08/16/10 — Live from the courtroom: Crime scene testimony in Laurean trial continues

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Live from the courtroom: Crime scene testimony in Laurean trial continues

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on August 16, 2010 9:15 AM

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State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Matthew Clifton testifies Monday during the first-degree murder trial of ex-Marine Cesar Laurean. Laurean is accused of the murder of fellow Marine, Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach.


Mary Lauterbach breaks down into tears as a State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent details the evidence he found in the Laurean home\'s garage. As the agent described what he said \"appeared to be blood\" Lauterbach\'s sister comforted the emotional mother.

9:30 a.m.: Court resumes with the continued testimony of Special Agent Matthew Clifton.

Clifton told the jury that in addition to his search of Lauterbach's vehicle, he was present at the Laurean home crime scene investigation on Jan. 11, 2008.

He explained that investigators go through every room when conducting an investigation and said he found Laurean's passport in a desk drawer in the home's office area. Other documents, including bills, were found in the office area of the home, Clifton said. Photographs of several items from the office as well as the Laurean's passport were admitted into evidence before being viewed by the witness and the jury.

Testimony was then directed toward what Clifton and investigators found in the master bedroom of the Laurean home. Photos from the bedroom including a photograph of a white t-shirt and another photo of a laundry basket were admitted into evidence. Clifton stated that the shirt appears to be similar to one in an ATM photo entered into evidence by the state in a previous day's testimony.

On Jan. 15, 2008, Clifton was tasked with processing the Dodge Ram found at the motel in Morrisville. Photos of the truck were then admitted into evidence and shown to the courtroom. The photos included the licenses plate of the truck, a DoD Camp Lejuene sticker and the vehicle's registration. The truck was registered to "Salvatore Laurean." Another item in the truck photographed was a photo of Laurean and his wife.

Clifton found a toothbrush in a bag behind the driver's seat, which was turned over to the Onslow County Sheriff's Office.

The state then admitted more evidence, including photos and passed the white t-shirt, a quicksilver t-shirt with black and red printing in the chest area, throughout the jury box.

10:33 a.m.: During cross-examination, McNeil questioned Clifton about various military equipment found in the truck at the Morrisville motel. He also asked about a for sale sign in the truck. Clifton said he did not check the sign for fingerprints.

Clifton also said while processing Lauterbach's vehicle, he found Prozac in the glovebox.

McNeil asked Clifton if he in fact looked through the Laurean home during the Jan. 11 investigation and Clifton explained there were many different agents throughout the house and that it was clear Laurean's wife lived there as well.

Clifton said he witnessed the Onslow County Sheriff's Office deputies walking over the fire pit area and explained the soil could not be examined for footprints because authorities had walked across the back yard.

Clifton said the SBI also looked through Mrs. Laurean's vehicle and located a "possible blood sample." Clifton then stepped down from the witness stand.

10:45 a.m.: The state calls SBI Special Agent Steven Combs to the stand.

Combs is a crime scene specialist who has processed more than 200 crime scenes including more than 100 homicides and he supervises five other agents. He was present at the Laurean house during the Jan. 11, 2008, investigation.

Combs primary focus in the investigation was the one-car garage that day. After Special Agent Coble photographed "blood in the garage" Combs decided he would handle the processing of the area. Combs used a large sketch of the garage to detail what he found for the jury.

There were "a great deal of items" stacked in the garage, Combs told the jury. Shortly after Combs began describing the garage, a recess was called.

When court returned to session, Combs explained that the first thing he did was photograph the garage. Then he starting looking specifically for potential evidence.

There "was a great deal of what I believed to be blood in the garage." Combs collected the evidence on Jan. 12.

Combs looked through a series of photos including photos of plastic storage containers in the garage, photos of what appears to be blood and a photo of a wall in the garage that appeared to have been painted over before they were shown throughout the courtroom.

Lauterbach's mother began crying as Combs told the jury about a 1-gallon paint can that had "a great deal of what appeared to be blood" on it.

Combs also testified that he found a child's beach toy that appeared to have "a great deal" of blood on it. He then used a laser pointer to point out specific items with probable blood stains on items.

