The watch in Mike Scrocca’s dresser stopped at 4:19. That’s probably when the heat from the fire reached him. He was asleep on his mattress on the floor in the house he shared with five other University of Maryland students.
The party at Scrocca’s house on Princeton Avenue in College Park that rainy Friday night was a big one. Someone was celebrating a birthday. Guests played beer pong in the kitchen and did liquor shots through a big block of ice in the backyard. Lots of people crowded onto the covered porch out front.
Scrocca, a finance major three weeks from graduating, was in and out of the party—he wasn’t one to sit still. Nobody knows for sure, but he probably missed whatever altercation happened outside his house, whatever caused a drunk freshman walking by to get angry and come back.
Scrocca was in his second-floor bedroom when the freshman—a cellular-biology and genetics major who had grown up on the Eastern Shore—poured gasoline onto the couch on Scrocca’s wooden porch, ignited it, and ran.
Mike Scrocca’s parents would later hear there were marks in the soot on the windows of their son’s room—evidence that he’d tried to escape. It was nearly a year before they found out what really happened that night, but other people around the Maryland campus, good kids from good backgrounds, knew all along.
It’s hard to know what happens when college kids get together and kegs are tapped. The freshman, Daniel Murray, told coworkers later that night that several guys had made fun of him when he walked by a house party carrying a pink umbrella; he later told police he might have been pushed. Nobody who was at the party has acknowledged that incident, but investigators believe it happened. Something set Murray off, they say.
The fire killed Scrocca and left one of his housemates critically injured after jumping from a third-story window. The next day, before he heard someone had died, Murray told a coworker at R.J. Bentley’s, a popular College Park bar and restaurant, that he’d lit something on fire the night before. That coworker, conflicted by what he’d heard, sought advice from five friends.
As police searched for an arsonist and Scrocca’s family handed out reward fliers around campus, Murray went to class and hung out with his girlfriend. None of the students with information about the fire said a word.
Mary Scrocca was visiting her parents in Pennsylvania when her cell phone rang around 10 pm on Friday, April 29, 2005—the night of the party. It was her son Mike calling from school.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Mike said. “Why?”
“Because it’s 10 o’clock on a Friday night—why aren’t you out?”
Mike usually called home to New Jersey on Sundays; sometimes he and his mom talked three times a week. He had called one night from the road sophomore year and asked her to look up a street name in Philadelphia. He was on a scavenger hunt for the fraternity he was pledging, he told her, and had to steal the street sign. “Don’t worry about it, Mom,” he’d said.
Mike was often reassuring his mother he’d be fine. He’d started at Maryland just before September 11, 2001, and a few weeks later a tornado killed two students in College Park. During the sniper attacks, Mary would tell her son she didn’t want him out driving. “Mom, run the numbers,” he would say. “Nothing’s going to happen to me.”
On this night, Mike was calling for his dad, Tony. A friend was having computer problems, and Mike knew that Tony, a computer analyst, could help.
“I love you,” Mike said to his dad before he hung up. He always said that when he called home.
Mary’s phone rang again the next morning. It had been ringing and ringing, but she hadn’t heard it. Tony picked up—it was his wife’s sister.
“I need for you and Mary to be in the same room,” she said.
Tony handed her the phone: “It’s your sister—something’s wrong.” Mary thought the call had to be about Tony’s mother.
“There was a fire at Mike’s house last night,” her sister said, “and he didn’t make it.”
Mary dropped the phone and fell to the floor.
Mike Scrocca’s housemates didn’t think he was home the night of the fire. His bedroom door was closed, and his car wasn’t parked outside. He usually checked to see if people were awake when he came home, no matter what time it was, to see if anyone wanted to hang out. Friends had seen him leave the house when the party was winding down and assumed he’d slept somewhere else.
Scrocca had run into the sister of a friend from high school that night and offered to drive her home because it was raining. While he walked her into the apartment building where she was staying, his car got towed, so he went to a friend’s place nearby.
He and his buddies hung out and laughed about Scrocca’s car. It was 3 in the morning and everyone was half asleep, so Scrocca asked if he could crash there. His friends said sure, but they only had a loveseat, a tight fit for someone almost six feet tall. They told Scrocca he’d be more comfortable in his own bed, so he decided to go home.
