National News

Marine's Truck Found; Search for Him Continues

Posted January 15, 2008 9:43 a.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2008 10:27 a.m. EST

— The truck belonging to a Camp Lejeune Marine accused of killing a pregnant comrade was found at a Morrisville motel Tuesday afternoon.

A nationwide manhunt has been ongoing since Friday for Cpl. Cesar Armando Laurean, 21, who has been charged with murder in the death of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, 20. She was 7½ months pregnant at the time, authorities said.

The FBI posted an Internet notice describing Laurean and asked that anyone with information about him call 1-800-CALLFBI (225-5324).

Lauterbach, whose burned remains were found over the weekend in a fire pit in Laurean's back yard in Onslow County, died of blunt force trauma to the head, authorities announced Tuesday.

Authorities refused to discuss other details of the autopsy, such as a possible murder weapon. Questions also remain about the woman's fetus, including how and when it died and the identity of the father.

Authorities have posted a $25,000 reward for Laurean's capture and have put his picture on billboards nationwide. Citizens have offered to donate money to increase the reward, authorities said, noting a higher amount might be offered.

Paul Ciccarelli, a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said authorities were working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI to determine whether Laurean was headed to Mexico. Laurean was born in Mexico but is a naturalized U.S. citizen who lived in Las Vegas before enlisting in the Marines, officials said.

License plates on the black pickup truck parked outside the Microtel Inn & Suites, near the Prime Outlets center off Airport Boulevard south of Interstate 40, matched those on a black Dodge pickup that authorities said belonged to Laurean.

"You could plainly see the truck that was described in the news sitting right across from our room window," said Martin Nash, a South Carolina businessman who was staying at the hotel. "I didn't know that when I came to stay up here, I was going to be right in the middle of a national story."

Trucker Bob Orsulak was staying at the hotel and said he would have noticed the black pickup truck in the parking lot.

“It wasn't there this morning when I came in,” he said.

Nash and hotel clerk Sherrie Joyner said the truck had been in the parking lot since at least Monday, however. Joyner said she doesn't remember seeing Laurean at the hotel, but a housekeeper told authorities she thought someone matching the missing Marine's description had been there.

"They were just trying to see if they had occupied a room here, with all the alias' they gave me, we could not find any match in the system. So it doesn't appear that he stayed here," Joyner said.

An employee said a housekeeper claimed she saw someone matching the suspect's description at the hotel. Authorities entered at least one room at the hotel and then left.

The pickup was loaded on a tow truck Tuesday. It will be searched for evidence in Jacksonville.

The truck marks the second piece of evidence linking Laurean with the Triangle.

A jogger passing by the Greyhound Bus station in downtown Durham found an ATM card belonging to Lauterbach on Saturday. Police said it was unlikely the card was used at the bus station because the card reader there has been out of operation for several days.

Witnesses claimed to see Laurean at a bus depot in Shreveport, La., on Saturday night, but investigators said they doubted the accuracy of those reports.

Lauterbach, who had accused Laurean of rape last spring, disappeared a month ago as she was preparing to testify against him in military court. Her cell phone and car were found in Jacksonville in subsequent weeks.

Marines Defend Actions

Marine officials on Tuesday laid out a timeline of events in the case from their perspective to answer questions as to why the search for Lauterbach and questioning of Laurean didn't occur more quickly after her disappearance.

Lt. Col. Curtis Hill, spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, said military officials felt that Lauterbach had left voluntarily until they received information from Onslow County authorities on Jan. 9 about the recovery of her phone and car.

Hill said Lauterbach had left a note for her roommate on Dec. 14, the last day that she was seen, that said, "I couldn't take this Marine Corps life anymore, so I'm going away." Some of her clothing and some toiletries were missing from the apartment, he said, and $700 was withdrawn from an automated teller machine in Jacksonville.

"All indications led (base) command to believe that Cpl. Lauterbach placed herself in an unauthorized absence status," he said.

Lauterbach told military investigators in May that she had been raped by Laurean, Hill said. After initially telling authorities that her pregnancy resulted from the rape, she later backed off that claim when physicians estimated her conception date at May 14, he said.

Still, Camp Lejeune officials issued protective orders to keep Laurean away from Lauterbach that stretched from mid-May until mid-December, he said. Officials also transfered Lauterbach to a different position on base so the two wouldn't cross paths, he said.

Ciccarelli said Lauterbach told investigators that she and Laurean had a consensual sexual encounter last March and that they had another encounter in April while on duty. The case was investigated as a rape because that was her initial claim, he said, noting she later told investigators there was no force or coercion used in the April encounter.

Onslow County investigators tried to question Laurean as a witness – not a suspect – in Lauterbach's disappearance on Jan. 8, but he asked for legal representation and refused to answer questions, Ciccarelli said.

"Between the 15th of December and the 11th of January, he had been at all the appointed places that were required," said Col. Gary Sokolosky, staff judge advocate for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force. "There was no indication he was a flight risk."

Laurean most likely fled Jacksonville before dawn Friday, according to authorities. He left behind a note in which he said he buried Lauterbach after she had committed suicide by cutting her throat.

Authorities previously rejected the idea that Lauterbach had committed suicide, saying blood evidence found inside Laurean's home pointed to a violent crime. The autopsy results confirmed their suspicions, they said.

Others Might Be Helping Fugitive

Laurean could be receiving help to evade capture, authorities said Tuesday, declining to elaborate. Laurean’s wife, Christina, and his family have been cooperating in the investigation, authorities said.

Christina Laurean gave authorities the note from her husband last Friday. Her parents said she was at work when Lauterbach died, and she tried to convince her husband to meet with authorities about her death.

"I am not in a position to say whether or not there will be any additional charges against anyone else," Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson said.

FBI spokesman Newsom Summerlin said investigators have no reason to believe Laurean has fled the country, but it is possible.

Hudson said he talked with Lauterbach’s father, Victor Lauterbach, on Monday and broke the news that the remains found had been identified as his daughter's.

“Of course, he was very emotional,” Hudson said. “He was concerned about when the body would be released so that they could transport it back to Ohio for burial.”

In Lauterbach's hometown near Dayton, Ohio, hundreds of friends and neighbors offered prayers for her Monday evening. Relatives filed into a church for a prayer service and sat in the front row.

"This evening, we are suffering," the Rev. Francis Keferl told a spillover crowd of more than 800 at St. Christopher Catholic Church.

Lauterbach's mother, Mary, dabbed at her eyes with a tissue during the 40-minute service. A congregant gave her a pink rose.

Members of the congregation will remember Lauterbach for her strength, vitality, independent spirit, athletic talents and service as a Marine, said Elise Wahle, youth ministry coordinator for the church.

"Her goal was to be a Marine and wear the uniform," neighbor Kent Zimmerman said.

North Carolina is one of 15 states without a fetal homicide law, but Hudson said he has no plans to step aside in favor of a military prosecution.

That makes it unlikely Laurean would be prosecuted under the federal fetal homicide law passed in 2004 during the height of attention to the California trial of Scott Peterson, who was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci.

The federal law makes it a crime to harm a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman, but anti-abortion activists who pushed for it believe it has never been used, in part because murder cases are typically prosecuted in state courts.