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Neighbors recall bonfire in Laurean's backyard

Two former neighbors testified Friday that Cesar Laurean had a backyard bonfire in December 2007, which authorities say was shortly after the pregnant Marine Laurean is accused of killing disappeared.

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GOLDSBORO, N.C. — Two former neighbors testified Friday that Cesar Laurean had a backyard bonfire in December 2007, which authorities say was shortly after the pregnant Marine Laurean is accused of killing disappeared.

Laurean, a former Camp Lejeune Marine, is charged with killing Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach and burying her body in a fire pit in the backyard of his Jacksonville home. Testimony in his murder trial began Thursday, and it is expected to resume Monday morning.

Malo Menard and Richard Alander said the bonfire, which was attended by several people, occurred sometime around Christmas. Alander said his wife commented on the awful smell from the fire, but he said he thought Laurean was burning trash.

Alander and Menard also said that they saw Lauterbach's blue Hyundai parked outside Laurean's house on more than one occasion in late 2007.

Lauterbach, 20, of Vandalia, Ohio, was nearly eight months pregnant at the time of her death. She had accused Laurean of raping her in the spring of 2007, and although she later recanted the allegation, Camp Lejeune officials continued to investigate the case until her death.

Defense attorney Dick McNeil put her character on trial in his opening statement Thursday, saying she had a history of lying and that her false accusation threatened Laurean's military career.

On Friday, Marine Chief Warrant Officer Joel Larsen, who was Laurean's boss for much of 2007, backed up that argument by saying Lauterbach had a reputation of not always being truthful. He noted that he pointedly asked Laurean about the allegations, and Laurean denied any sexual relationship with Lauterbach.

Larsen's testimony prompted objections from Onslow County Chief Assistant District Attorney Ernie Lee, saying Lauterbach's character isn't at issue in the trial. Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith said he would allow limited questioning about it so the defense could argue its theory of the case – that her slaying wasn't premeditated murder.

Larsen also spoke in glowing terms about Laurean, calling him "a stellar performer."

"I've been in the Marine Corps for almost 18 years, and he's in the top three to five Marine (non-commissioned officers) that have worked for me," he testified. "It's unbelievable – the shock of what went down."

Under questioning from Lee, he said his opinion of Laurean changed when he went AWOL after Lauterbach's death.

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.

An international manhunt led to Laurean's arrest in April 2008 in rural Mexico. In order to extradite him to North Carolina, prosecutors promised Mexican authorities that he wouldn't seek the death penalty against him.

Man used Lauterbach's bank card

In other testimony Friday, Frank Davis, a Marine Federal Credit Union executive in charge of security, testified that Lauterbach's bank card was used five times in December 2007.

On Dec. 14, the security camera at one ATM captured an image of a pregnant woman withdrawing $500, Davis said.

Lauterbach's roommate and other witnesses testified Thursday that they didn't see her after Dec. 14.

On Christmas Eve, Davis said, the security camera at a different ATM showed a man tried several times to withdraw $400 to $500 using Lauterbach's bank card. Twice, the transaction was declined because of an incorrect identification code, and the transaction was denied the other two times because insufficient funds were in the account, he said.

Prosecutors tried to get Davis to compare the images on the security camera with the photo in Laurean's account file at Marine Federal Credit Union, but Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith cut him off after the defense objected, saying he wasn't an expert in facial recognition.

Randy Dulay, a computer forensics expert with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, testified that he examined the military computer assigned to Laurean and found he visited several websites in January 2008, including sites for a defense attorney, obtaining a job in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Google searches for the term "what happens in a homicide investigation."

Other witnesses testified about finding Lauterbach's bank card outside a Durham bus station the day after her remains were discovered and locating Laurean's pickup truck at a Morrisville motel a few days after that.

Laurean's trial was moved about 55 miles from Jacksonville, home of Camp Lejeune, to Goldsboro due to extensive pretrial publicity.


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