Nobody at Scrocca’s house heard him come in. His best friend, Steve Blumberg, who lived down the hall, went to bed around 4 and smelled smoke a few minutes later. As the smoke detector sounded, Blumberg heard someone on the first floor screaming, “Fire! Fire! Get out of the house!” Blumberg grabbed his cell phone and dialed 911.
He knew one of his housemates was at his girlfriend’s and another was out of town, and he thought Scrocca was out, so he banged on the other doors yelling, “Fire—everybody get out!” He tried to scream loudly enough and make enough noise so his housemate, Stephen “Tex” Aarons, who lived upstairs, could hear him.
Smoke filled the stairwell as Blumberg ran downstairs and saw the front right side of the house engulfed in flames. It was hard to breathe. When he got outside, he saw Aarons being taken away on a stretcher. He kept calling Scrocca’s cell phone to see where he was and tell him what had happened.
When Mike Scrocca was looking at colleges, he spent 15 minutes on the College Park campus before he turned and said to his dad, “This is it—this is where I want to go.”
Mary worried about Mike going to such a big university, but she saw his confidence blossom at Maryland. He pledged a fraternity and spent a semester in Spain. He’d walk into the gym and ask taller guys to play basketball. He made so many groups of friends that some of them hadn’t met until his funeral. He was known for quoting his favorite movie, Top Gun: “You can be my wingman anytime.”
Mary and Tony came to College Park a few times a year, often for football games. Two weeks before the fire, they’d driven to Baltimore to meet Mike, ten of his friends, and his brother, Brian, at Camden Yards. Mike had grown up idolizing Cal Ripken; his dad and brother were Yankees fans. The Orioles swept the Yankees that weekend, and they all hung out in the Inner Harbor. Mike called home later and said, “Mom, that was the best weekend of my life.”
After graduation, he’d planned to start a job in the internal-audit department at Johnson & Johnson, where he’d interned, about 15 minutes from his parents’ house.
The last time he visited home, he sat in the backyard and talked to his mom about the future. Things were getting serious now, he told her, and he’d have to make some important decisions. He said he’d soon meet the girl he was going to marry.
According to witness statements, Daniel Murray came into R.J. Bentley’s the morning after the fire and told a coworker named Adam what he’d done. He and Adam, who weren’t close friends, were at work early to set up R.J. Bentley’s stand for a Taste of College Park event. They were sharing stories of their drunk Friday nights.
Murray said he had been walking from a party to R.J. Bentley’s, where he often hung out when he wasn’t working, when three or four guys started harassing him and broke his umbrella; police could never confirm any type of assault. Murray described himself as “crazy, blackout drunk” and explained how he went back later with a gas can and lit the couch on fire where those guys had been sitting.
Adam wasn’t the first person Murray talked to. Just before he started the fire, Murray had called a friend who was working at R.J. Bentley’s that night and asked him to come help fight some guys who’d made fun of him. When the friend said no, Murray had come back to the bar “riled up,” according to a witness.
One coworker heard Murray talk about burning something and told him to “chill out” and have a beer. Murray called his friend again later and mentioned finding gasoline in a garage and lighting a porch on fire.
None of Adam’s coworkers from R.J. Bentley’s contacted police. According to Bill Billiet, a former R.J. Bentley’s employee who lived with Murray in the year leading up to his arrest, they didn’t take Murray seriously.
“I remember for like a week after that, everybody was kind of joking with Danny like, ‘Ha—I know you started that fire, and I’m going to rat you out,’ ” says Billiet, “and he’s like, ‘Shut up—I didn’t.’ After about two weeks, everybody stopped talking about it.”
Billiet wasn’t at work that night, but the rumors he heard around the bar—the talk of Murray getting in a fight and burning something—didn’t mesh with the Danny Murray he knew. He thought of Murray as a quiet guy—the kind who would pull over and help a stranger change a tire. He’d never seen him get rowdy.
“It sounds stupid now that we know he did it,” says Billiet. “It sounds incredible that you would hold on to that information. But I genuinely thought, ‘No way—not in a million years could he have done it.’ ”
A few hours after Murray told Adam the details of what he’d done, someone at work said there had been a deadly fire the night before.
Adam later told police that Murray gave him “a look” and that they never spoke of it again.
Daniel Murray had never been in trouble. At the time of the fire, according to court documents, he was living with his grandparents in Hyattsville and working part-time as a barback at R.J. Bentley’s. He’d spent time in community college before transferring to Maryland.
