Slain pair were drawn to serving others

Margaret "Peg" Murta and Mary Corcoran's lifelong companionship was based on a shared love of social service, cocktails and dogs.

Both social workers, they served together at Family and Children's Services in Stamford, Conn.

Murta was the agency's executive director starting in 1968, and Corcoran was assistant executive director. When Murta retired in 1982, Corcoran led the agency until her retirement in 1989.

In the early 1970s, the two bought a home in a private Connecticut beach community on Rowayton Beach between Stamford and Norwalk. Two years ago, they made their way south to the Galloway Ridge retirement center in Fearrington Village.

They didn't want to burden friends or family as they grew older, so they moved to Galloway Ridge, which offers levels of elder care, said friend Dawn Sibley, who met them 30 years ago when she moved to Rowayton.

Last Wednesday morning, according to the Chatham County Sheriff's Office, Murta, 92, and Corcoran, 82, were attacked by their housekeeper in their terrace apartment. Murta died that night. Corcoran died Saturday at UNC Hospitals. Their friend and neighbor Rebecca Fisher, 77, was also bludgeoned in the attack. She was in stable condition Sunday night, according to a hospital official.

Barbara Clark, 41, was arrested and charged with beating all three women. A convicted felon, Clark already faces one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder and three counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. District Attorney Jim Woodall plans to file a second charge of first-degree murder against Clark today in connection with Corcoran's death.

Police said the assault started after the women met with Clark about stolen checks. Friends say Murta and Corcoran died and Fisher was gravely injured because they tried to help Clark.

"The saddest part is just they were trying to respect this woman and not get the police involved," Sibley said.

"They were social workers right to the bitter end," said Bob Short, a Connecticut social worker whom Murta and Corcoran hired in 1977.

Community matriarchs

Murta, born in Philadelphia, and Corcoran, from Summit, N.J., were popular in their Connecticut beach community.

"They were the matriarchs of the Rowayton Beach Association," said friend Frank Sinatra, who met them in 1988 and lived around the corner from them.

They went to the beach every summer day, carrying with them a bottle of Ketel One vodka for cocktails, Sibley said.

"They loved to sail, and they were the hit of parties," she said.

Murta and Corcoran traveled the world together. They went fly fishing in Alaska and frequently traveled to the island of Bequia, part of the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sibley said.

And they were passionate about political issues.

"They were ardent liberals," Sibley said. "You didn't ever want to discuss politics with them."

Touched many lives

Murta and Corcoran had a profound impact on the Stamford community through their work at Family and Children's Services, now called Family Centers.

They developed services for the Latino community in the 1970s, Short said. They created a program for teenage parents and outreach programs for abused or neglected children. They also initiated a housing coalition in an area that is among the costliest in the country, Short said.

"They were remarkable women, both of them," said Short, who is now vice president of the agency. "They touched the lives of a lot of people."

At work retreats they were the life of the party, he said.

"They were fun, bright women who were always fun to be with," he said.

Murta graduated from Bryn Mawr College, an exclusive women's liberal arts institution near Philadelphia, and the New York School of Social Work, Sibley said. Corcoran graduated from Middlebury College, a small private liberal arts school in Vermont.

After they moved to North Carolina, the women kept in touch with friends and former colleagues in Connecticut.

Peg Murta spoke to Bob Arnold, president of Family Centers, just four days before she was killed, Short said. She called to refer someone in need to the social service agency.

This week, several of Corcoran's nieces and her only surviving brother flew into town to be at her bedside. Neither Corcoran nor Murta had children.

Niece Clara Corcoran, who lives in Florida, said her aunt and Murta dedicated their lives to other people.

"They had a wonderful life," she said. "They were wonderful souls. They are the epitome of what the person who murdered Peg is not."

Corcoran said her aunt was beaten beyond recognition and never regained consciousness. She died Saturday surrounded by her family.

"I've never seen anything as horrible in my life," her niece said. "She was beyond hope."

Gathering to remember

Before Murta and Corcoran moved to North Carolina, about 100 of their Rowayton friends celebrated Murta's 90th birthday at a neighbor's house.

Soon, friends will gather for a memorial service, and to share their favorite memories of Murta and Corcoran.

At the Connecticut service, Sibley plans to tell a story about their beloved Portuguese water dog, Pepipa.

One day Pepipa got out and headed for a neighbor's tomato plants. Sibley and Murta chased. The dog ate the tomatoes while Murta tore up the plants trying to get to the dog.

"We never admitted it was us," Sibley said with a chuckle. "We blamed it on raccoons."

Murta and Corcoran will be cremated, then buried in Corcoran's family plot in Summit, N.J. The burial is set for April 5, which would have been Corcoran's 83rd birthday.

Both women will be missed, Sibley said. "They were my family. They taught me there is a lot to enjoy in life."