True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray

True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray

by James Renner

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As seen on the Oxygen mini-series The Disappearance of Maura Murray

When an eleven year old James Renner fell in love with Amy Mihaljevic, the missing girl seen on posters all over his neighborhood, it was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with true crime. That obsession leads James to a successful career as an investigative journalist. It also gave him PTSD. In 2011, James began researching the strange disappearance of Maura Murray, a UMass student who went missing after wrecking her car in rural New Hampshire in 2004. Over the course of his investigation, he uncovers numerous important and shocking new clues about what may have happened to Maura, but also finds himself in increasingly dangerous situations with little regard for his own well-being. As his quest to find Maura deepens, the case starts taking a toll on his personal life, which begins to spiral out of control. The result is an absorbing dual investigation of the complicated story of the All-American girl who went missing and James's own equally complicated true crime addiction.

James Renner's True Crime Addict is the story of his spellbinding investigation of the missing person's case of Maura Murray, which has taken on a life of its own for armchair sleuths across the web. In the spirit of David Fincher's Zodiac, it is a fascinating look at a case that has eluded authorities and one man's obsessive quest for the answers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250089021
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/24/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 112,913
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

JAMES RENNER is the author of The Serial Killer's Apprentice and several other works of nonfiction. His true crime stories have appeared in The Best American Crime Writing anthology, as well the Cleveland Scene and His method of using social media to solve cold cases was the subject of a CNN profile, in 2015. He has also written two novels, The Man from Primrose Lane and The Great Forgetting. He lives in Akron with his wife and children.

Read an Excerpt

True Crime Addict

How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray

By James Renner

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 James Renner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08902-1


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The day my lawsuit against my former newspaper was settled, I drove out to the Lodge, the nudie bar on State Route 14. This was in 2009. For the last six years I had worked as a reporter. Not the sort of reporter you see in movies. I wasn't a beat reporter for some important daily paper. I wrote for the alt-weeklies, those free papers you find in bars and record stores and comic shops. There were two in Northeast Ohio, The Free Times and Cleveland Scene, before they merged in 2008. When I started out, a feature story paid $2,500. When I was fired six years later, the same story paid $300. Desperate times for a gonzo journalist.

The Lodge is tucked into the woods off SR 14, in Edinburg, a sleepy little hamlet south of Kent. Edinburg is 24.5 square miles of farmland, slanted fields of corn and soy, hog wallows, and mink farms. There's one traffic light in the school district. I fell in love with my wife out there when we played suspects in a high school production of Rehearsal for Murder. If you wanted to go on a date, there was the Dairy Queen. Otherwise, you had to drive twenty minutes into Ravenna. The Lodge didn't open until I was in college, and when it did it divided the town into sinners and saviors, and there was a public vote. In the end, the owner got the zoning variance he needed and the girls set up shop in the old honky-tonk across from the trailer yard. My best friend got drunk there one night and drove himself into the side of a house on his way home. I hadn't been there in a while.

For a tittie bar, the Lodge was kind of a nice place: a big cabin with soft leather couches, the head of a ten-point buck mounted over the fireplace. Against the back wall was a single pole in front of a black velvet curtain. I walked to the bar and ordered a Miller Lite in a bottle.

It's not like I go to strip clubs often. Maybe ten times in my life, mostly for bachelor parties. I'd paid three women to spank my buddy onstage the day he turned twenty-one. I wasn't ashamed to be there. I like how strip clubs smell. Like jolly ranchers and scotch.

"Want a dance?"

I turned to find a young blonde standing beside me. She was dressed in red, lacy lingerie. Her taut skin, covered in glitter, shimmered in the sparse light.

"No thank you," I said.

I have a thing for brunettes. And I don't like skinny. Not even athletic, really. I don't usually even buy a lap dance.

This happened a couple more times, that casual proposition. They all had silly names like Desiree, Sammi-with-an-I, or Eden. Really I thought I'd just sit at the bar for a couple drinks and watch the stage.

"I'm Gracie." This woman wore a thin black dress that stretched past her knees. Dark hair. Her body was soft and it curved in a nice way. Not busty, but healthy. I noticed right away that her eyes were different. She wasn't hustling, not like the other women. Or, if she was, she was better at it.

I bought her a drink. Vodka and grapefruit, if I remember right. And we talked for a bit. She was from West Virginia, liked to read. At the time, I was working my way through Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This was before Larsson's thriller became a publishing phenomenon. Nobody I knew had read it yet. The only reason I even had a copy was my wife bought it for my birthday. Of course, when I browsed the jacket, I was immediately drawn to the similarities between my current predicament and the story — it begins, after all, with a journalist losing his job over a political exposé.

