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The Fire, The Professor’s Wife, The Mystery…

When the mainstream media seizes on a story like the circus surrounding the death of Anna Nicole Smith and proceeds to chew away like an elderly dog trying to rend a rawhide chewtoy, other potentially fascinating and troubling news stories are overlooked. The following story is definitely in that category, in my opinion

The house at 19 French Road in South Kingstown, Rhode Island was going up in flames. More than 50 firefighters answered the call to fight the conflagration on the night of February 22, 2007. They were responding to a 911 call from neighbors of the address who heard the University of Rhode Island professor who lived there, Joseph Matoney, calling out, “Help, fire!”

First responders had been told there might be two people in the house, but it was empty. However, Kingston (RI) Fire Chief Nathan Barrington told reporters that there were three different fires set in the Matoney residence. Chainsaws were used to cut holes in the walls as the firefighters waged war on the inferno. In the end, the $300,000+ home was a complete loss.

As the fire died away and snow began to fall, people began to realize that Joseph Matoney’s wife, Adrianne Lynn Matoney, age 58, was missing. 1.

Joseph Matoney, a professor of Business Administration at the university, had apparently arrived home around 9 p.m. on the 22nd, having taught a late class at URI. He tried to enter the house, worried that his wife and 28-year-old son, also named Joseph, were inside. The smoke was too heavy, and he was nearly overcome. As he retreated from the fire he saw that his son’s and wife’s cars were gone.

Around 3 that morning, on a bridge connecting Portsmouth and Tiverton, Rhode Island, Lynn Matoney’s Toyota Camry was found. The Camry was locked, and Lynn Matoney nowhere in sight.

On February 23, Lynn Matoney was officially declared missing.

The announcement that Lynn Matoney was a missing person came even as arson investigators were combing through the ruins at 19 French Road. The sheer scope of the fire had clued them in to the possibility that it might have been intentionally set. On the 23rd, representatives of the Rhode Island state fire marshal’s office, the Union Fire District, and the University of Rhode Island crime lab were on the scene.

Earlier that day the U.S. Coast Guard and a pair of local fire departments had searched the waters around Portsmouth and Tiverton, spurred by the tell-tale location of Lynn Matoney’s vehicle. They’d called off the search, begun before dawn, around 10 in the morning. 2.

The Matoneys were a pretty classic All-American family, according to friends and neighbors. Lynn Matoney went to swim meets with her children, worked with the Girl Scouts. The elder Joseph Matoney taught at URI and also ran an accounting business out of the Cape Cod-style home on French Road. Lynn, according to one neighbor, was great with kids.

A URI spokesperson told reporters that Lynn had also worked at the University between 1973 and 2000. In fact, a cursory search online shows that Lynn Matoney co-authored papers on various subjects, like this one that appeared to be related to toxicology, one of the areas in which she worked. Both Lynn and husband Joe were active, participating in 10k runs and road races, and sponsoring events like the 2004 URI AAR Golf Scholarship Tournament.

Joe Matoney also began teaching at URI in 1973, and he apparently has been a popular professor with media seeking information, quotes, punditry related to his specialty. Evidence from RateMyProfessors.com indicates he is not popular with students, however. In January, 2005, one student wrote the following about Matoney after taking his ACC311 accounting course: “He is evil!!!! Very, Very EVIL. He is absolutely no help at all and gets mad when you ask questions.”

Though Joe Matoney’s overall rating was poor quality, there were also comments like this one, made in 2004:

Awesome guy. Gets very excited in class, so you’ll never be bored. As long as you go to class and do the work, the class is easy and so are the exams. Plus, he scales grades, but doesn’t tell anyone about it.

Of course, college students can use the RateMyProfessors.com site to excoriate professors who are actually perfectly decent — yet Matoney’s ratings across 3 years were consistently low.

That may have nothing whatsoever to do with a housefire and his wife’s disappearance, however.

Yet the Matoney family spokesperson on February 23 was a former Rhode Island State attorney general, James O’Neil. And read one way, a statement made by the URI Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Beverly Swan, seems a little defensive: “Professor Joe Matoney is a longtime, valued member of the university community. He is a wonderful person, well liked by students and faculty. He has many friends at the university, and they have been reaching out to support him in any way possible (…) This is a tragedy, and our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family at this difficult time.” 3.

At the moment, authorities are still seeking information to help them determine Adrianne Lynn Matoney’s whereabouts. Though authorities have mentioned “collecting evidence” and cordoned off the burned-out Matoney home as a crime scene, they are not making public statements, yet. It is interesting to note that searches of the waters off Portsmouth will not continue, either. 4.

Interesting because the impression developed from the bare bones of the story is that Lynn Matoney might have set the fire, driven to the Sakhonet Bridge, and jumped off. Or someone else entered the home, abducted her, then set the fire to cover their tracks. Either way, the abandoned Camry on the bridge might lead one to think that whether she was thrown off or jumped, Lynn Matoney went into the water.

At least, that is what someone might want people to think.

Where is Lynn Matoney? What happened the night of the fire on French Road?

It’s the kind of thing you wonder about whether you want to or not.

UPDATE

In the interest of balance, I wanted to quote a blogger who knew the Matoneys. I won’t link her weblog to preserve some privacy. On February 25 this blogger posted about Lynn’s disappearance, and she wrote the following:

One of my mother’s best friends from Rhode Island has officially been declared missing after her house burned down on Friday night. Her car was found locked and abandoned near the top of a bridge and there has been no sign of a struggle. I know Lynn has been battling depression for a long time and, due to various health complications, is unable to take medication for it. Mom’s scared that Lynn committed suicide, though a search of the water hasn’t found anything to support that yet…

I felt this was worth noting because it was the first mention of depression I’d seen in connection with Lynn Matoney. Suspicion naturally falls on the next of kin in cases like this, and it wouldn’t be fair to them — Lynn Matoney’s husband and adult children — if I didn’t note this blog entry by someone who was aware of some problem with depression on Lynn’s part.

1. “Fire rages at house of URI professor,” The Good 5-cent Cigar, the University of Rhode Island student newspaper, February 23, 2007.
2. “Wife of URI professor missing after fire,” The Providence-Journal, February 23, 2007.
3. “Fire sparks a mystery,” The Providence-Journal, February 24, 2007.
4. “Still no lead on missing woman,” The Providence-Journal, February 27, 2007.