In 2011, an out-of-work journalist named James Renner began searching for Maura Murray.
While he didn’t find her, he has drawn his own conclusions about her disappearance and, in the process of writing a book, he has found himself while getting “lost” in the case.
The book, “True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray,” [Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 280 pages, $25.99 hardcover] goes on sale Tuesday, May 24.
“It’s been a long time coming, for sure,” Renner said last week. “I hope the book eventually brings some sort of closure to Maura’s case. At the very least, I think it will advance the story and bring up some new clues and information.”
The same week Facebook was launched in 2004, Murray disappeared. Renner has termed the case one of the first unsolved mysteries of the social media age. In fact, he leaned heavily on a small army of Internet sleuths — which he dubbed My Baker Street Irregulars, after the poor street kids who fed information to Sherlock Holmes. Renner’s Irregulars lived online, reading blogs, surfing sites and even trolling him. They helped pose questions, interpret information and notice overlooked clues.
The trolls also second-guessed him, sniped at his plans to write a book and, in one case, cyber-stalked him. Maura’s father Fred did not cooperate with Renner on the book.
At the time Murray vanished on Feb. 9, 2004, Renner was a reporter for alternative weeklies in northeastern Ohio. By 2009, the fallout from his coverage of an Ohio state senator at the center of a sex scandal had cost him his job and he was looking for a new story.
True crime seemed a natural draw for him.
At age 11 he had fallen in love with the photo of missing Amy Mihaljevic. The obsession led him to his career as an investigative journalist and a struggle with PTSD. By 2011, Renner told his counselor he was ready to delve into another mystery.
The new mystery he was ready for was Maura Murray. While conducting his investigation, there were mysteries in his own life to confront: the truth about his grandfather, the violent tendencies his son was beginning to display and Renner’s own impulses.
Chapters in “True Crime Addict” jump between Murray and Renner’s own demons — “Being a true crime addict is not a good thing and I learned this the hard way,” as he says.Renner spoke about the book with the Express by phone from his Cleveland home on Friday, May 13.
Q: Why the Maura Murray case?
A: “I was looking around for a big case, something national. I was a reporter in Cleveland for about seven or eight years and I had written about some famous cases from the northeast Ohio region. I looked around for a while — I’m always drawn to the cases that are difficult, if not impossible, to solve. What I find interesting is that it’s actually kind of a double mystery. Number one, what happened to Maura, but number two is, what was she doing in the White Mountains to begin with? I think if you can find the answer to one of those questions, you’ll get very close to the solution to the other question. I think I have an answer as to what was she doing in the White Mountains. I believe she was running away, I believe she was looking to start a new life and to put the people that treated her wrongly in her rear-view and not look back.
Q: It seems certain that people will read it expecting some kind of break in the case. What do you want readers to get out of it?
A: “I think there are quite a few new pieces of information in the book and new clues. I think the takeaway here is that Maura, like everyone else, was very complicated. She had her secrets, she had her skeletons and the question is whether or not those contributed to what happened. I think for sure they did. There were some things that hadn’t been reported — the fact that when she disappeared, she was in trouble for credit card fraud and identity theft.”
Q: What were your reasons for being so frank about your own family’s past?
A: “I wanted to explore why I was so fascinated with these true crime cases and what led me into that career as a true crime writer. That made me take a good, hard look at my own life and, of course, looking at it objectively now, I can see that the story about my grandfather and who he was — what he did and how I learned about all that when I was 11 years old — certainly had an impact. All these bad guys that I’ve been chasing after since I was 11, they’re my grandfather. I could never go after him, so I looked elsewhere. As I was uncovering Maura and her personal demons I thought it was only fair to share mine as well.”
Q: How do you think Maura’s case has been handled?
A: I think the police did their due diligence. When they found her car up there, it certainly looked like a DUI. The car had run into a snow bank, there was wine spilled on the inside … they see that kind of thing all the time, so I think they treated it correctly at the time. Now, a day later when the owner hadn’t come to collect the car and they start to put together that it was Maura who was driving, then it becomes a missing persons case. The [N.H.] State Police were actually in the air with helicopters. … The family’s always been critical of them, but I think they did all right.”
Q: How do you assess your methodology? Would you have approached it differently if you had it to do again?
A: “Looking back I think it happened organically, the way it was supposed to. These pieces are always different. The family could have been more helpful. Fred was the first person I contacted indirectly and he made it clear through family members that he did not want a book written about this case, so that was always a difficulty. But over the course of a few years I did manage to speak with every member of the Murray family except for Fred.”
Q: You describe this as the first major missing person case of the social media age — has social media really been any help or does it do more to hinder cold cases like this?
A: “It’s certainly a double-edged sword. Social media is more helpful to these cold cases than anything, the fact that you can reach practically every person on the planet. You can get the information out to anybody and they can, in turn, find you. It’s a wonderful tool for journalism. With that also comes the anonymity of the Internet and that allows these dangerous people to mask themselves and threaten you from afar. It’s the worst of the worst and the best of the best.”
Q: How can social media be better used in crime investigation?
A: “I think police should be using social media. In fact over the last year or two, the U.S. Marshals have reached out to me and asked me to help them with getting some of the cold cases they’ve worked on out into social media through Reddit and Twitter, online message boards and things like that. So I know bigger agencies are really paying attention to it and trying to use it as a tool for investigation, too. It’s remarkable what’s possible with it.”
Q: Your title: “True Crime Addict” — does it still apply? Toward the end of the book it seemed you might be turning away from all that.
A: This is the last big crime story I’ll work on, at least for the foreseeable future until my kids are grown up. It does take you to a dark place and what I’ve discovered through the course of this book is the fact that I was addicted to true crime, not just true crime, but “addict” extends to my own life, the fact that I learned through the course of this that I was an alcoholic, I was addicted to prescription medication. These true crime stories are and addiction, just like anything else. Once you realize that it’s unhealthy, then you need to start taking action and get it out of your life.”
Q: What’s next for you?
A: “I’m concentrating on novels and screenplays. I’m adapting my first novel (“The Man From Primrose Lane”) into a television series right now. It’s a murder mystery about an out-of-work reporter who tries to solve an old cold case — write what you know.”