Gracie walked me to the "Champagne Room" and sat me down on a leather couch. It was a private nook with a door that she could close. A bouncer brought me another beer and left us alone. When the next song started, she danced for me. The dress came off. She wore a pair of black panties underneath. She climbed onto my lap and pressed her breasts against my face.

"Do you want to see my tattoo?"

"Sure," I said.

She stood and, gyrating to the music, turned around. The bottom half of her back was covered by a beautiful, inky-black dragon.

"Do you like it?"

I am no longer surprised by the weird coincidences that occur in my life. After writing about crime for some years, I came to believe that there was a kind of blueprint to the universe, a certain order to the shape of things. "Fearful symmetry," I've called it. Not necessarily intelligent design; more like a natural framework or something. I knew a cop once who'd investigated the case of a murdered girl. Found her body on County Road 1181, in Ashland County. At the time, his cruiser number was 1181. Stuff like that. Stuff like this girl with the dragon tattoo.

Gracie took off her panties, turned around, and straddled my leg. She leaned her head back against my shoulder. We were waiting for another song to start.

"What do you do?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said. "I used to be a reporter. I wrote about crime. Unsolved murders, mostly. I got fired. I'm trying to figure out what to do next."

Something inside her changed. I got the feeling then that the woman sitting on my lap was no longer Gracie. I got the feeling she had somehow become more genuine.

When the music started again, she didn't move.

"You okay?" I asked.

She nodded against my neck. "My name's Jennifer," she said. "I'm not supposed to tell you my real name. But my real name is Jennifer."


"I can dance for you. Or we could talk. Do you want to talk?"

"Do you want to talk?"


"Okay. What do you want to talk about?"

She didn't say anything for a beat. She slipped off my lap and dressed. Then she sat beside me, her legs kicked up over my lap, as if we were in a living room and she was waiting for a foot rub. "My sister was murdered," she said.

How do you respond to that? "Did they catch ... him?" I asked, finally. "Her murderer?"

"Yes. Not for a while. But they just did. I spoke to the police down home. I'll have to go back to testify."

For the next half hour we sat in the Champagne Room and talked about the particulars of her sister's case. I gave her some advice on how to speak to the prosecutor and how to testify at trial. Then she hugged me and we just listened to the music.

This was a sign. Had to be, right? I was a journalist. Still. A crime writer. The universe wanted me to be. That's what Jennifer was about, I thought. Just because I didn't work for a newspaper, that didn't mean I had to stop.



One day, while I was scanning Web sites about unsolved crimes at a neighborhood coffee shop called the Nervous Dog, the barista sat next to me and said in a whisper, "I have something important to tell you."

She was a country-cute eighteen-year-old with dark hair and a round face. The shop was nearly empty. Just me and one other customer.

"You're that reporter, the one that got fired for that article about Kevin Coughlin, right?"

I cringed. "That would be me, yes."

She seemed distressed. "I see you come in all the time but I didn't put it together that, you know, you were the reporter until I read about it in the paper." Had I offended her in some way I didn't understand? Was she Coughlin's cousin or something?

"It was me," she said. "I was your secret source."

That's how it started: an anonymous e-mail sent to my in-box at Cleveland Scene in the fall of 2008. The source claimed that State Senator Kevin Coughlin was having an affair with one of his campaign staffers. The tip included the name of the mistress's roommate, which was enough for me to do some digging. I had always assumed the e-mail had come from someone in Columbus, a fellow congressman or political rival. I never expected the tip had come from a part-time coffee-slinger.

Coughlin was a Republican blowhard from Cuyahoga Falls, a blue-collar suburb of Akron often referred to as "Caucasian Falls." He was infamous in greater Akron for a failed coup against the local GOP leadership, led for twenty-five years by a shrewd man named Alex Arshinkoff. Not for nothing, but according to police reports, the married, publicly straight Arshinkoff once picked up a twenty-one-year-old hitchhiker downtown, rubbed his leg, and asked the young man if he "wanted to make some money" before the guy managed to escape by jumping out of the car. In 2008, Coughlin threw his hat into the governor's race.

