Detectives Search for Answers in Lauterbach's Death
Posted January 19, 2008 2:13 p.m. EST
Updated January 19, 2008 10:34 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — As federal agents conduct an international manhunt for and "America's Most Wanted" profiles Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean, who is wanted in the bloody slaying of a pregnant colleague, a team of detectives in North Carolina is on a search of a different kind.
There are just so many questions about the death of 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach that demand an answer. First among them: Why would Laurean want to kill her?
"The facts are still murky," said Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson. "There's been a lot of twists turns, and I feel like we haven't seen the end of it."
Authorities believe Laurean is in his native Mexico, hiding from an arrest warrant that charges him with Lauterbach's death. Should he ever be caught and returned to North Carolina, it is Hudson who will have to explain Laurean's motives to a jury. And so far, he said, the case he's building is one of the most perplexing in his three decades as a prosecutor.
At first, the motive seemed obvious: Lauterbach had accused her fellow personnel clerk in the 2nd Marine Logistics Group of rape. It appeared that Laurean, a 21-year-old from Las Vegas who is married with an 18-month-old daughter, might be the father of her unborn child.
But Marine Corps officials said this week that Lauterbach told investigators in November that she no longer believed Laurean was the father. She had said she was raped in March and early April, but a pregnancy test estimated her date of conception as the middle of May.
Naval investigators said they have no physical evidence or eyewitness testimony to corroborate Lauterbach's claims of rape. They concluded that the first sexual encounter between her and Laurean was not criminal in nature, and the second did not involve any force or coercion - Lauterbach told investigators that when she asked him to stop, he did. Laurean denied they had any sexual contact at all.
Still, Lauterbach and Laurean's regimental commander was intent on taking the case to an Article 32 hearing, the military's equivalent of a grand jury. Laurean was worried enough about the outcome to tell members of his unit that he would flee to Mexico if it appeared he would be found guilty.
"We never want to outright dismiss allegations even though there's not a lot of evidence to support the allegations," said Ed Buice, a spokesman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. "Nobody slammed the door in her face and told her to go home."
Lauterbach reported to a victim's advocate that she did not feel threatened by Laurean, and military investigators have said there are indications that she may have initiated a friendly relationship with Laurean over the summer. Authorities have not confirmed whether that relationship occurred, and it conflicts with the accounts of harassment her family said she experienced at Camp Lejeune.
Another key mystery: Just what happened on Dec. 15, the day that authorities believe Lauterbach died?
Much of the physical evidence suggests she planned to leave Jacksonville on her own. She withdrew about $700 from her bank account, packed some personal belongings and left the following note for her roommate: "I could not take this Marine Corps life anymore. So I am going away. Sorry for the inconvenience. Maria."
Laurean told his wife that Lauterbach came to their home that day demanding money, according to an affidavit filed by detectives, and together they purchased her a bus ticket to El Paso, Texas. Investigators declined to discuss theories on why Lauterbach, an Ohio native, would have wanted to travel to El Paso, or why she sought help from Laurean.
According to the affidavit, Laurean told his wife that Lauterbach returned to their home later in the day. An argument ensued, and that's when Laurean said Lauterbach cut her own throat in a suicide. Sheriff's investigators don't buy it, citing among other evidence an autopsy that found she died of blunt force trauma to the head. Authorities found her burned remains in a fire pit in Laurean's backyard.
"We're talking to everyone that either one of them may have been in contact with, trying to figure out what happened between the time she wrote the note and the time she wound up dead in his backyard," said Onslow County Sheriff's Capt. Rick Sutherland. "Without being able to speak to him or to her, it makes it difficult."
The Marines first began searching for Lauterbach on December 17, after she failed to show up for work. Onslow County authorities took up the case December 19, after her mother reported her missing. Investigators figured she left Camp Lejeune voluntarily, citing her note and missing belongings, and sheriff's deputies told Lauterbach's family that she was probably headed back to Ohio.
Even three weeks later, as Onslow County authorities elevated the urgency of their search, Sheriff Ed Brown hinted the case would have a positive ending. He pleaded with Lauterbach not to "run from those things in life that you have to stand up to and face."
The next day, Brown announced that she was dead and Laurean was on the run.
"This is a very unique case," Buice said. "I don't even know that hindsight is 20/20 in this case, because there are so many moving parts in so many different places that it's very tough to assemble them into a clear picture - even now."