JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Investigators said Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean had an obvious motive to kill his pregnant Marine colleague: She accused him of raping her and fathering her unborn baby.
However, Naval investigators said they have no physical evidence or eyewitnesses to corroborate Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach's claims, and Laurean denied they ever had sexual contact.
It will be up to a jury to decide what happened when Laurean goes on trial Tuesday in Goldsboro on first-degree murder and a litany of other charges. Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson has said the case is one of the most perplexing he's seen in three decades as a prosecutor. And the accounts of how Lauterbach died aren't any less tricky.
Her charred remains were found in a fire pit behind Laurean's white, ranch-style home, which remains a curiosity for passers-by.
The day Lauterbach was killed, she showed up at his door, demanded money and said she was leaving North Carolina. According to a January 2008 affidavit, Lauterbach bought a bus ticket to El Paso, Texas, on the day she was killed but later came to Laurean's home. In a note to his wife, Laurean said they had been arguing when Lauterbach pulled out a knife and slit her own throat. But an autopsy on Lauterbach's remains showed she died after being hit in the head.
For investigators, though, the blood spatter on the ceiling and the blood pooled on the wall of Laurean's home were telltale signs of a violent confrontation. Lawyers on both sides of the case and Onslow County Sheriff Ed Brown all declined to discuss the details of the murder before trial.
The trial was moved out of Jacksonville in January after a judge ruled pretrial publicity could influence jurors. "The change of venue was absolutely the right call based on the amount of publicity and discussion the case has brought about in Onslow County," said defense attorney Dick McNeil. Attorneys expect the trial to last between two and three weeks. Neither side has offered any plea arrangements, McNeil said.
Hudson has called the trial a logistical nightmare, saying he has been working to bring a number of Marines back from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to testify. "A lot of them are in harm's way," Hudson said. "It is sort of a worldwide trial."
Lauterbach and Laurean were both personnel clerks in a combat logistics regiment at Camp Lejeune. Naval investigators never brought rape charges against Laurean. Lauterbach told a military prosecutor that Laurean couldn't be the father based on a medical examination and recalculated conception date.
In a May 2009 report by the Department of Defense Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, analysts concluded DNA from Laurean did not match that of Lauterbach's unborn child. The authorities' only lead when she disappeared in December 2008 was a note left for Lauterbach's roommate in which the Vandalia, Ohio, native said she was tired of the Marine Corps lifestyle.
Onslow County authorities took up the case two days later, 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. Authorities were still optimistic they might find Lauterbach alive until Laurean's wife, Christina, turned over the note in which her husband claimed Lauterbach had killed herself and that he had buried her nearby.
Hours after getting the note, authorities found her remains in a firepit behind the Laureans' home. Laurean already was on the run when her remains were discovered, leading authorities on an international manhunt for the next three months. Laurean was arrested in April 2008 in western Mexico and was extradited last year.
Hudson agreed not to seek the death penalty so Mexico would consider returning Laurean to the U.S. He faces life in prison if convicted. Former neighbors say people driving by still slow down, straining to see through the wood fence that covers the backyard where Lauterbach's burned remains were found. Laurean's house near Camp Lejeune, a coastal North Carolina base that is home to roughly 50,000 Marines, was sold last year. Holes in the fence have been repaired and the flower beds are slightly overgrown, but the house looks much like it did almost two years ago when Lauterbach's body was found.
Kristin Greer didn't know Laurean or his wife, Christina, and met him only once when her dog ran over to his house while he was working in the yard. Greer said the couple wasn't friendly with neighbors and preferred socializing with other Marines. Greer is reminded every day of the crime. "We can't forget about it because you look across the road and see the fence and yard," she said. "I hope they get justice for that girl."