A list of Green’s frustrations with a true-crime podcast that may not even have a crime at its center
In February 2004, Maura Murray, a 22-year-old University of Massachusetts Amherst nursing student, crashed her car on a rural highway in New Hampshire and then disappeared before authorities arrived on the scene. Just before her disappearance, Murray had been struggling. People who knew her have suggested that she wrestled with alcohol abuse, bulimia, and troubled family dynamics. Plus, in November 2003, she’d been arrested for using a stolen credit card, and at the time of her disappearance was on probation for credit-card fraud. Then, just days before she disappeared, she crashed her father’s car into a guardrail in Amherst after attending a party on campus (although police didn’t file charges).
In the nearly twelve years since her disappearance, internet speculation about Murray’s whereabouts (and whether she is alive or dead) has taken predictably wild turns, and many people remain fascinated by the case. Among those itching to get to the bottom of Murray’s disappearance are the hosts of the Missing Maura Murray podcast, Tim Pilleri and Lance Reenstierna, who are also producing a documentary focusing on the ongoing “obsession” with the Murray case.
When I started listening to Missing Maura Murray, Tim and Lance struck me as a couple of earnest, well-intentioned dudes who were genuinely interested in exploring a cold case and the reasons people remain so intrigued by it. At first I, too, was interested in the details of the case and wanted to find out what made it so compelling. I figured that there had to be more to the story than what I could gather from the basic facts of the case (which would suggest that Murray most likely died in the woods near where she crashed her car).
But despite its intriguing premise, after the first few episodes of Missing Maura Murray, Tim and Lance lost me. I went from enjoying the podcast to feeling a little impatient with it to actively disliking it and wanting it to stop. Here’s what went wrong:
- Lack of narrative structure. The podcast has no discernible narrative structure or direction. Its poor storytelling makes Missing Maura Murray a far inferior true crime podcast to a show like, for example, Serial. Each episode of Serial highlights a different aspect of the Adnan Syed case and, in so doing, propels the story forward. Each episode of Missing Maura Murray, on the other hand, amounts to a rambling rehash of the same facts and rumors, over and over again. The issue, I suspect, is that Lance and Tim ran out of new content to discuss after about the second episode, and then, instead of taking the thing in for a graceful landing, resorted to repeating the same tired factoids and speculating on the same “theories” ad nauseam. The result is a jumbled, repetitive mess that sheds very little light on the case or its alleged mysteriousness. In fact, as the podcast marches on, despite the hosts’ best efforts to make Murray’s disappearance seem shrouded in mystery, the case instead appears to become flatter and less nuanced. The more I listen, despite Tim and Lance’s best efforts to advance alternative theories of the case, the more I’m convinced that Murray either intentionally or accidentally killed herself, probably through a combination of alcohol/drugs and exposure. There are interesting and mysterious aspects to this case (for example, the reasons behind Maura’s possible decision to end her own life/disappear; more on that below), but Tim and Lance routinely toss aside those facts in favor of conspiracy theories and speculation.
- Focus on the wrong things. Tim and Lance have a knack for glossing over what would seem to be the most significant elements of the case in explaining Murray’s possible motives for disappearing (such as her problematic relationships with alcohol, food, and her family). Instead, the hosts have a maddening tendency to focus on inconsequential details that tell us virtually nothing about the case, like an alleged rag in the tailpipe of Maura’s car. Over the course of seventeen episodes, we hear a whole lot about that rag in the tailpipe and very little about, for example, Maura’s unhealthy drinking habits. Lance and Tim also have an unfortunate tendency to jump to hasty conclusions about the case based on very little information. In Episode 17, for example, Tim and Lance solemnly read through a list of the items that were recovered from Maura’s car after the accident, including Twizzlers, a Diet Coke bottle, Franzia wine, and makeup, and then rush to absurd conclusions about Maura’s mental health and habits based on this detritus. They conclude, based on the crap recovered from her car, that Maura was just a normal college kid, with normal problems, looking forward to her life. This analytical leap is especially dubious considering that in Episode 3, Tim and Lance accused Maura of being a manipulative “scorpion” with nefarious intentions. After learning that Maura had Twizzlers in her car, though, Tim and Lance take that whole “scorpion” thing back! Their bizarre, binary view of Murray as a person — either she was “normal” and wanted to live, or she was a sociopath who masterminded her own disappearance — is not supported by any evidence the podcast has presented, and leaves no room for nuance or complexity. It makes for a very frustrating listening experience.
- Obsession with “trolls” and “haters.” Tim and Lance seem to be unhealthily preoccupied by what commenters on Reddit think about them and their podcast. They spend an inordinate amount of time in each podcast saying, basically, “Eff the haters,” while continuing to wring their hands over “trolls.” Their lamentations over trolls reach peak absurdity on their “paranormal” episode (Episode 16), in which they claim to have received a “threat” from one of their internet haters, which, as far as I can gather, was not, in fact, a threat, but OKAY, Tim and Lance. You guys are big-time! Which leads me to my next point…
- Inflated sense of self-importance. While Tim and Lance look with disdain at the so-called “armchair detectives” who speculate on Murray’s disappearance on the internet, they don’t include themselves in that category because….unclear? The point is, Tim and Lance are the real investigators here, according to, um, Tim and Lance, and everyone else who’s speculating wildly about the Murray case is way off base. Tim and Lance, it seems, are laboring under the grand burden of their stated “mission,” which is to bring the Murray family a sense of “closure.” The thing is, the Murray family has never asked them to work on the case and seems totally uninterested in contributing to or acknowledging the podcast. My guess is that at this point, Maura Murray’s family members are probably pretty tired of people dredging up their loved one’s disappearance as a form of entertainment. By repeatedly claiming that they’re trying to act in the Murray family’s best interest, Tim and Lance are hoping to downplay the fact that they’re rubbernecking at a family’s tragedy, and aren’t actually helping anyone.
- Detachment from facts. What’s more likely: that Maura Murray is alive and well in Canada, cackling over the fact that she stumped local authorities, the FBI, and her friends and family; or that she froze to death in the snowy New Hampshire woods and her body just hasn’t been found yet? I’d say the latter seems leagues more plausible than the former, but Tim and Lance seem convinced that a great conspiracy is afoot and Murray somehow disappeared herself without a trace. The thing is, though, even in 2004, when Murray went missing, disappearing off the face of the earth was difficult. I had Facebook in 2004, and before that, Friendster (I know), and MySpace. Social media was a thing. Email was a thing. Cell phones were a thing. Yes, we were not as grossly, instantly connected as we are now, but it would still take some A-plus planning and coordination for Murray to entirely elude law enforcement, friends, and family for over a decade. I’d also imagine a sophisticated (and successful) disappearance plot would not involve a sloppy car accident that calls a lot of attention to the person trying to disappear. Just a hunch. The principle of Occam’s Razor (that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is preferred) applies here. Why assume that Murray executed some Bourne Identity-level operation with a getaway car and a new identity when it makes way more sense that she crashed her car, wandered into the woods, and didn’t come out again? Admittedly, the theory I’ve just laid out makes for a less titillating podcast, but why are Tim and Lance so reluctant to consider the simplest explanation for what happened to Maura Murray?
I’m not ascribing bad motives to the hosts of Missing Maura Murray, but I think the podcast has outlived its usefulness/entertainment value and should be gently ushered to the audio graveyard. It was a nice effort, guys, but there’s nothing more to say. Let it go. And stay off Reddit for a while.