Murray’s family had moved from Prince George’s County to Hurlock, Maryland, a small town in Dorchester County 90 miles east of DC, when he was two. He had grown up with a stay-at-home mom and walked to school a few blocks away. He played Little League and sang in the church choir. When he got injured playing high-school soccer, he started swimming competitively.
In letters to the judge involved in their son’s case, Murray’s parents—who declined to be interviewed for this story—described him as an outstanding student who got along with teachers, coaches, and peers. They wrote about his good morals and character.
His sister, Caitlin, called her younger brother “a kind, generous, intelligent, hilarious person.” She recalled a time when she was crying after a breakup and Danny came into her room to give her a hug.
“The feeling I got was they’d done everything right with Daniel—provided everything he ever needed, got him a good education,” says Prince George’s County detective Ben Brown.
“There are sides of all of us that people don’t know,” prosecutor John Maloney says. “Can you imagine setting a fire, killing someone, and going on about your life? I don’t think most people could do that. He did.”
The day after Daniel Murray told Adam about the fire, Adam called a friend, Jen, and said he’d heard a weird story at work. “I’m going to tell you,” she remembers him saying, “but you can’t tell a single person.”
According to Jen, Adam told her that a coworker had told him he’d gotten really drunk and started a house fire, but the guy had made it seem as though he might have dreamed it.
“You should call somebody,” Jen said.
Adam said he didn’t want to get involved. What if this person—he didn’t tell her Daniel Murray’s name—was making it up? What if Adam messed up this kid’s life? He was a good guy, Adam said, and he couldn’t see him doing something like this.
“But you should tell the police just to check it out,” Jen said.
Adam didn’t want to, and she didn’t want to push him. It was May, and they had final exams to worry about. She asked him who else he’d told. Three other people, he said.
It wasn’t long before Jen knew the story was real. The news reports mentioned a gas can, like the one Adam’s coworker had told him about.
Says Jen: “I remember him saying, ‘I wish I had never heard. I wish he had never come in and said anything. I wish I didn’t work that day.’ ”
Jen wanted to go to the candlelight vigil for Scrocca, but she couldn’t. It was only a day after Adam had told her he knew who started the fire, and she’d been trying to act normal, but she thought maybe people could tell.
“I was scared I was giving off this vibe,” she says.
She would read stories about Scrocca and start to cry. She would have nightmares that her house was burning and she couldn’t get out. Everywhere she went, people were talking about the fire.
“I could have answered all their questions,” Jen says. “I just would sit there so quietly. I wanted to yell out, ‘I know what happened!’ ”
She sent Adam links to articles in the campus newspaper, the Diamondback, to make sure he saw them. Adam’s the one who knows the name, she thought; it would be better coming from him.
“I can’t,” he’d say.
“He didn’t know what to do,” Jen says. “He knew he was the only one that Daniel told. There was no one to back up his story.” Soon the subject was off limits.
A month after the fire, Jen wrote a pros-and-cons list. If she came forward, she could bring an end to the case and help Scrocca’s parents heal. But she’d be betraying Adam’s trust. And what if somehow it wasn’t really this kid who had done it? What if this got turned around on her?
What would she tell police—that she knew somebody who knew somebody who had said these things about the fire? She decided that wasn’t enough.
“I barely knew life away from home, let alone getting involved in a murder case,” Jen says. “The only thing you know is what you see on Law & Order. You don’t expect to ever be faced with it.”
She saw reward signs posted in a bagel shop near campus. The Scroccas were offering $25,000 along with another $25,000 from Crimesolvers. The money sounded good but didn’t sway her.
That fall she saw Scrocca’s dad, whom she recognized from the Diamondback, handing out fliers at a Maryland football game. She didn’t take one.
Mike Scrocca’s parents thought the fire was an accident. So did his housemates. People had been smoking on the porch—maybe someone had dropped a cigarette on a couch cushion and walked away.
About 200 people gathered for a memorial service at the university’s chapel in early May. Some wore a T-shirt with a photo of Mike Scrocca on it.
After the service, Prince George’s County fire spokesman Mark Brady told Tony and Mary Scrocca he needed to speak to them privately. A dog had sniffed gasoline on the porch, he said; investigators were ruling the fire an arson. He wanted them to hear it from him before they saw it on the news.
