For the last 17 years it stood as a living memorial, marking the spot where a young woman suddenly disappeared and serving as a symbol of anguish for a family seeking answers.
What had become known as the “blue ribbon” tree for the memorial ribbon tied around its trunk, it stood along Route 112 in Haverhill, near the Weathered Barn and at the spot where 21-year-old Maura Murray, a nursing student from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, crashed her car into a snowbank on the evening of Feb. 9, 2004, and vanished moments later.
After a new owner bought the residential property several years ago, Maura’s family was contacted last summer by the owner who was considering cutting down the tree.
The possibility of removal was the catalyst behind the family’s request to the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources for a permanent state highway historical marker to be installed at the location, where the family and supporters have held numerous vigils marking that fateful day.
What they didn’t know, however, is that the tree would be taken down so soon.
“I knew it was possible, and they said it might happen this summer, but I had no idea it was going to be Friday,” Julie Murray, Maura’s sister, told The Caledonian-Record on Monday. “It was strange. The New Hampshire Attorney General’s victim advocate called me and said, ‘I wanted you to be aware that the ribbon tree was cut down.’ They sent a trooper to confirm and take pictures and I got the call midday on Friday.”
The tree was one of several cut on the property.
When the homeowner reached out to Murray last year, Murray tried to strike a compromise, offering to buy the land or lease it or asking to spare just that one tree or several trees.
“She was unwilling to make any compromises and that is why we launched the blue ribbon campaign,” said Murray.
Just as the property owner has a right to remove a tree, Murray said she and her family have a right to petition DHR, through the campaign, for a historical marker, as they did through a formal petition to DHR filed in October.
With the tree suddenly gone, though, the family is now urging the state to approve the marker.
“This cruel act has strengthened my family’s resolve to fight for answers until we find Maura and hold accountable those responsible for her disappearance,” said Murray. “With the destruction of the Blue Ribbon tree, we urge Mr. Ben Wilson, director of the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources, to swiftly approve Maura’s historical marker request recognizing the historical significance of Maura’s disappearance at the location she was last seen on Route 112, Haverhill in 2004.”
For reasons unknown, the tree was removed, and with no ashes to scatter or grave to visit, the blue ribbon tree has served as a sacred place to honor and remember Maura and as a place for thousands of visitors who pay tribute to Maura each year at the spot where she was last seen alive, said Murray.
Since submitting the request for a historical marker on Oct. 16, more than 400 phone calls and emails have been made to DHR in support of the marker, and the request included petitions in support with nearly 3,400 signatures from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and 42 nations.
In partnership with New Hampshire residents, the family launched the Blue Ribbon Campaign to support the historical marker request.
With Maura’s disappearance having become a part of New Hampshire history and drawing interest from across the globe in what has become one of the world’s most high-profile unsolved missing persons cases, Murray said the request meets DHR qualifications for a historical marker.
In a letter submitted to DHR in October, Robert McDonald, professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, which Maura had attended, also testified that the location marks a historically significant event and the request meets the criteria set forth in law for a marker.
Supporting the effort, too, is state Rep. Debra DiSimone, R-Atkinson, whom Murray reached out to several weeks ago to find out the status of the marker request.
Requests generally take several months after a request is submitted before DHR renders a decision.
“With the tree being gone, it’s not going to deter us in any way to erase what happened there, and I urge people to contact the Division of Historical Resources through emails and telephone calls to voice their support,” said Murray.
To learn more about the campaign and voice support for the historical marker, visit www.mauramurraymissing.org/blueribbon.