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A family's doubts

Relatives of Patric McCarthy, found dead in the White Mountains in October 2003, lobby to reopen the case, saying nature did not kill the 10-year-old.

LINCOLN, N.H. -- The blue and white flannel sheets that Patric McCarthy last slept upon still have not been changed, and his beloved GameBoy, never unplugged, still glows red. Since he died more than a year ago, the boy's mother has barely touched his bedroom.

His uncle has asked a private investigator to probe the death of the 10-year-old boy, and has doggedly worked beside him for more than a year. His father has recently emerged from his grief to lobby officials to reopen the investigation into his son's death, deemed accidental after the boy got lost in the woods. And one of the boy's grandfathers, whose den is filled with thousands of pages of reports and news stories about Patric, has hired his own investigators.

Now Patric's family -- long troubled by the mystery of a boy who vanished into the woods so close to civilization, and whose lifeless body was found more than 2 miles away, up a steep mountain -- is convinced that man, and not nature, killed their son. Since a private investigator concluded that Patric was murdered, and produced a witness who said she heard the confession of someone who allegedly helped kill the boy, his family has been consumed with finding answers.

"Something happened to him up there," said Deanne Murray-Spence, Patric's mother, who recently filled a curio cabinet with pictures and mementos of her only child. "We want to know what. And we're not going to stop until we know the truth."

Patric spent his final weekend at his father's Lincoln ski condo, so close to Loon Mountain that the naked, treeless trails are visible across the Kancamagus Scenic Byway. That Sunday, the day before Columbus Day 2003, the McCarthys, including Patric's father, Stephen, and his stepmother, celebrated his 10th birthday.

When the boy called his mother at home in Bourne, Murray-Spence and her girlfriend sang him a duet of "Happy Birthday." The next day, the sun was shining as the McCarthys got ready to close up the condo and joust with the traffic plodding south toward Massachusetts.

As Stephen McCarthy vacuumed, the boys -- Patric and his two stepbrothers, Noah, 7, and Gabe, 12 -- were restless, trying to pack as many moments of play as possible into the dwindling holiday weekend. At about 11:30 a.m., according to the McCarthy family, they asked to go outside. The father agreed, but told them to return in 15 or 20 minutes.

It was the last time he saw Patric alive. About noon, Gabe returned, saying Patric had run ahead as the boys were heading back to the condo from a nearby playground at The Village of Loon Mountain, another development. Stephen McCarthy began searching for his son, running into the woods and calling Patric's name.

He called the police between 2:30 and 3 p.m., when Patric still hadn't turned up. That night, Stephen McCarthy broke the frightening news to Murray-Spence. Their boy was still missing, wearing a jacket he had just received as a birthday present.

"I just asked him where my baby was, and he said, 'I don't know,' " Murray-Spence remembered this week, speaking by telephone from Patric's bedroom, where she says she often sits to talk with him.

That night, Geoffrey McCarthy, Patric's uncle, slept a few hours and got up before dawn to make the long drive north from his Plymouth house. Patric's maternal grandfather, James Murray Jr., also rose early to head north and help the search. News of the boy's disappearance had spread throughout the valley, and hundreds of tourists and locals turned out to comb the woods for a boy they had never met.

The condominiums, restaurants, and ski shops of Lincoln are packed densely along a narrow valley. But the mountains rise on both sides of the Kancamagus, towering ominously, surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness in the White Mountain National Forest. A sign near the McCarthy's condo warns drivers of the area's remoteness: no gas for 32 miles.

While Patric was missing, the searchers boarded buses each day to head for the patch of national forest near the McCarthy's condo. At night, firefighters and police officers peered through the woods with night-vision goggles. But as the weather turned cold and rainy, and as days passed with no sign of the 85-pound boy, hope began to fade.

Friday afternoon, four days after Patric had vanished, a group of searchers on Whaleback Mountain, high above the condo, finally found Patric's body. The boy was lying face down in a copse of spruce trees, his arms crossed, and his fists clenched. He was missing his jacket, his cap, his GameBoy, and his socks.

Patric's body was carried down the mountain on a stretcher. The state's medical examiner performed an autopsy and determined that the boy had died, probably the first night he was in the woods, from hypothermia. Authorities say it is probable that a combination of panic and confusion from the cold that drove him up the mountain.

"The fact that a young child who's lost in the woods might do certain things that we might think are unreasonable would not be a surprise," said Jeffrey Strelzin, New Hampshire's senior assistant attorney general. "Then you factor in hypothermia."

Hypothermia, which occurs when the body loses too much heat, can cause people to become disoriented and even shed some of their clothes, officials say. Children, who have less body fat than adults, are especially vulnerable.

The family has been unable to accept that version of events. Grief counselors say that people faced with traumatic events need to understand what has happened before they can move through their pain.

"When crisis occurs, people need to have it make sense, and that gives them a sense of control," said Jayan Landry Conlin, cofounder of the Trauma Intervention Program of Merrimack Valley. "They need information. They need to know all the details."

Many of the people who loved Patric find the official story of Patric's death troublesome. They say Patric had traveled the path to the playground several times over the long weekend, and knew the route. It was about a quarter-mile, as the crow flies, from the basketball courts to Clearbrook condominiums, where they were staying.

"It's not like you're way out in the woods," Geoffrey McCarthy said. "This is a neighborhood -- streets, cars, people, lights."

The hike up the mountain to where the boy's body was found, face down and arms crossed, is steep and treacherous. It would have been obvious even to a 10-year-old, Geoffrey McCarthy and others say, that walking downhill would have led to the busy road.

They insist that Patric, the boy who hated being alone even if his mother slipped into the basement to do a load of laundry, would not have walked by himself into the woods. He sometimes slept with the light on, and his mother kept her bedroom door open so he could see her from his bed.

Murray, the boy's grandfather, says that if Patric had gotten lost, he would have been screaming for help, and yet no one heard him cry out as they searched the woods. The relatives and the investigator are also skeptical that Patric could have clambered up the steep mountain and still have been found with clean fingernails.

New Hampshire state officials have reviewed the report of Terrance O'Connell, the Barnstable private investigator hired by Geoffrey McCarthy and have heard a taped interview with the young woman who said she heard someone confess to Patric's murder. The woman said the person had told her that he had suffocated Patric, removed some of his clothes, and hid his body under the leaves, O'Connell said. O'Connell said the woman, whom he did not want to identify, also told him that the person told her that other people later moved Patric's body.

Neither O'Connell, a retired police sergeant, nor Patric's relatives will divulge the name of the people they believe killed Patric, saying they do not want to impede an official investigation or risk being sued.

O'Connell and Patric's relatives said they are frustrated that the State Police did not treat the boy's death as suspicious once his body was discovered and did not rope off the scene or comb the area for DNA samples. O'Connell said he had suspected that Patric's death was the result of foul play even before the McCarthy family contacted him several weeks after the boy died. O'Connell has agreed to conduct the investigation for free.

Stephen McCarthy said he would continue to press officials to probe his son's death.

"My goal is to find the truth for Patric," he said in a statement he e-mailed to the Globe. "We are only asking that the specific and substantial information that we have uncovered be investigated completely."

But so far, officials have declined to reopen Patric's case. After State Police and prosecutors reviewed O'Connell's 11-page report, they continued to maintain that the boy died of hypothermia.

Patric's family vows not to stop fighting. They have hired a forensic pathologist to review the details of Patric's autopsy.

"We went the truth, plain and simple," Deanne Murray-Spence said. "We want people to pay for what they did, because Patric didn't get lost on his own."

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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