Scenes from a pregnant Marine's murder

January 22, 2008 1:04:48 PM PST
The most haunting image shows a man-made fire pit, square in shape and enclosed by 12 concrete cinder blocks, a spot where investigators made a gruesome discovery last month. The photo is part of a group of images released Monday night by officials looking for Cpl.Cesar Laurean, a missing Marine who police think killed another Marine who had accused him of rape.

Police say they hope the images will help end a massive FBI manhunt for Laurean that has stretched from North Carolina, across the United States and perhaps into Mexico, where Laurean was born.

The photos were taken during a police investigation at Laurean's home after his wife confided to authorities that Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, a missing, pregnant 20-year-old Marine who had accused her husband of rape at the Camp Lejeune military base, was dead and buried in their North Carolina backyard.

Crime scene investigators began to slowly excavate the fire pit, and within 24 hours, Onslow County Sheriff's Office had released a grim statement confirming its initial suspicions.

"Charred human remains of an adult and a fetus were unearthed," the statement read. "There appeared to be the bodies of an adult female with a fetus located near the abdomen region of the female."

Authorities also released images from inside the Laurean house, including the garage where they believe the murder took place "based on the blood and the interpretation of the blood spatters" on the walls. The photos show a paint tray and 2-foot square patch of wall that has been repainted.

An arrest warrant was issued for Laurean, but the 21-year-old, who was raised in Nevada, was already on the run, thanks to the 24 hours his wife had waited before she contacted police.

Laurean is a naturalized U.S. citizen, but may have retained his Mexican citizenship as well. Laurean reportedly had told fellow Marines in his unit that he would run to Mexico if he were found guilty by the military of raping Lauterbach.

"That's definitely a viable place he could be," Capt. Rick Sutherland, the spokesman for the Onslow County Sheriff's Office, told ABC News. But Sutherland said that a high volume of tips have come in placing Laurean in the American Southwest and in states immediately surrounding North Carolina.

Tips that come in of possible sightings outside of Onslow County are turned over to the FBI, Sutherland said. The FBI's Charlotte bureau, Sutherland said, is serving as a clearinghouse for the search. "We've received a number of tips that we believe are credible and worth following up on," Sutherland added.

Lauterbach was killed Dec. 15 by some type of blunt trauma to the head, a state medical examiner determined. Last week, Onslow County Sheriff's Office authorities announced that a witness had turned in a weapon that may have been used in Lauterbach's death, but would not confirm reports the suspected murder weapon was a crowbar.

This weekend, authorities teamed up with the TV show "America's Most Wanted" and showed surveillance footage of Laurean and an unidentified man entering and exiting a Lowe's home improvement store once on Dec. 16 and again on Dec. 24. Lauterbach had been last seen Dec. 14 and was reported missing by her family in her home state of Ohio, Dec. 19. In his shopping trips, Laurean purchased a wheelbarrow, paint and concrete blocks like the ones used to ring the fire pit. Another image shows Laurean using Lauterbach's card at an ATM machine Dec. 24.

"It's a possibility that some of these items were used to cover up a crime," Sutherland said.

Sutherland told ABC News that authorities have interviewed the friend seen in the Lowe's videotape three times and that he is considered a "cooperating witness." Christine Laurean, the fugitive's wife and a former Marine, has also been called a cooperating witness, even though she waited almost a day before notifying authorities.

Christine Laurean, the mother of the couple's 18-month-old, handed over notes left by her husband in which he claimed that Lauterbach had slit her own throat before he burned and buried her body.

Before he took off, Laurean told his wife that Lauterbach had demanded money from him so she could leave the area and that he bought her a bus ticket to El Paso, Texas, according to court documents released last week. Lauterbach's abandoned car was recovered at the bus stop, but the ticket to El Paso was never used.

Physical evidence suggests that Lauterbach was planning to leave Jacksonville on her own. She had withdrew $700 from her bank account and packed personal belongings before leaving her off-base roommate with a note that read, "I could not take this Marine Corps life anymore. So I am going away."

Questions have also been raised about the status of the military's rape investigation and whether military investigators believed that the rape allegations from March and April may be unfounded. Marine Corps officials had said that Lauterbach told investigators in November that she no longer believed that Laurean was the father of the unborn child.

Laurean had been Lauterbach's senior officer until she accused him of raping her. He was never taken into custody because he denied the charge and there was no evidence to support the accusation, Marine Corps officials said last week.

The Marines first began searching for Lauterbach, Dec. 17, after she failed to show up for her job as a military personnel clerk.

Mary Lauterbach, Maria's mother, told the Dayton Daily News in an interview published Sunday that questions about her daughter's credibility may have made her a vulnerable target in the events leading up to her death.

Mary Lauterbach chided her daughter for waiting a month before reporting the rape to her commanders. "You realize you've lost all your evidence now?" she recounted asking her daughter in May.

The mother reportedly had reason to question her daughter's credibility ? she had to prove to Marines at Camp Lejeune that a story Maria Lauterbach had shared with fellow Marines about her father accidentally killing her brother when he was 6 years old was a lie.

When the Onslow County Sheriff's Office asked Mary Lauterbach to write an e-mail telling investigators everything she could about her daughter, she admitted that her daughter "had problems with occasional compulsive lying" and that Maria Lauterbach's biological father may have suffered from bipolar disorder.

Mary Lauterbach faced criticism when she made similar comments on "Good Morning America" Jan. 11, the day her pregnant daughter's remains were discovered.

If Laurean is found in Mexico, Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson will not be able to pursue the death penalty on the murder charge. According to the U.S. State Department, Mexico and the United States have a long-standing agreement not to seek extradition of suspects to face charges in the United States if they could face the death penalty.


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