Defense: Slain Marine was untruthful
The trial of a former Camp Lejeune Marine charged with killing a pregnant comrade almost three years ago got off to a fast start Thursday, with the prosecutor describing a brutal crime and the defense attorney questioning the victim's emotional stability.Posted — Updated
Cesar Laurean is charged with killing Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, 20, of Vandalia, Ohio, and burning and burying her body in a fire pit in the backyard of his Jacksonville home in December 2007.
Lauterbach, who was nearly eight months pregnant at the time of her death, had accused Laurean of raping her in the spring of 2007. She later recanted the allegation, but the Marines continued to investigate the case until her death.
Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson said in his opening statement that blood stains that matched Lauterbach's DNA were found inside Laurean's garage and on a crowbar he had given to a neighbor.
Two days after Lauterbach was last seen alive, Hudson told jurors, Laurean bought cinder blocks to build the backyard fire pit. He also used her bank card to withdraw money from an ATM, Hudson said.
After Lauterbach's body was found, he said, Laurean was "nowhere to be found."
Laurean fled Jacksonville hours before Lauterbach's remains were discovered in January 2008. He left behind a note saying that she had killed herself and that he had buried her out of fear.
An autopsy determined that she was killed by a blow to the head and that a slash on her throat was superficial, Hudson said.
An international manhunt led to Laurean's arrest in April 2008 in rural Mexico. In order to extradite him to North Carolina, Hudson promised Mexican authorities that he wouldn't seek the death penalty against Laurean.
Defense attorney Dick McNeil told jurors in his opening statement that "life is not generally black and white" and said prosecutors wouldn't be able to show any premeditation in Lauterbach's slaying.
Lauterbach had a history of lying and theft, and her false rape accusation against Laurean threatened his military career, McNeil said.
"Her mental make-up led her to some fantasies," McNeil said, adding that Lauterbach's pregnancy left her under a great deal of stress.
He questioned why Lauterbach would have gone to the home of the man she accused of rape and suggested that she might have confronted Laurean's wife, not Laurean.
Hudson objected to McNeil's statements, but Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith said he would give McNeil some latitude to argue a lack of premeditation.
“We’re not trying at all to minimize her death, but it’s important for you to understand the circumstances,” McNeil told jurors.
Marines testify about Laurean, Lauterbach
Eleven witnesses testified Thursday, including Chip Coble, a special agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, who described for jurors in graphic detail how the remains of Lauterbach and her fetus were found buried about 20 inches below ground along with burned pieces of wood.
Mary Lauterbach, Maria Lauterbach's mother, wept in the courtroom as she listened to how her daughter died. Laurean's parents and two sisters also appeared upset during the testimony.
Several Marines who knew Lauterbach, Laurean or both also testified.
Sgt. Daniel Durham, who was Lauterbach's roommate, said found a note from her in mid-December 2007 saying that she was going AWOL because she could no longer handle the military life. He said Lauterbach had financial troubles and was under a lot of pressure from her family because of the pregnancy.
Sgt. Trocon Brumskine said Lauterbach told him in the fall of 2007 that she wanted out of the military because she had been raped. He said she wavered on whether to give the child up for adoption but eventually decided to keep it.
Lauterbach also said she had taken out a military protective order against Laurean to keep him away from her, Brumskine said.
Lance Cpl. Blake Costa testified that Laurean told him in September 2007 that he had had consensual sex with Lauterbach at a party several months earlier and was upset that she had accused him of rape. Laurean had hatched a plan to get rid of Lauterbach and salvage his career, Costa said.
"He never mentioned he wanted any harm to come Maria’s way, but he wanted to talk to her and convince her to move to Mexico – something quite elaborate," Costa testified. "When she did go, he would send her money. It would discredit her within the Marine Corps. He would be able to continue on."
Rashaun Hames, a ticket agent at the Greyhound bus station in Jacksonville, testified that Lauterbach bought a ticket to El Paso, Texas, in mid-December 2007 and told him she was done with the military.
"She told me about how she was pregnant by someone on base and she was supposed to be leaving and she thought she was going to be with him," Hames said.
Onslow County deputies found Lauterbach's car abandoned in the bus station parking lot on Jan. 7, 2008.
Laurean's trial was moved about 55 miles from Jacksonville, home of Camp Lejeune, to Goldsboro due to extensive pretrial publicity. A jury of seven women and five men was seated Wednesday after two days of questioning.