crash. At some point between 7:57 PM and 8:01 PM, Smith arrives back at the scene before dismissing EMS at 8:02 PM. (See full log here.)

Assuming Smith would not have been able to interview both the Westmans and Atwood in the 8 minute span of time between 7:46 and 7:54, how did he know he was looking for a 5’7” female before speaking to Atwood? At that point, the Westmans believed the victim had been a “man in the vehicle smoking a cigarette,” so that information did not come from them.

The information also could not have come through dispatch because at that time, no one had actually spoken to Butch yet. It appears the first time H2 even became aware of the Atwoods was around 7:48 PM, which was 5 minutes after Hanover PD notified Haverhill of Atwood's call. But the critical element here is that when Haverhill returned the Atwood's call, they spoke to Butch's common law wife - not to Butch, because as we now know, he had been out in his bus doing paperwork. Butch's wife did not see or speak to Maura, so the 5'7" height estimate could not have come from her either. The only person (that we know of) who could have provided that information was Butch Atwood. And the first time anyone in Haverhill spoke to Atwood was when Smith drove to his house and knocked on the door of his bus to ask him what he saw.

In short, the police's dispatch logs and timeline of events suggest it would have been impossible for Smith to have known Maura’s height by 7:54 PM. So the fact that they did have this knowledge could point to the possible existence of a mystery second witness.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s assume there was [another] memory lapse or record-keeping error of some kind, and H2 actually went to Atwood’s first. In that case, Smith would have about 5 minutes to make the short drive down to Butch's and ask him to explain his story and give a description of the driver before putting out the BOL. For that to all occur within five minutes seems like a bit of a stretch to me, but it is certainly theoretically possible.

But Smith's theoretical warp speed witness interview is not the biggest issue here. The problem is that during Butch's brief interaction with Maura, she was in the driver's seat, and the closest he could have gotten to her was when he shined the light through the passenger's side window. He states that she struggled to open the door because of the snowbank on the side of the road.It's a little unclear if she ever managed to squeeze out of the vehicle while he was present. Even if she did, he also states that she remained on the driver’s side of the car the entire time, which means that the Saturn would have stood between them. According to him, he never got closer than 15-20 feet.

So what? Well, as we know, Maura’s actual height is in fact, 5’7”. So he nailed it. Despite her being either seated, 15 feet away, or with a car between them (note: the height of the Saturn itself was actually 5'5.6"), he was able to precisely estimated her height. But this is not to say there is anything inherently suspicious about what could be nothing more than just a lucky guess. The suspicious element is that when the second BOL was issued by police the following day, the height estimate drops two inches to 5'5". The second BOL also states she had black hair when in fact, it was a lighter brown. To me, the minor inaccuracies in this second description are what you might expect from the type of witness encounter that reportedly occurred between Butch and Maura. But more to the point, it suggests the sources of the 5'7" and 5'5" height estimates could be two different individuals, which could mean there was a mystery second witness.

Still there are more questions. For instance, if Maura was reportedly impaired, then why didn’t the BOL put out at 7:54 PM on Feb 9th note this fact? It would seem like a critical point to communicate to oncoming traffic. Similarly, the second BOL put out at 12:04 PM the following day mentioned the rag in the tailpipe, but nothing about the subject being impaired. In fact, there is no mention of alcohol in the police log at all. Similarly, during this time period of the five days following the crash, no print media mentions alcohol either (see note 1).

<<1/11/17 Correction/Clarification courtesy of Alex C.: Correction to the above statement - according to this report, the earliest known reference to alcohol in print was in fact three days following the crash, when Haverhill Police put out a press release to media on Feb 12th 2004. >>

February 15th

The police report was filed by Smith six days after the crash. That is, after police began to realize they had a real problem because she had not yet been found. If ultimately foul play was determined to have been a factor, there is no question the police would face a backlash for their apparent apathy and negligence during the most critical first 48 hours of the investigation.

In the report, Smith notes the box of wine, the coke bottle under the vehicle, and the red liquid on the door and ceiling of the car. He mentions that he was assisted by a witness (presumably Atwood) but does not state the witness told him the driver appeared impaired. Nor does he indicate that the box of wine had been opened. Regardless, we are left with a strong impression that he believes the driver may have been drinking, which in all fairness, is not so unreasonable. We can not expect every cop to be a mechanical expert, and I suspect DUI's are fairly common.