“It made it all so much worse,” says Mary, who had washed her son’s shirts over and over again to try to get the smoke out. “Somebody did it on purpose.”
The Scroccas met with detectives that day at the Cornerstone Grill and Loft, next to R.J. Bentley’s. When Mary told her son Brian that the fire was arson, he punched a campus stop sign.
People called Brian and Mike “Irish twins”—they were best friends, only a year apart. Arson had already crossed Brian’s mind: He remembered driving around College Park seeing businesses his brother said had been burned down. He wondered if the same arsonist had done this. He knew his brother didn’t have enemies.
“I just really wanted answers,” Brian says. “I knew right away it was gonna be very difficult—there’d be no eyewitnesses at 4 in the morning.”
A few months later, the Scroccas hired private investigator Steve Kerpelman, who’d spent 21 years with the Prince George’s County police. Kerpelman and his staff went door to door and interviewed more than 100 people.
Every lead fell through: There was talk that one of Scrocca’s housemates had thrown a guy out of the party, but nobody could confirm that. Someone falsely reported seeing an African-American man walking down the street with a gas can.
“Everybody thought that somebody saw somebody with someone else’s girlfriend,” says Kerpelman. “Just a bunch of different rumors we had to keep running down.”
He and his staff asked all of the partygoers they interviewed whether they’d seen or heard an argument—but nobody had. Kerpelman stopped in at R.J. Bentley’s while passing out fliers in College Park, but nobody mentioned Daniel Murray.
“You’ve got all these people at this house throughout the night, and nobody sees anything,” Kerpelman says.
Daniel Murray moved in with Bill Billiet and five other guys in August 2005, a few months after the fire. Billiet had gotten to know Murray at work and had an empty room.
Billiet didn’t want a housemate who smoked pot or had weird friends. He thought Murray seemed laid-back: When guys at work turned the sprinklers on while Murray was carrying coolers underneath them, leaving him soaked, he’d laughed about it.
Billiet says Murray started dating his girlfriend, Amy, who also worked at R.J. Bentley’s, that fall. He stopped hanging around the bar as much.
“They were really serious about each other,” Billiet says. “Definitely in love.”
Billiet says Amy—who declined an interview request—couldn’t have known what Murray had done: “I know he never told her because that would have freaked her out.”
During the nine months they lived together, Billiet didn’t notice anything strange about Murray. He says Murray spent most of his time with Amy. He listened to music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam and had a guitar. He watched sports and studied a lot.
“I think Danny was really focused on passing that test he’d have to take to get into medical school,” says Billiet, “really trying to do well.”
Looking back, Billiet says, maybe Murray was quieter. Maybe he didn’t go out as often. Billiet can’t remember seeing him drunk that year.
“I didn’t think anything about it because he wasn’t a real wild guy before, but maybe that made him a little more serious,” says Billiet. “There probably weren’t ten minutes that it wasn’t on his mind. I’m sure there’s just that gnawing fear that one day the cops are going to come knocking.”
As the year went on, Jen’s thoughts about the fire faded. It was hard passing by the house on Princeton Avenue, but she didn’t know Scrocca and didn’t know the person who’d killed him. She assumed the police would figure things out.
Adam called her one day in May, about a year after the fire.
“Somebody told,” she remembers him saying. “It’s all coming out.”
Adam told Jen that a detective had come to his door when he wasn’t home. He warned her that he’d given the police the names of everyone he’d talked to.
“Can I at least know who this kid is?” Jen asked.
After he told her, she went home and looked at Murray’s profile on Facebook. His girlfriend looked familiar to her. He seemed like a regular kid: He had lots of people posting on his message wall; he was smiling in pictures.
Jen thought: How can you be a cell-biology and genetics major and kill somebody?
She wondered if Daniel had ever told Amy. Or whether he’d read the stories in the Diamondback, especially the quotes from Scrocca’s mother.
“I don’t understand how you can live every day of your life, reading every article I read, knowing that you had done it,” Jen says. “Because I didn’t do it—I just knew about it—and I could barely live with myself at times.”
An anonymous tip came in to the Crimesolvers hotline in April 2006, around the one-year anniversary of Scrocca’s death. Detective Brown had been telling the Scroccas not to give up. He’d said that five years might go by before somebody came forward and that sometimes media coverage around an anniversary got people talking.
