Investigative journalist Maggie Freleng, an ardent true crime fan, has found herself in the middle of a true crime story of her own — gripped by a simple, seemingly unanswerable question: What happened to Maura Murray?
Murray, like Freleng, attended the University of Massachusetts, though years apart. Murray disappeared without a trace while she was still a student, when she packed up her things at the Amherst campus and drove north to New Hampshire.
Much remains unclear about what happened after Murray left school, though it appears she vanished near a snowbank in New Hampshire where her car crashed on Feb. 9, 2004.
In the intervening years, the mystery of her going missing has spread throughout the Internet, inspiring intense rumor and conspiracy, as well as fact-based reporting from reporters.
Freleng, one such example of the latter, spent months in the area digging into the case and the theories around it. (She first learned of Murray around 2011, from an episode of Investigation Discovery’s Disappeared.) Her work became Oxygen’s new docuseries The Disappearance of Maura Murray, premiering on Saturday night and exclusively previewed above.
“It is so different from other cases,” Freleng, 28, tells PEOPLE. “So often you will have a body or a suspect or something that points in one direction and with this it really is almost like she vanished off the face of the Earth.”
“There are no footprints, no body. We don’t have anything,” Freleng continues. “So it really does leave the door open for so much speculation.”
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Murray, then a 21-year-old nursing student, went missing after reportedly emailing to tell her UMass professors that she was taking time off to deal with a death in her family. She packed up and she drove off.
Her car, when it was found at the site of the wreck about 140 miles away from school, on Route 112 in New Hampshire, still had her things inside, including a spilled box of wine, according to multiple news reports.
But her wallet was reportedly missing, and so was Murray.
Despite witnesses who said they seemed to see her outside her car immediately after the wreck — including a bus driver who said she asked him not to call the police and said that AAA was already on the way — Murray, or her body, has never been found.
Authorities have reportedly said this year that they continue to investigate Murray as a missing person.
“The doors are so open, because there’s nothing, it just lets the mind go wild,” Freleng says.
Indeed, Oxygen is referring to what may have happened to Murray as the “first crime mystery of the social media age,” and it has spawned much amateur sleuthing and speculation — some of which has been accepted for truth, Freleng discovered as she began investigating anew with former U.S. Marshal Art Roderick.
“One of the first things I noticed when I started this was how much speculation people take for fact,” she says.
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The series tackles such murky rumors head-on, examining “every theory,” from a possible abduction and homicide to a cover-up to the belief in a “tandem driver” who helped Murray run away from her life.
“We go through all of those and we bring the viewer with us and as we’re learning, they’re learning too,” Freleng says, noting that “we definitely do find new information.”
“Each theory we go through, there is the ‘a-ha’ moment of, ‘Oh my gosh this information is out there and it’s not true, like we just discovered that this is not true,’ ” Freleng says.
Murray’s family participated in the docuseries, and from them Freleng says, “[She] became a person and we would hear real things about her, and something I learned was that Maura was really funny. She would make people laugh and she just — she’s portrayed as this woman who had all these problems and secrets and it actually seems like she was just a fun, light-hearted, funny person and everyone who knew her really did adore her.”
Freleng acknowledges that without new evidence, it’s unlikely for the investigation to truly conclude. But, she says, she and Roderick’s investigation — which the Oxygen series follows chronologically — doe settle on a likely answer to its key question (though she declines to be more specific.)
“By the time we got to the end and put everything together, we do have one conclusion that does seem to make sense above all others,” she says.
“There’s so many things that could have happened,’’ Murray’s brother told the Boston Globe in February. “It’s going to take someone coming forward with a piece of information to solve it and it’s probably something simple. The likely scenario is that she got picked up by someone. Maura is very smart, but she’s not street smart.’’
The Disappearance of Maura Murray premieres on Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET) on Oxygen and will regularly air at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. ET beginning on Sept. 30.