Suspect in slaying of pregnant Marine arrested

April 11, 2008 8:05:19 AM PDT
A Marine suspected of killing a pregnant colleague told police he slept in fields and survived by eating fruit that he found during a three-month manhunt that ended with his arrest in western Mexico, authorities said. Mexican police carrying out an anti-kidnapping operation in the small town of Tacambaro arrested Cpl. Cesar Laurean on Thursday.

He is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, who had accused him of rape. Her burned remains were found in January in the backyard of his home near Camp Lejeune.

Bearded, thin and chained at the wrists and ankles, Laurean spoke briefly with The Associated Press while being held at the Michoacan state Attorney General's Office in Morelia, the state capital. He appeared slightly disoriented and stared straight ahead, his eyes occasionally filling up with tears as he answered a reporter's questions in terse phrases.

"You know my name. You know who I am," Laurean said. Asked if he wanted to say anything, Laurean answered, "Proof," but wouldn't explain.

Asked what he would do next, he replied, "Do I have a choice? ... I don't know."

The FBI said Laurean, 21, is awaiting extradition to the U.S., although local authorities in North Carolina cautioned the process could take a year or more if he decides to fight it. They encouraged him Friday to waive extradition, saying the process - however lengthy - will inevitably lead to his return.

"It will be smart for him to do it," said Onslow County Sheriff Ed Brown. "It is like his apprehension. That day will come."

Lauterbach family attorney Merle Wilberding said the arrest is just the beginning of a lengthy judicial process.

"We hope this presents an opportunity to unravel the mystery that has surrounded so many of the disconnected but frightening actions and events that attended her death," Wilberding said in a statement.

Mexican police stopped Laurean as he was wandering the streets because they thought he looked suspicious, said Magdalena Guzman, a prosecutors' spokeswoman in Michoacan state.

When officers realized Laurean didn't speak Spanish well, they ran his name through a computer - and recognizing his distinctive tattoos - they realized Laurean was wanted in the United States to face charges in Lauterbach's death, Guzman said.

The FBI said its agents assisted.

Guzman said Laurean told the arresting officers he had only 10 pesos - about US$1 (euro.60) - in his pocket when arrested.

U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza said in a statement that "Laurean fled to Mexico early this year in the hope of avoiding justice" and called the arrest "a clear message to all would-be fugitives from U.S. law that Mexico will not provide them refuge."

Laurean, of Las Vegas, was born in Guadalajara, but family members there have said he moved to the U.S. more than 10 years ago. He had told members of his unit that he would flee to Mexico if it appeared he would be found guilty of rape. Authorities believe he entered Mexico on a bus on Jan. 14.

Lauterbach and Laurean were both personnel clerks in the same logistics unit at Camp Lejeune, an expansive coastal North Carolina base that is home to roughly 50,000 Marines. Detectives believe Laurean killed Lauterbach, who was 20 and eight months pregnant, on Dec. 14 after forcing her to remove money from her bank account.

Detectives have said Laurean left behind a note for his wife in which he denied killing Lauterbach but admitted burying her remains. In the note, Laurean said Lauterbach committed suicide by cutting her own throat.

Authorities rejected the assertion, saying evidence indicates Lauterbach died of blunt force trauma to the head.

Lauterbach accused Laurean of rape last spring, a charge he denied and one that Naval investigators were unable to corroborate. Even though Lauterbach later told investigators she did not feel Laurean posed a danger or threat to her, the pair was separated on base. The Marines have said their regimental commander was intent on taking the case to a hearing that could have led to a trial.

Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson has agreed not to seek execution in order to win the cooperation of Mexico, which refuses to send anyone back to the U.S. unless provided assurance they will not face a death sentence.

Tipped by the note, and not long after authorities went public in their search for Lauterback, detectives discovered the charred remains of the missing Marine and her fetus in a shallow grave in Laurean's backyard.

Maria's mother, Mary Lauterbach, said Friday that a sheriff telephoned her with news of Laurean's capture, but did not have many details.

"I'm anxious for the truth to come out and for justice to be done. That's all I would ever ask for," Lauterbach told The Associated Press as she was backing out of her driveway at the Vandalia, Ohio, home where Maria grew up.

"This has been a terrible tragedy, not only for our family but for Cesar ... and Laurean's family. We pray for them at this time. They are very much in our thoughts," she said.

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Associated Press writers James Hannah in Vandalia, Ohio, Estes Thompson in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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