Combs then reviewed a tan pillow with what appeared to be blood stains which was seized from the garage and photographed by authorities.

He pointed out to the jury the area of the garage wall which had been painted over and explained they found other stains on the wall including stains on a peg board. Combs also said investigators found what appeared to be a 20-inch blood stain along the garage door. Combs said blood was also found on a child's swing located in the garage.

Combs testified that a box full of clothes that appeared to contain blood droplets was also found. Photos of the swing, repainted wall and box of clothes were entered into evidence and shown to the courtroom. Combs then explained what appeared to be blood stains were located on the ceiling above the peg board.

After the state concluded its questioning of Combs, court was recessed until 2 p.m.

2 p.m. Court resumes. The defense does not cross examine Combs and he steps down from the witness stands.

2:04 p.m.: The state calls Noel William Strawn, an alterations shop employee.

Strawn saw Laurean as a regular customer at the shop. He said Lauterbach was also a regular customer and that the two came to the shop twice together. On one of the occasions in early September Lauterbach came into the store while Laurean waited in the vehicle.

During cross examination McNeil asked Strawn how busy the shop was. Strawn said about 30 to 35 people a day came into the shop. He also said they keep detailed receipts and that Lauterbach was listed on their ledger twice in September. Strawn said Lauterbach came in by herself in October. McNeil asked if the two seemed to know each other well and get along. He also said he had seen Laurean in the store by himself on about a half-dozen occasions. Strawn then stepped down from the witness stand.

The state calls Onslow County Sheriff's deputy Linwood Foy to the stand.

Foy investigated store security at different places during the investigation. He explained  they can search a receipt, get a time and tie it to video camera footage. During the investigation,  he was asked to respond to a Jacksonville store to download some video footage and created still shots from that video The courtroom was then shown photos stills which depict a Lowe's store in Jacksonville from Dec. 16, 2007, at 4:03 p.m. that was a shot of the entrance. Roughly 45 minutes later, other still shots from the main exit are shown and admitted into evidence.

The state calls former U.S. Marine Cpl. Dennis Ward.

Ward served in the U.S. Marine Corps from September 2005 until 2009. H knew and worked with Laurean. Ward said they first met in 2006  and that he went to the Laureans home a few times and also knew Laurean's wife. On Dec. 16, 2007, Laurean called him and asked him to help him get a dishwasher at Lowe's. While at Lowe's, Laurean asked him what he needed to build a fire pit. Ward said the two went to the garden section "picked out some blocks."

"You want to contain the fire. ... You don't want it to burn the house down," Ward told Laurean, "You put a barrier around the hole" he told Laurean.

Laurean bought the cinder blocks and a wheelbarrow that day, Ward told Assistant Prosecutor Ernie Lee before identifying himself and Laurean in a photo for the courtroom.

After they left Lowe's they went to Laurean's home, Ward said. Then they took the cinder blocks to the back yard, placed the blocks on the ground and Laurean started digging.

"He was just digging," Ward said. Laurean was using a flat shovel to dig the pit and they spent "about 45 minutes" digging the pit. 

Laurean's wife then pulled up and they walked to the truck and unloaded the dishwasher before leaving. Ward said they left and Laurean dropped him off at home at which point in time, Laurean offered him a crowbar. Ward took the crowbar from him at that time. The prosecution then admitted the crowbar into evidence. Once laurean gave it to Ward, he put it with the rest of the tools.  Later, Ward noticed a piece of tape on the top of it that appeared to have a "tiny" blood drop on it.

Ward told the court that on Christmas Day 2007, he and he wife went to the Laurean's in the evening.  They stayed late and exchanged gifts and he said Laurean had talked about the rape allegations against him and said "he didn't rape her." 

On Jan. 12, 2008, Ward took the crowbar to the Onslow County Sheriff's Office. Ward said he had been watching the news and "it didn't add up to me." He turned the crowbar over to authorities and offered a DNA sample and told them about the fire pit and the trip to Lowe's.  He then positively identified a photo of the fire pit as being the pit he dug with Laurean in December.