Both Brown and Kerpelman, the private investigator, received a similar message from a young woman calling from a phone booth.
The woman said she’d heard about the fire from a friend, who’d heard from someone else. She’d confronted the person from whom the information originally came—presumably Adam—and asked if it was true that he knew who’d started the fire. He said no, that he had been joking, but she didn’t believe him. She gave him an ultimatum: If he didn’t go to police, she would.
Says Kerpelman: “She was adamant in this message: ‘Do not let the police drop this. Make sure they investigate.’ ”
The caller, a student, gave police Daniel Murray’s name. They found him on Facebook.
“Somebody like Daniel’s not in our database,” Brown says. “He’s never been stopped in Prince George’s County.”
Brown convinced the tipster to meet with him, then got Adam’s name and knocked on his door. When nobody answered, he left his business card.
Brown says he heard from Adam’s father the next day. Soon Brown had witness reports from the five friends Adam had confided in, along with statements from Murray’s coworkers. At the police station, Adam told Kerpelman he was sorry it had taken him so long to come in.
“You didn’t come in,” Kerpelman said. “The police had to bring you in.”
It was a week and a half before Brown could make the arrest. He talked to the instructor during Murray’s biology lab. “Can you point him out?” Brown asked.
Soon there were television crews outside Murray’s apartment. When Billiet asked what was going on, someone told him, “Your roommate’s in jail for murder.”
The first thing Daniel Murray asked for during his six-hour police interrogation was a glass of milk.
“You don’t want some food?” Brown asked. “Like hamburger and fries?”
Brown, a Maryland alum, saw a little of himself in Murray: a college kid who’d been involved in sports and scouts. He was expecting Murray “to set the record straight and try and make up for what he’d done.”
Murray spent the first few hours saying that he didn’t remember getting in a fight that night or where he was or talking to Adam about a fire.
“Have you blocked it out of your mind?” Brown asked. “Is that what you’re trying to tell me—that it’s possible that you did it and you blocked it out?”
“No,” Murray said.
“Well, how would you tell Adam that?”
“Maybe I was still drunk. I don’t know.”
At one point during questioning, Murray told the detective he was shaking; later he said he was going to throw up. After taking three bathroom breaks, Murray confessed, through tears, to starting the fire that killed Scrocca:
“Somehow I wound up at Bentley’s, and they closed, and I left. And I went back. I took a broom or something. There was a broom on the side of the house, and I went on the porch. I forget why I had matches. I think they were from Bentley’s, and I just had them in my pocket. And I lit the broom on fire, and tossed it on the couch.” He denied using a gas can.
Brown asked: “Once you found out somebody died, I mean, how did that—did you just decide to keep it in and not tell anybody?”
“I stopped eating,” Murray said. “I stopped sleeping . . . .”
During a motions hearing in October 2006, a few months after his family hired attorney William Brennan—who has also represented Lee Boyd Malvo, convicted in the 2002 Washington-area sniper case—Murray testified that his confession had been coerced. He described his statement of guilt as “a lie.” Neither Brennan nor Murray responded to requests for an interview.
“They both kept asking me questions, in particular if I knew what happened to white kids when they go to jail, particularly young boys,” Murray said. “They told me that I was going to be raped. . . . I could be killed in jail. They kept telling me: Think about my family, think about my girlfriend.”
The judge postponed a ruling on whether Murray’s confession was admissible. As the court proceedings went on, Brown found Murray harder to figure out—maybe, he says, because life on a cellblock was taking its toll.
“He seemed to develop into somebody I didn’t think he was,” Brown says. “It has to make you wonder: Was that the real him all along, or did he change?”
When Jen looked through the peephole and saw police officers outside her door, she started shaking.
“We’re here about the Daniel Murray case,” one said.
She noticed their guns. Someone asked her to write down everything she remembered. She cried as she wrote. She learned she’d have to appear in front of a grand jury.
Jen was glad it was over—that Scrocca’s parents had answers. But she was scared she’d get in trouble because she hadn’t come forward. She called a friend who was in law school and asked, “Is there anything they can do to me?”
After word got out that other students had known about the fire, Jen shut down her Facebook profile. She went to the student judicial center, where she was told that if her name was in public court documents, there was nothing she could do to stop it from getting out.
