This story appeared in the June 6, 2010 issue of the Sunday Eagle-Tribune
By Noah R. Bombard
She emerged from the Lawrence Police Station in handcuffs, flanked by two officers, spitting, swearing, and mad as hell.
Hours earlier, Jennifer Murphy had attacked a 59-year-old woman outside a Methuen supermarket, stealing the woman’s purse. She beat the stranger with a cell phone and knocked her to the ground.
An admitted drug user, the 28-year-old Murphy was at the end of her rope — three weeks out of jail, driving a stolen car, and looking for some fast cash.
As officers struggled to force the cursing Murphy into a police van, she lashed out at everyone and everything around her, kicking the van and stomping on Lawrence police Detective Sgt. Michael Simard’s foot as he tried to hold her still.
“Be careful, ma’am,” Simard said.
“Or what? Or what?” Murphy screamed. “Can my life get any worse?”
Four months later, she was dead. A guard at MCI Framingham found her hanging in her cell, where she was in solitary confinement serving a three- to four-year sentence for unarmed robbery and assault and battery with a deadly weapon. She was one week out of rehab.
Family members say the enraged, foul-mouthed woman captured on video by The Eagle-Tribune last October wasn’t the same Jennifer Murphy they knew — the one who made homemade holiday cards with crayon-colored hearts for her aunts; the sweet girl who would wrap her arms around them and tell them how much she loved them.
This was a different Jennifer Murphy. Somewhere along the line, that Jennifer Murphy got lost.
A good girl gone bad
At a kitchen table in Medford, Murphy’s three aunts look over pictures of their niece and try to figure out what happened. The photos show a smiling, warm person — a little girl in a blue dress holding up an art project, a young woman visiting her grandmother in a nursing home.
“She was a good girl growing up,” said Linda Tavares, one of Murphy’s aunts.
The images stand in sharp contrast to the anger and desperation seen in that video last year.
“Could we have done more?” asked Kathy Nichols, another aunt. “Did we miss something?”
“It’s nothing we missed, Kathy,” Tavares said. “It’s an addiction. We did what we could.”
It’s a typical question for families of drug addicts.
But the key to Murphy’s story — a combination of bad choices and tragedy — stretches back to her childhood. Her family knows the point when her life shifted. It was the day her mother died. Murphy was just 10 years old.
“That’s when it all started. She was 10 and devastated. That’s what all this is about,” sobbed Murphy’s aunt Susan, who asked that her last name not be included in this story.
Murphy’s grandmother — who raised her along with her aunts in Medford — died while Murphy was in jail last year serving time for another offense. The death only compounded her depression.
A tightly-knit family, they were there for Murphy when she needed them, but increasingly there were long periods apart, times when she’d slip back into the world of drugs to drown her pain. She was adamant, though, that she wouldn’t bring it around her family.
“She said, ‘I would never even call you if I was (using),’” Susan said.
Her family believes Murphy started with casual recreational use. But they admit they don’t know much about the world she kept getting sucked into. Murphy told her aunts that she didn’t like it when she could think. And in that other world, she found her escape.
A destructive path
She was out of breath, running down a street in Lawrence and being chased by known drug dealers. That’s when Detective Simard first met Murphy. It was about a year before the Methuen shopping plaza incident.
Simard found a desperate person who was hanging around with dangerous people. He brought her into the police station for questioning, but later let her go.
State police have confirmed that Murphy was cooperating with them in a murder investigation in which she had witnessed a male friend of hers stab another man and then helped him hide the weapon.
Simard said he could tell Murphy was a woman on an increasingly destructive path.
“If she hadn’t taken her own life, she would have wound up dead based on what she was up to,” he said.
A year after his initial encounter with Murphy, Simard heard a broadcast on the radio of the Methuen shopping plaza incident. He headed straight to an area in the city known to be a hangout for addicts. There, he found Murphy in the stolen car. She was full of rage. She cursed at police, and kept repeating the phrase, “Could my life get any worse?”
Simard tried being nice to Murphy — “It’s the only way you get anywhere with them,” he said — but she wasn’t having it.
Like a lot of drug addicts, there were periods of clarity — times when Murphy seemed to be getting her life in order.
In 2008, Nichols took her niece to Boston Medical Center to be placed in a program for drug addicts. Murphy wanted help. She wanted out.
After going through the check-in process with her, Nichols stepped away. When she returned, she discovered that Murphy had made a phone call and left.
Another time, Murphy spent six months living with her aunt Susan. She got a job working at Lowe’s.
“She was doing so well,” Susan said.
Then, after a few paychecks, she walked off the job and was gone again.
Her family watched her struggle. They said it was heartbreaking to watch Murphy turn her life around only to have chemical and psychological addiction draw her back in.
“We’d talk non-stop, endlessly,” Susan said of her conversations with Murphy about getting her life back on track. “It was the same thing over and over again — ‘I want my mother back.’”
There are still questions that plague Murphy’s family regarding the final months of her life. There are questions about why she sunk so low, and whether her death could have been prevented.
According to Simard, who sees more than his fair share of drug addicts, it’s a downward spiral that leaves them turning to increasingly desperate measures to get a fix. Some find a way out, but many others don’t.
But Murphy’s aunts say she was looking for real help last year when she was in a drug rehabilitation program while in jail. She was on five different medications to help her with depression and addiction.
“She wasn’t used to taking that medication, and it was making her feel really badly,” Tavares said. “Everything just crumbled so fast.”
Within three weeks of being released, she found herself in Lawrence attacking a stranger to steal a purse.
“This was the worst point ever,” Susan said. “Anything she’d ever done was to herself, not to anyone else.”
“That’s how we knew it was rock bottom,” added Tavares.
Murphy attempted suicide three times in prison, her aunts said. Her last week at MCI Framingham, she had been released from the medical unit and placed in solitary confinement.
“They thought she was doing wonderful and they let her out of the medical unit a little bit early,” Tavares said.
A week later, she was found dead in her prison cell.
Murphy’s death remains under investigation. According to Diane Wiffin, spokeswoman for the Department of Correction, it’s not unusual for such investigations to take months.
Meanwhile, the family continues to wait for an answer as to why their niece wasn’t supervised.
“She did some monstrous things, but how she got there, I don’t know,” Nichols said.
A helpless feeling
Like the families of most addicts, Murphy’s aunts are left feeling helpless. They search for answers as to what they could have done differently, but find none.
“She was a good girl, with a broken, unrepairable heart,” Susan said.
On the table in front of them is a Valentine’s Day card Murphy made for Susan while she was in jail. It’s handmade and written in crayon, with a big red colored heart.
“Just want to let you know how much it means that you came to visit and we are talking as a family again,” the card reads. “It means so much. I love you… and have missed you so much. So just an early Valentine’s Day card to tell you I love you and appreciate having you in my life. Hope things get better for all of us as a family. I love you lots. Thank you for being there because I really need my family back. Love you lots. See you soon. Love, Jen.”
BEHIND THE HEADLINES: There’s always more to the story.