That said, there is an obvious shift in which elements he assigns relevance to over the course of six days. For example, the rag in the tailpipe was important enough to note in the BOL Feb 10th, but there is no mention of it in the police report Feb 15th. Instead, the focus is clearly now on the alcohol in the vehicle, and seemingly any other piece of evidence that could suggest the driver had been drinking (i.e. stains, the coke bottle).

Whether consciously or subconsciously, highlighting the significance of alcohol at the scene establishes a framework that allows the police to plausibly shift blame away from themselves and on to Maura. After all, if Maura was actively evading law enforcement to avoid a DUI, how can we then blame the police for failing to protect her?

Besides the press release that Haverhill Police put out on Feb 12th, the earliest reference I could find to alcohol in printed media was in a Feb 15th Boston Globe article that read “a witness told local police Murray appeared to have been intoxicated at the time of the crash.” Nearly every story after that point references alcohol or a suggestion that drunk driving was a factor in the disappearance. For instance, a few days later, an article in the Caldonian Record, police are directly quoted again, but with an additional detail about the location of where the witness saw Maura impaired. It states "According to police, Murray was not injured in the accident. However, she was reportedly impaired due to alcohol consumption when she was seen by her car after the accident.”

February 16th

The following day, an article appeared in the Boston Herald titled “Missing Woman's Dad: Searchers Waited.” It begins, “Police in New Hampshire waited 36 hours before launching a full-scale search for a University of Massachusetts nursing student who vanished last week after crashing into a snowbank, according to the woman's father.” In the article, Fred Murray criticizes the police for their handling of the investigation and states that the reason they waited two days before starting their search was because they assumed the driver had been drinking.

So coincidentally, just when the family began losing patience with police, there was a proliferation of articles repeating the claim that Maura was intoxicated. Furthermore, it seems like even the banal details that would surface in the coming weeks were interpreted by police as though they were proof that Maura went to NH to disappear; everything from the boxes in her dorm they claimed she packed up (seemingly not true, and despite clarification from the family on this point), to an email she had printed from her boyfriend as a possible suicide note (absolutely ludicrous).

And then of course, there are the inferences drawn from Maura's apparent google searches about pregnancy, which might be my favorite. Not just because her clinical nursing rotation was in Norwood Hospital's Labor and Delivery Unit. Or because her birth control was found in the car (with three pills missing). But because the level of illogical paranoia about pregnancy that exists among a sizable portion of otherwise perfectly rational young women (perhaps runners and those raised Catholic especially) might shock Lt. Scarinza and James Renner. But don't take my word for it. Just consider the fact that over 12,000,000 home pregnancy tests were sold last year but less than 4,000,000 babies were born. And do the math.

February 27th

But to return to the point, the critical issue of course is that also according to police, the last and only person to see Maura that night was Butch Atwood. And the claim that Maura appeared impaired or intoxicated did not come from him. In fact, in a Feb 27th article in the Caldonian Record, Atwood makes it a point to contradict the police’s earlier statement, and specifically states that Maura did not appear intoxicated. The paper writes: “Atwood said Murray didn’t appear to be intoxicated, despite police having said a witness indicated she had appeared to be impaired due to alcohol.” Despite Atwood’s effort to set the record straight, the drunk driving narrative seems to have stuck.

In Short:

It seems remarkable that an entire book can be written with no attempt to reconcile such a blaring inconsistency in such an important clue. Because given the timing of law enforcement's statements about alcohol having directly coincided with the Murray’s growing public frustration at police's handling of the case, it does leave open a question as to what the police's motivations were at that time. We have every reason to believe the police suspected the driver could have been drinking (though I believe wrongly). Given the natural inclination to avoid embarrassment and to preserve one's dignity and respect, combined with the level of pressure the police were under, how far of a stretch is it to suggest that along the way, perhaps this detail was embellished? It doesn't seem wildly unreasonable. Either way, given their unwillingness at this point to clarify the discrepancy, they have only themselves to blame when their motives are called into questioned.

That said, the timing and precision of the 5’7” height estimate put out in the first BOL, and the fact that it deviates from the description outlined the following day, leads me to believe it is also possible there was a second witness. Of course the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact I think it is quite possible the answer could be both. The next blog post will outline what I believe could be more evidence for that and consider whether the mystery second witness was in fact law enforcement.


1) On Feb 12th, there is one television news story broadcast by WMUR in which a reporter states that “one witness reported seeing Maura looking impaired.” It is unclear what is meant by impaired and no other details are provided. But there is no reference to alcohol.