“I was afraid somebody was going to come after me,” she says. “One of Michael’s friends or somebody that knew Daniel.”
Soon a Diamondback headline read police: six knew about Murray’s involvement.
“It makes me really mad when I read about what the people who knew must have thought and how they could know for so long and not say anything,” says Jen, who has saved the Diamondback articles about the case.
She says that people think they know what they’d do if they were in her shoes but that “they don’t know what it was like to know. They weren’t there.”
Jen has thought about contacting Scrocca’s parents. But more than two years have passed since Murray’s arrest, and she hasn’t tried to talk with them.
“I don’t know how they’ll react,” she says. “I’m afraid they’ll be angry.”
She does know what she’d say: “How sorry I am.”
There’s a poster hanging in the lobby near Ben Brown’s office at police headquarters that reads SOLVE A CRIME. BE A SUPERHERO. YOUR IDENTITY STAYS SECRET.
As a homicide detective in Prince George’s County, Brown is used to cases where people who know about a crime won’t talk. There are times, he acknowledges, when talking might mean putting their lives on the line.
But this case was different. There weren’t gangs involved. These were college students who weren’t being threatened.
Says Brown: “I asked them, out of my own curiosity, ‘Explain to me how you could keep this a secret.’ The general answer was ‘I just didn’t want to be involved.’ You’d think one of them would have said, ‘You have to tell somebody. This isn’t some stupid drunken story—a life was lost.’ ”
Brown asked Adam if he went back and questioned Murray after hearing him admit he’d set the fire.
“He just never did,” Brown says. “It never came up again. He barely knew him; why would he want to protect him?”
The other guys working at the bar that night did question Murray, Brown says, but when he said he didn’t do it, they turned it into a joke. “Somebody had to have their suspicions,” he says.
Brown doesn’t know where the case would stand today if it hadn’t been for one of Adam’s friends telling someone else. “What’s interesting to me,” he says, “is that $50,000 was out there and not one of them was interested in that, either.”
The woman who called in the tip tried to refuse the reward money—she later told Mary Scrocca she was only doing what anybody should have done—but police convinced her to take the $25,000 from Crimesolvers. She didn’t want anybody knowing her name. Mary has never even told her husband.
Brown couldn’t charge anyone other than Murray with a crime. Adam and his friends were never questioned by police, so they weren’t technically withholding evidence. It’s not against the law in Maryland to have knowledge of a crime and not report it.
“I think people do that in most of the crimes we can’t solve,” says prosecutor John Maloney, now a deputy state’s attorney for Montgomery County.
Mary Scrocca remembers the first time she saw Daniel Murray. It was at a bond hearing in May 2006, soon after his arrest. She and Tony were sitting in a small courtroom waiting for the judge to rule on another case. The back door opened, and the police walked in with a guy in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs.
Mary screamed, “Oh, my God!” She’d been told Murray wouldn’t be there that day.
He’s just a skinny kid, she thought.
She’d known for nearly a year that somebody set the fire, and for a while she’d wanted that person dead. Now he was in the same room, and so was his family. Now there were faces.
“There was a part of me, as a mother, that was like, ‘He’s just a kid,’ ” Mary says. “I felt for his parents. I felt for his sister. But I don’t have Michael—and he caused that.”
Mary says Murray’s relatives didn’t react to her hysterics in the courtroom. They stared straight ahead.
At later hearings, she’d see his mother and sister talking and smiling before the judge came in.
“I had to leave the room,” Mary says.
She’d notice Murray turn to his girlfriend and laugh in court. Brian would see him rolling his eyes.
The state’s attorney’s office started listening to Murray’s phone conversations in October 2006, about six months after his arrest.
His parents or his girlfriend would answer the phone and hear this: “You have a collect call from Daniel Murray at the Prince George’s County Correctional Center. This call may be monitored or recorded. To accept the charges for this call, press 1.”
Maloney was struck by what he heard. Murray would talk to his dad about Maryland sports scores. He’d ask his girlfriend about classes and which of their friends were hooking up. He didn’t seem like someone who had killed somebody.
“Danny, what should we eat?” Amy asked during a call in October when she was deciding what to cook.
“Penne or what kind of pasta—ziti?” Danny said.
Amy told him it would be penne with vodka sauce. “They both sound ridiculously good right now,” he said.
