Update (4 p.m. Friday): Southold Town police on Friday updated the media on its efforts to locate missing teenager Ashley Murray of Peconic. Police acknowledged Ashley may have left her home “with intentions of harming herself,” something authorities had not stated publicly before.
Investigators said they’ve interviewed over 30 family, friends, acquaintances and “concerned citizens” throughout New York State, and searched more than 25 “geographical areas of interest in Southold Town alone.”
Southold Town police are working with several other agencies, including the FBI, state police, Suffolk County Police Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Shelter Island Police Department, according to the release.
Police “are committed to continue this extensive investigation and have always encouraged all members of the public to contact our department with any information as to Ashley Murray’s whereabouts.”
Police can be contacted at (631) 765-2600.
Before Brianne Catapano and Rachael Hornstein met up Thursday afternoon across the street from their high school, the two Southold natives had been only acquaintances.
Within a few hours though, a common interest brought them closer: They both want to find their friend, Ashley Murray, a native of Shelter Island.
The pair joined dozens of others Thursday, spending the afternoon handing out fliers across the North Fork, hoping to raise awareness of Ashley’s disappearance. The 16-year-old from Peconic has been missing since 8 a.m. Monday, according to Southold Town Police.
Ashley’s mother, Charlotte Murray, learned her daughter was missing after receiving a call from school officials. She later found a note from her daughter, which she called a “suicide note” and said it made reference to a “watery grave.”
Law enforcement officials are expected to hold a press briefing Friday to report the steps they’ve taken since Ashley’s disappearance, which Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said includes calling in the FBI and personality profilers.
Southold Police initially employed a marine patrol, its canine unit and a Suffolk County Police helicopter to perform a physical search Monday morning, but later focused their investigation on the possibility that she may have left the area. They then ended the active local search Monday afternoon and began to concentrate on examining phone and computer records, and interviewing close friends and family, police said.
Police did not release an official missing person report until Wednesday morning, more than 50 hours after Ashley’s disappearance. Law enforcement officials said Ashley’s case does not fit criteria for an “Amber Alert,” since she is not believed to have been abducted.
The lack of an Amber Alert did not stop local residents from conducting their own searches and using social media to reach thousands of concerned web surfers from across the country.
“I want her to come home,” Rachael said as she walked down Front Street in Greenport, holding a stack of fliers.
“We all do,” said Ms. Catapano, who scheduled a search party Thursday to find her friend of four years. She organized the event through her Facebook page “Ashley Come Home,” which was followed by over 2,400 Facebook users as of Thursday night.
More than 40 local residents met across the street from Southold High School to participate in the search. Ms. Catapano originally wanted the group of volunteers to search under bridges and along the waterfront, but those plans were altered after Southold Town police asked that they focus their efforts on handing out fliers instead.
Ms. Catapano told the crowd that police feared a search party could contaminate evidence. She then asked them to break into groups and hand out fliers from Riverhead to Orient.
“We just want to spread as many fliers around and make sure her face is known so if anyone has recognized her they can come forward,” Ms. Catapano said.
The last time she spoke to Ashley, who is a sophomore at Southold High School, was about a week ago and she said they planned to hang out this week.
“It’s been very hard,” Ms. Catapano said. “I haven’t gotten much sleep.”
Ashley is 5-foot 4-inches and 140 pounds with reddish-brown hair and blue eyes, her mother, Charlotte Murray, said. She was last seen wearing red sweatpants “four sizes too big,” black boots and a zip-up sweatshirt with a hood. Police added that she has a scar on her right wrist and wears hearing aids in both ears.
Ms. Catapano and several of Ashley’s friends and classmates have said Ashley, who they say was bisexual, was often bullied in school because of her sexual orientation.
“People knew she was depressed and still made fun of her,” Ms. Catapano said. “It’s very sad.”
Cora Small, 14, said she decided to join the volunteer effort because she misses her friend who helped her fit in at school.
“She’s nice and accepts people for who they are,” Cora said. “This just crushes me.”
Superintendent David Gamberg said some of Ashley’s friends who attend school in Greenport received suicidal text messages from her Monday morning. Those students notified their school social worker, he said, who then contacted a social worker at Southold High School. Mr. Gamberg said the district then immediately contacted the Southold Town Police Department and has been cooperating with police since the investigation began.
Greenport High School principal Leonard Skuggevik said Thursday the district is “incredibly proud” of its students and staff’s quick response.
“They are currently organizing their ideas to assist in the search and we are talking with the Southold Police Department to ensure each idea will be helpful and not harmful to their investigation,” he said.
In December, Greenport schools hosted Todd Lauderdale of the national anti-bullying program “Rachel’s Challenge,” which is based on the writings of 17-year-old Rachel Scott, the first student killed during the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
Following his presentation, Mr. Lauderdale helped the district form a student group that pledged to surround themselves with positive role models and become kinder to their peers — especially special needs, new and picked-on students — in an effort to deter bullying.
In an interview with The Suffolk Times Thursday, Mr. Lauderdale said he was pleased with how Greenport students handled the situation by notifying school officials and described Ashley’s disappearance as “tragic.”
“These are the very things we’re trying to combat and prevent from happening,” he said.
Mr. Lauderdale said while his group promotes proactive anti-bullying steps in schools, it also encourages students to seek help if they are in need.
“If kids are struggling with suicidal thoughts, depression or feeling isolated, counseling through the school or independent professional help is crucially needed,” he said.
Mr. Gamberg said this week that Southold High School has been encouraging students to speak with counselors since Ashley’s disappearance.
FATHER’S PREVIOUS ARREST
Ashley lives in Peconic with her mother and her older brother. She has been estranged from her father, Kenneth Payne of Shelter Island, since she was an infant, according to a 2004 New York Times story. Mr. Payne served six years in prison for the 1998 shooting death of his neighbor, Curtis Cook, court records show. Ashley was 18 months old at the time of the shooting.
Mr. Cook, a long time friend of Mr. Payne’s, had been arrested two weeks before his death and charged with sodomizing an 8-year-old girl, the New York Times reported. Mr. Payne told investigators at the time that Mr. Cook had threatened Ashley and her mother on the night he was killed, court records show. Mr. Payne was later acquitted following an appeal.
Ms. Murray won a court battle over the custody of Ashley after her father was released from prison, according to state records.
With Grant Parpan, Paul Squire and Tim Kelly