After the tip came in I researched Coughlin's background and quickly got a sense of his character. He and fifty other members of the Ohio House of Representatives had voted to exempt themselves from public records laws. Coughlin sponsored a bill that would have allowed patients to be treated by a physical therapist without a prescription or referral from their primary physician. His wife was a practicing physical therapist. He asked for campaign contributions from Time Warner while sitting on the Senate committee that wrote regulatory policy for cable companies. You get the picture.

The first thing I did was track down the people who rented the apartment across the hall from where Coughlin's alleged mistress lived. The residents confirmed that the congressman came by when the young woman was home, alone. His SUV, with personalized plates, would be parked out front late into the night. Then I located the roommate, who went into explicit detail about how Coughlin would come over to have loud sex with his staffer in her thin-walled bedroom while the roommate sat in the living room watching TV. When Coughlin caught wind of my reporting, he went ballistic.

One night he left a message on Scene publisher Matt Fabyan's phone, blaming Arshinkoff for the leak. "He's been peddling this story ever since he hit on me," he said. The next day, we got the first letter from Coughlin's attorney, demanding we kill the story. But word had traveled and other sources were contacting me.

A former Coughlin full-time staffer, a guy named Mike Chadsey, was the one who gave me the info about how the congressman would take his mistress to Ohio State football games and pay for the trips with campaign money. They had a routine: Chadsey and Coughlin's paramour would meet the congressman in the parking lot of the Sheraton Hotel in Cuyahoga Falls, ride with Coughlin to Columbus, then return to the hotel. Campaign reports show that Coughlin paid for rooms at the Sheraton, billing it as: "Staff Accommodations."

When the newspaper bigwigs back in Scranton got wind of the letter from Coughlin's attorney, they spiked my story and told me to work on something else. The paper could not risk a lawsuit, said CEO Matt Haggerty. I told him that if he couldn't risk a lawsuit, he couldn't run a newspaper. He told me I was fired. I told him to go fuck himself. Then I e-mailed the article to every contact in my Rolodex. The story was picked up and reprinted online, circulated throughout the statehouse in Columbus. Slate picked up the Jerry Maguire-ish mission statement I sent to the employees of Scene on my way out.

It got messy. I sued Haggerty, Scene, and Coughlin for wrongful termination. The Akron Beacon Journal and The Columbus Dispatch covered the details of the court filings. Eventually, Coughlin, through his lawyer, admitted he never had cause to sue the paper, that his threats to my editor and publisher were baseless. Haggerty and I came to an agreement on the rest.

The young barista happened upon her intel through a local painter, who was the father of the mistress's roommate. Here's how small Akron is: That roommate's father painted my house, which I had purchased from the barista's uncle. Wrap your head around that. I looked at the young woman sitting across from me at the Nervous Dog and said, "Thank you."


Full Disclosure

"I'm thinking of writing about crime again," I said.

My psychologist smiled, tightly. Roberta was a seasoned counselor working out of a square office below a fitness center in West Akron. I'd been seeing her for three years. I picked her out of the yellow pages in 2006, around the time my first book was published. It was a nonfiction account of my investigation into the abduction and murder of a ten-year-old girl named Amy Mihaljevic. After the book was released, I started having panic attacks in grocery stores. My mind kept insisting that the guy in front of me at checkout was keeping girls tied up in his basement. Turns out I had contracted secondhand post-traumatic stress disorder, the kind embedded war journos sometimes get. That was an idea that took me a long time to accept, by the way, and I still feel guilt when thinking about it. After all, I never served in a war. What the hell do I have to complain about that's so terrible? And yet, there was no denying the symptoms. A daily Cymbalta took the edge off. Roberta and I met every other week for an hour and she listened to me talk about my fears. I liked her. She was wise from experience. Years ago, she had been the hired counselor for a very famous band, traveling with the musicians on tour, keeping them sane and mostly sober.

"You think that's a good idea?" she asked. "Writing about crime again?"

"I need something to focus on," I said. "I need to find a way to make money. And it's something I know how to do."

It was a great plan, I thought. I could work on the new book after my wife got home at three — she taught high school choir a couple towns away. I'd watch our kid in the morning and write at night.

"I have the results from your MMPI test," she said, moving on.

That would be the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test, a psychological exam developed by a couple of shrinks in 1939 at the University of Minnesota. It's the litmus test for psychopathy they use to this day. The CIA gives it to candidates to suss out potential mental health issues in their operatives. The test is a list of 504 simple statements. You fill in bubbles to denote how strongly you "agree" or "disagree" with each statement. Two examples: "I am very seldom troubled by constipation" and "I like to read newspaper articles on crime." I was taking it now because we were considering an end to our counseling sessions and Roberta wanted to see where my head was.