Murray was polite and often upbeat on the phone. He was often telling Amy how much he missed her and asking if she’d gotten his letters. He called his grandmother to check on her. He thanked his mom for little things, like adding money to his phone account, and told his parents he loved them.
“Love you, too, buddy,” his dad once said. “Hasn’t changed, and it won’t.”
Murray described his days as filled with boredom—sleeping, watching television, waiting for visits. He raved about eating some pancakes. He told his mom he’d been praying.
In the beginning, Murray didn’t say much about the case. He didn’t mention the Scroccas. He got concerned when Amy told him about a story in the Diamondback.
“Did it look really bad?” he asked. “Was it like a horrible article that I’ll never want to read, ever?”
He thought he’d be home by Thanksgiving.
“God, I’m so ready to get out of here, Caitlin,” he said in a call to his sister in early November, when he was hopeful his confession would be thrown out. “I got three weeks. Three weeks left in the slammer.”
In late 2005, before an arrest was made, Brian Scrocca left Thanksgiving dinner and drove to the cemetery. He couldn’t sit at his parents’ house when his brother wasn’t there.
He remembers thinking on the drive home that there was someone out there having dinner, laughing and passing the turkey, and that that person’s family didn’t realize they were sitting with a murderer.
Maloney used Murray’s behavior after the fire against him in court. “He lived a completely normal college life,” Maloney says. “That was significant for its lack of significance.” He would later call Murray a psychopath.
Bill Billiet has a different explanation for why his friend went on with his life: “I think he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in jail. It’s tragic what happened—it cost someone his life, and I don’t think that escaped him—but I’ve asked myself what I would do in that situation. There’s nothing you can do to bring him back, so it comes down to ‘Am I going to spend my life in jail or not?’ ”
He’s tried to imagine what Murray went through when he realized what he’d done. “You tried to light somebody’s couch on fire, and you killed someone,” says Billiet. “It doesn’t matter that you were drunk—you know you’re going to jail if you tell, even if it was an accident.”
Maloney can’t put a number on how much time Murray would have had to serve, if any, if he’d confessed right after the fire. Mary thinks he would have spent a few years in alcohol rehabilitation.
Says Maloney: “If he did this stupid thing and the next day walked in and said, ‘God, I screwed up. I got drunk—I didn’t know what I was thinking,’ it would have been a lot different.”
Daniel Murray played chess in jail with a man named Carlos Yates, who had beaten a murder conviction but was serving time on related charges. The state’s attorney’s office received a letter from Yates in October 2006 as Maloney was preparing to defend the legality of Murray’s confession.
“I am in the housing unit with Danny, the U.Md. student who killed the guy in the fire,” Yates wrote. “Danny told me some things about the case.”
The letter was the first in a string of setbacks for the defense. Prosecutors implanted a recording device in Yates’s cell and heard Murray tell Yates that there were no footprints or fingerprints, that nobody had said anything for a year, and that a Bentley’s coworker had told police Murray didn’t get violent when he was drunk.
“After this happened and I specifically learned that I killed somebody, I didn’t f----- go home, ya know, nothin’ happened,” Murray said. “I didn’t take a vacation. I didn’t quit college, I didn’t f------ quit going to class. I didn’t quit work.”
Investigators listened to Murray say he would pay another cellmate’s girlfriend $200 a month for the rest of her life if she’d lie to police about the night of the fire. Then they tracked down the letter Murray had sent her. In it, he told the girl exactly what to say and drew her a diagram of Princeton Avenue—marking Scrocca’s house with an X.
“You saw a black guy walk onto the porch with a gas can, a large two-gallon red one like you get at a gas station, and light something on fire on the left side of the porch,” Murray wrote. “. . . You forgot about it until you heard a college kid was arrested for it and it peeked your interest.”
The prosecution also found a letter Murray sent to his grandmother asking her to say he had come home early the night of the fire.
Says Maloney: “He kept digging his hole deeper and deeper.”
In January 2007, during a hearing about Daniel Murray’s confession, his attorney announced that he would plead guilty to first-degree murder. He’d face up to 40 years in jail. There would be no trial or any chance for an appeal.
In a phone call around the time of the plea agreement, Amy asked Danny what he was thinking.
