Local News

Relative's Computer Focused Search for Marine in Mexico

Posted April 11, 2008 5:23 a.m. EDT
Updated April 11, 2008 10:36 p.m. EDT

— A computer seized from his sister-in-law two weeks ago provided information that helped narrow the search in Mexico for a Camp Lejeune Marine indicted in the killing a pregnant comrade, authorities said Friday.

Cpl. Cesar Laurean is charged with murder in the December death of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, whose charred remains were found buried in his back yard three months ago.

Mexican authorities arrested Laurean Thursday at about 7:10 p.m. EDT in the small town of Tacambaro, Michoacan, which is between Mexico City and Guadalajara.

Laurean, 21, fled Jacksonville on Jan. 11, hours before Lauterbach's remains were discovered. He had been on the run since then, and authorities had concentrated their search in Mexico for much of that time. He was born in Mexico before moving to the U.S., and he has relatives there.

Capt. Rick Sutherland, of the Onslow County Sheriff's Office, said authorities had narrowed the focus of their search in recent weeks. He also said that a computer seized two weeks ago provided the FBI with valuable information in the search.

Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson confirmed to WRAL that the computer was taken from the sister of Laurean's wife, Christina Laurean. Investigators believe Christina Laurean had been using the computer since February to contact her husband over the Internet, he said.

The FBI was combing the computer for evidence of the messages that went back and forth, and charges could be filed if authorities determine information was being passed to Cesar Laurean to help him elude capture, Hudson said.

"Communicating with someone who's a fugitive in North Carolina is not against the law," he said. "To be an accessory after the fact to a crime, you have to do more than just communicate. Even knowing where the person is and not reporting it is not a crime."

Cesar Laurean repeatedly asked his wife and relatives for money and other resources to help him on the run, Sutherland said, but his wife refused to provide it, knowing it was illegal.

"She is torn between what occurred and her love for her husband," Hudson said.

"She did not participate in (Lauterbach's slaying). She did not assist in concealing the crime, and she did not help Cesar Laurean flee the area," said Chris Welch, her attorney. "The evidence shows that Christina Laurean did nothing wrong."

Christina Laurean is an active-duty Marine, and Welch said the Marines have told her not to comment on the case, which is why she hasn't come forward to publicly discuss what has happened over the past four months.

Pursuit Ends in a Small Mexican Town

Cesar Laurean told police he slept in fields and survived by eating fruit that he found during his three months on the run. Bearded, thin and chained at the wrists and ankles, Laurean spoke briefly with The Associated Press while being held at the Michoacan state Attorney General's Office in Morelia, the state capital.

He appeared slightly disoriented and stared straight ahead, his eyes occasionally filling up with tears as he answered a reporter's questions in terse phrases.

"You know my name. You know who I am," Laurean said. Asked if he wanted to say anything, Laurean answered, "Proof," but wouldn't explain.

Asked what he would do next, he replied, "Do I have a choice?... I don't know."

The FBI said Laurean is awaiting extradition to the U.S., although prosecutors in North Carolina cautioned the process could take a year or more if he decides to fight it.

Magdalena Guzman, a spokeswoman for the Michoacan, Mexico, state prosecutors office, said Mexican police carrying out an anti-kidnapping operation stopped Laurean because they thought he looked suspicious as he wandered on a street .

When they realized he didn't speak Spanish well, they became even more suspicious. After running his name through a computer – and recognizing his distinctive tattoos – they realized Laurean was wanted in the United States to face charges in Lauterbach's death

"He was walking down the street. He did not resist," said FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson. "We had FBI agents, (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) agents as well as the Mexican authorities (there) at the time."

Guzman said Laurean told the arresting officers he had only 10 pesos – about $1 – in his pocket when arrested.

Extradition could take two months to two years, depending on whether Laurean contests it, Hudson said.

"I'm very happy he was apprehended. Frankly, I'm disappointed he was arrested in Mexico and not in the United States," he said, noting authorities had evidence he was planning to return to the U.S. to visit family members.

Mexico has for decades resisted extraditing people to the U.S. if they could face capital punishment. Hudson said he had "reluctantly" agreed not to seek the death penalty against Laurean if was arrested in Mexico.

"I was hoping that we would, in fact, arrest him in America if he did (return), but unfortunately, he did not," Hudson said.

The maximum penalty Laurean could face if convicted would be life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Marine Corps also could file charges against Laurean, but that would need to be done before the extradition hearing takes place, Hudson said.

Search for Laurean Followed Search for Lauterbach

The Marines first began searching for Lauterbach, 20, on Dec. 17, after she failed to show up for work. Local authorities took up the case Dec. 19 after her mother reported her missing.

Three weeks later, officials found the burned remains of Lauterbach and her unborn child in a fire pit in Laurean's back yard near Camp Lejeune.

Lauterbach accused Laurean of rape last spring, a charge he denied and one that naval investigators were unable to corroborate. The Marines have said their regimental commander was intent on taking the case to a hearing that could have led to a trial.

Even though Lauterbach later told investigators she did not feel Laurean posed a danger or threat to her, the pair was separated on base. Lauterbach and Laurean were personnel clerks in the same logistics unit at Camp Lejeune.

Detectives believe Laurean killed Lauterbach, who was eight months pregnant, on Dec. 14 after forcing her to remove money from her bank account.

Laurean left a note for his wife, Christina, that said Lauterbach slit her own throat with a knife and he buried her in the woods near their home. An autopsy found that Lauterbach died of blunt force trauma to the head.

An Onslow County grand jury indicted Laurean on chargers of first-degree murder, financial card theft, attempted financial card fraud, fraud and robbery with a dangerous weapon.

Sutherland said authorities continued to build a case against Laurean while searching for him.

"During the last couple of months, the homicide investigators have built what we feel is an extremely strong case that we will be able to present to the district attorney to use when he criminally tries Laurean sometime in the future," Sutherland said.

Lauterbach Family Stunned by Arrest

Maria Lauterbach's mother said she was in a state of shock when learning of Laurean's capture. She said she's convinced Laurean killed her daughter.

"I'm a great believer ... in the American system of justice, where you have a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. But in my heart of hearts, I do believe he is (guilty)," Mary Lauterbach said.

She said she always questioned the validity of a note found in her daughter's apartment after she disappeared that said Maria Lauterbach was leaving Camp Lejeune. The pair had earlier discussed a visit they were going to have the following weekend, Mary Lauterbach said.

"I don't know if that was written under duress. Some of the language is off for her. I don't know what the real story about that is," she said. "I do know that I spoke to her that afternoon, just a couple of hours before that note was found, and in no way did she indicate to me she was getting ready to leave."

Onslow County Sheriff Ed Brown said he knew Laurean would be caught eventually, but said the arrest happened sooner than he expected.

"He has to be lucky every day. We have to be correct one day," Brown said. "The most rewarding thing ... was that I could call Maria Lauterbach's family – Mary and Victor – and report to them that Laurean had been captured."

Brown said Laurean would be treated like every other inmate in his jail.

"Cesar Laurean is not an animal. He's a human, and he's not a trophy," he said.

A woman who answered the phone at the home of Laurean's father-in-law, Bruce Shifflet, near Prospect, Ohio, hung up without commenting when told of the arrest by an AP reporter.