"How'd I do?" I asked.

"Your results were very similar to those of Ted Bundy, the serial killer."

That's one of those statements you just can't unhear.

"Don't get too upset," said Roberta. "You may have the psychopathy of a dangerous man, but so do many cops. In fact, a lot of CEOs would have scored the same as you, or worse. Donald Trump is probably a sociopath. But it's what makes him successful."

"How'd I do on the intelligence test?" I asked. She'd given me a second test the last time we'd met — a long series of logic puzzles.

"Perfect score. And that's the good news. You have the intelligence to temper your psychopathy. You're smart enough to be aware of your own compulsions, to find healthy outlets for your anger before you explode. You're smart enough to keep yourself safe."

My heart was beating fast. It felt like I had just been diagnosed with cancer. One of the bad kinds that never go away. I'd come here seeking a solution and she'd just told me my problem was incurable.

"You will learn to live with it," she said. "You just have to."

"What about the crime writing?" I asked.

She thought for a moment and then said, "I think it's a good idea. Use it to channel that dark side. Your mind works like the people you chase after. Like a good detective. You're a sociopath, too."

I left Roberta's office feeling kind of numb. Driving home, I thought about what makes someone dangerous. Was it genetics? There was a case to be made there, I knew. But I pushed that line of thinking aside — I wasn't ready to go there yet. Could a child's environment make them good or bad? Were environmental factors, alone, enough to push a kid one way or another? My stepmother used to punch me. Was that why I needed to be medicated as an adult? I had fallen in love with Amy Mihaljevic when I saw her MISSING poster hanging on a utility pole when I was eleven years old. What was that all about?

What I did was I went home and I hugged my son.

How much of me is in Casey? I wondered.

After he fell asleep I got to thinking about writing again. I wanted a big case. Nothing local. Something difficult. I remembered this episode of 20/20 I'd seen recently. It was a special report on two missing women. Brooke Wilberger and Maura Murray were college students who excelled in school and then vanished within a few months of each other, in 2004. Brooke's case immediately struck me as an abduction. She'd been cleaning lampposts (helping her sister, who was a property manager) in the parking lot of an apartment complex in the Oregon town of Corvallis but never showed up for her lunch break. Her car was still in the lot and she'd left her car keys, purse, and flip-flops behind.


Excerpted from True Crime Addict by James Renner. Copyright © 2016 James Renner. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prologue 1
1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 3
2. Paramour 8
3. Full Disclosure 12
4. All-American Girl 16
5. Past Is Prologue 20
6. The Gatekeeper 23
7. Forget the Past 27
8. Last Shift at Melville 31
9. The Zoo 34
10. Hacking the Universe 38
11. Never Take Rides from Strangers 44
12. The Runner50
13. Private Eyes 52
14. What Really Happened at West Point 57
15. Cracks in the Façade60
16. The Clique 67
17. Molly, Holly, and Bri 71
18. Murray v. State of New Hampshire 75
19. My Baker Street Irregulars 82
20. The Chief ’s Demons 86
21. What the TV Guy Told Me 89
22. Aunt Janis 94
23. Baby Brother 98
24. How an Abduction Happens 103
25. A Lucky Break 108
26. Maura’s Lovers 114
27. BFF 117
28. Consider the Red Herring 120
29. The Londonderry Ping 124
30. The Man with the Knife 128
31. 22 Walker130
32. Between the Lines 132
33. Petrit Vasi 134
34. The Shadow of Death Returns 139
35. Motive143
36. 112dirtbag 149
37. Mr. 1974 154
38. Family158
39. Bad Rabbit 162
40. An Overdue Visit 167
41. Outliers175
42. More Trou ble in St. Albans 178
43. Th e Zaps 181
44. Silver Linings184
45. Confrontations 188
46. “Drunk and Naked” 193
47. Graves 197
48. Borderland 200
49. I Saw Your Think 204
50. Eucatastrophe 207
51. Contempt 211
52. Hard Time 217
53. Beagle Strikes Back 222
54. The Fool 226
55. Every body Lies 231
56. Billy, Don’t Lose My Number 237
57. Closure Is for Doors 240
58. Failed Tests 246
59. How to Disappear 251
60. Oh, Canada! 255
61. Poker Face 262
62. The Bitter and the Sweet 266

Epilogue 271
Acknowledgments 279

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