“My life’s over,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody expected it to turn out this way,” he told her. “. . . They all think the judge is gonna have some kind of leniency because everybody in that courtroom knows that basically, if I did it, I don’t remember what the f--- I was doing, so like there’s no intent. . . . Everybody knows this was just the most horrible thing that could happen if somebody got drunk.”
Mary says that after the hearing, someone from the defense team asked Maloney if Daniel Murray’s father could speak to the Scroccas. Mary said okay—she’d always seen more emotion from him than she had from Murray’s mother.
“He said to me, ‘I don’t even know what to say—I’m just so sorry for your loss,’ and he was bawling,” Mary says. “He was a destroyed man.”
Both he and his wife gave Mary a hug; Tony put his hand up to show he didn’t want one.
“I will never forget seeing my beautiful son when his body arrived,” Tony Scrocca wrote in a letter to Judge Smith before Murray’s sentencing. “He was red like a lobster from the heat of the fire. Had he suffered? Did he know he was dying? . . . I wake up at night hearing Michael say, ‘Daddy, help me, please—help me, Daddy,’ but I can’t.”
The letter was one of hundreds that Scrocca’s friends and relatives sent to the judge before they packed the courtroom on March 30, 2007, nearly two years after the fire.
John Maloney told the court about the time Scrocca’s summer-league baseball team had lost a big game and his coach told the players not to shake their opponents’ hands—but Scrocca did it anyway.
Scrocca’s best friend, Steve Blumberg, talked about the what-ifs: What if he had banged on Scrocca’s door? What if Scrocca had taken a different room that year?
Stephen Aarons, who spent more than two weeks on a ventilator after the fire, described being trapped: “Imagine the blackest black you have ever seen, in the form of smoke just coming from you at all angles. You can’t even imagine it.”
Brennan told the court that his client was devastated when he heard someone had died—that Murray meant to set the couch on fire, not to burn the house or to harm anyone.
He cited Murray’s own statement that he’d had ten beers that night. “Does any of this excuse his conduct?” Brennan said. “Absolutely not. . . . But clearly it goes to the issue of intent.”
He described his client as an immature young man who had panicked at the prospect of life in prison and made bad judgments after his arrest. Brennan asked the judge to suspend all but 15 to 25 years of a life sentence: “To give Mr. Murray the opportunity to rehabilitate, to give Mr. Murray the opportunity, your honor, to make something of his life.”
Murray spoke last: “Your honor, I am terribly sorry for what I have done. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that what I did would hurt someone or intended to hurt anyone. I’m just sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry to everyone for everything.”
The judge sentenced Murray to a life term with all but 37½ years suspended. Anyone who lit a broom on fire and threw it onto a sofa would be able to foresee the consequences, he said, especially somebody as smart as Murray.
“Until 30 seconds ago,” the judge said, “I had never seen or heard any evidence whatsoever that this defendant had any remorse.”
He told the court that as he’d listened to Murray’s parents—who spoke of raising their son to understand the importance of church, family, friends, and making the right choices—he’d jotted down a note: From those to whom much is given, much is expected.
The Scroccas don’t talk about Daniel Murray. Mary has nothing to say to him. She says he didn’t look at her family during the sentencing.
“You would think he would have stood up and turned to us and just said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it,’ ” says Mary, who wears a necklace with a silhouette of her son’s photo.
They’re satisfied with his sentence. It gave them some closure, they say, though there’s never closure to their son’s life. When Murray is up for parole—in about 17 years—they’ll be there.
Says Mary: “He’ll never know what he took from us.”
She still wonders how so many people stayed quiet for so long. She hopes to meet Adam someday and find out. “I’ll never understand his decision,” she says.
Detective Brown still thinks about the case. He hasn’t spoken to Murray since the day he arrested him. He saw Murray’s parents at the sentencing and tried to put himself in their shoes.
“I would imagine he professed his innocence to them until the end,” Brown says. “I don’t know that for sure—but I would try and believe in my child if they were in the same situation.”
Brown has three kids, and two are scouts as Murray was. Brown thinks: Am I doing everything I should be doing?
They’re taught about being trustworthy and loyal, he says—values Murray was supposed to live by, too.
“Why didn’t he step up and do what was right?” Brown says. “I wonder that of all these kids.”
People in this article who are identified only by first names have been given pseudonyms to protect privacy or because they were promised confidentiality in exchange for cooperation.
This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here.