When asked about the investigation by McNeil during cross-examination, Ward said he cooperated fully with authorities. He told McNeil he went to the Laurean home about once every two months. He also explained Laurean had told him he wanted to make the fire pit to burn sections of the fence that had fallen down. On Christmas Day he said there were 6 adults and two children at the house. Ward told the defense he "knew of" Lauterbach and had seen her several times, but had never seen Laurean and Lauterbach together.

Ward also acknowledged he had handled the crowbar after Laurean gave it to him. Ward then stepped down from the witness stand.

The state calls Samantha Ward to the stand.

Ward is Dennis Ward's wife.

Mrs. Ward said she knew the Laureans and had gone over to their house several times for visits and dinner. On Dec. 16, 2007, she was in California visiting her family. She said she and her husband spoke that day on the phone and that he said he was at Lowe's with Laurean.

On Dec. 17, she returned to Jacksonville. On Christmas Day, she, her husband and her son went to the Laurean's home where they watched TV, ate and played video games, she said.

Mrs. Ward said she saw the crowbar in her car when her husband picked her up at the airport. She carried it into the Sheriff's Office and also volunteered a DNA sample.

During cross examination, McNeil asked Mrs. Ward if Laurean treated her well and she said yes.

3:10 p.m. The state calls Onslow County Sheriff's Office Detective David South.

South received the crowbar and interviewed Ward. After receiving the crowbar, he turned it over to an evidence technician around Jan. 4. he said.

South also said that while working an unrelated case in early January, the detective did not see Lauterbach's car.

During cross examination McNeil asked South if he had touched the crowbar. South said he did not because it was wrapped in plastic when the department received it. He was then asked about why he was taken off being lead investigator in the case and explained that he had become ill and therefore the case was reassigned to Sgt. T.J. Cavanagh. South then stepped down from the witness stand and court was recessed until 3:35 p.m.

3:35 p.m. The state calls Onslow County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Meredith.

Meredith has worked for the office for 15 years and prior to his county service he was a Sailor.

He was involved in the chain of custody of the Laurean evidence and the Laurean home during the investigation.

Meredith explained that while the scene was being processed, evidence was collected there and then he put evidence into storage at the Onslow County Sheriff's Office. Meredith then viewed various photos of evidence and pieces of evidence, including the crowbar, the inflatable child's raft and explained the items were wrapped in paper to preserve them.

Meredith reviewed items entered into evidence, including what appear to be blood stains and the "partial part of the femur bone" recovered from the medical examiner in Chapel Hill which was used to examine DNA and affirm the identity of the remains. Meredith said he was present during the autopsy. Meredith said he delivered the evidence to the SBI in Raleigh.

During cross-examination McNeil asked whether Meredith was present on Jan. 8 when Lauterbach's car was processed by the SBI. Meredith confirmed he was present during the investigation and stated he was "pretty sure" he took photos of the Prozac in Lauterbach's glove box.

The state calls Special Agent Jim Mahaffee.

Mahaffee worked for the SBI for 12 years before retirement. Mahaffee explained how transferring evidence from local departments to the SBI works. He then detailed the procedure item by item. Each piece of evidence was placed in "the vault," he said. The defense had no cross-examination.

The state called SBI Special Agent Sara Clay.

Ms. Clay is an evidence technician who transfers evidence to various SBI analysts to process the information. Ms. Clay explained the tracking of edvidence and whose possession it was in item by item while in the SBI's custody. During cross-examination McNeil asked Ms. Clay about items not processed or in the possession of the SBI until 2010. The witness then stepped down from the stand.

4:47 p.m.: the state calls Captain John Lewis.

Lewis transported evidence from the Onslow County Sheriff's Office to the SBI in Raleigh.

4:50 p.m.: the state calls State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Frankie Davis confirmed her handling of evidence.

4:53 p.m. The state calls Sgt. Michael Washington of the Onslow County Sheriff's Office.

Washington transported items from the State Bureau of Investigation back to the Onslow County Sheriff's Office.

Court was then recessed for the day.

Log on to www.NewsArgus.com throughout the day for the latest witness testimony.