Four days after Peconic teen Ashley Murray, 16, went missing without a trace, friends and loved ones are frantically questioning what in her young life led to her decision to leave home.
Ashley's mother, Charlotte Murray, said on Monday that her daughter left a suicide note.
Some believe Ashley might have been bullied. At a gathering of friends and supporters organized to hand out flyers in Southold on Thursday, friend Brianne Catapano said Ashley had been a victim of bullying since at least seventh grade.
Since she was younger, Catapano said Ashley had been bullied for a number of reasons, including her physical appearance, dress, and hearing aids she wears.
"Kids are cruel," she said.
Ashley's brother, Jaime Cradehl, addressed the bullying speculation Thursday night. "As far as bullying is concerned, I think we can all agree that it is debilitating and abhorrent. However, I don't know of many teenagers who haven't dealt with it, and even Ashley found herself on both sides of that fence."
Cradehl said he and others believe that perhaps Ashley staged the suicide note -- that she might have run away and is staying with a friend or someone who might have come and helped her leave home. "That is the higher probability and what we have continued to believe."
Ashley's mother said Monday that the possibility existed that someone might have helped her daughter in leaving home.
While Ashley's father has not commented publicly on his daughter's disappearance, family has confirmed his identity as Kenneth Payne III of Shelter Island.
Fifteen years ago, on April 27, 1998, Payne, then 42, shot and killed his longtime friend Curtis Cook, who had been arrested and charged with molesting an 8-year-old girl from their neighborhood two weeks earlier.
According to ABC News, Payne said he became worried about his then 15-month-old daughter and his girlfriend, whom he said Cook threatened. Armed with a .12-gauge shotgun, he walked over to Cook's cabin, which was behind his own, and confronted him.
An article in The New York Times following Payne's arrest refers to Charlotte Murray as Payne's girlfriend.
While he confessed to the crime, his conviction of depraved indifference murder was vacated. Six years into his sentence, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled the charge did not apply to the crime. Because Payne was found not guilty at the same trial on a more serious charge of intentional murder, prosecutors could not try him, again. He was released from prison and returned to Shelter Island in October 2004.
On Thursday, Cradehl said Payne "has not had contact with Ashley in years. He is her father by blood and no more. They shared no relationship and we don't know where he is."
Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said Thursday that police had been in touch with her father and, since Ashley has ties on Shelter Island, "have been actively exploring the Shelter Island connection since the very beginning."
Payne could not immediately be reached for comment and at least one of his family members, who asked not to be identified, would not comment.
But as questions about Ashley's disappearance continue to arise among Ashley's anguished friends, a crowd gathered outside Southold High School Thursday afternoon to form a search party in the hopes of bringing missing Peconic teen Ashley Murray home safely.
Everyone present shared a message of love for Ashley, and a plea to bring her home safely.
"Everyone rallying together is truly a sight to behold," Cradehl said. "The irony is Ashley ran away thinking people wouldn't be there for her, and here they all are."
The search party, which was organized by Catapano, founder of the Facebook page, "Ashley Come Home," canvassed the area with flyers in the hopes that someone might recognize the 16-year-old, who went missing Monday.
Catapano said she had been told by Southold Town police that they were not able to do a traditional search, because the investigation is ongoing and such a search might "contaminate" evidence.
"We have to let the police do their work," Catapano said. Handing out flyers, she added that volunteers should distribute them around Southold, Greenport, the East End, or anywhere that might help. "We just want to spread the word," she said. "We want to make sure her face is known."
Rather than focusing on the uncertainty, Catapano said she is channeling all her energy into helping to find her friend. "I feel she's still out there and we will find her," she said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Southold Town police issued a missing person update on Ashley.
The release stated that police are continuing to search for Ashley ,who was last seen at about 8 a.m.. on Monday at her Spring Lane home in Peconic.
Ashley is described as a white female, about 5'4" tall, weighing about 140 lbs. She has brown to redish brown hair, blue eyes and has a scar on her right wrist.
Ashley wears hearing aids in both ears, the release said. She was last seen wearing a black and gray hooded sweatshirt, red sweatpants and black boots.
Southold police said they have received dozens of tips from the public and are currently following up on a number of leads.
The investigation is being conducted with the assistance of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, several other East End police departments, as well as Suffolk County and New York State Law Enforcement Agencies.
A Missing Person Alert, which includes photographs of Ashley can be viewed on the town website by clicking here.
Investigators are encouraging anyone with any information about the whereabouts of Ashley Murray to contact the Southold Town Police Department at (631)765-2600. All calls will be kept confidential and any assistance is appreciated.
Murray, said her daughter's suicide note claimed she was upset with the world, mentioning a "watery grave" and a stranger "taking her to a deep abyss."
Murray said her daughter had posted dark Facebook status updates, saying that she was "no longer afraid," and "was just going to do it."
On Thursday morning, Murray said there had still been no word from her daughter, who left without important medication for anemia.
Murray said her daughter's last text, to another girl, was sent from Southold and also mentioned suicide.
When asked what she would say to her friend, if she could, Catapano said, "We all miss you, Ashley. We want you to come home." And, she added, "I'm going to do everything I can to find you."
Police said Friday morning an update on the investigation was expected to be issued by afternoon.