08/17/10 — Investigators testify

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Investigators testify

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 17, 2010 1:46 PM

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Special Agent Matthew Clifton, a State Bureau of Investigation crime scene investigator, testifies in the murder trial of ex Camp Lejeune Marine Cesar Laurean in Wayne County Superior Court. Laurean is on trial for the murder of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach.

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Mary Lauterbach is consoled in the courtroom as investigators discuss blood at spatters they believe are connected with the death of her daughter, Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach.

Mary Lauterbach was unable to hold back tears Tuesday as prosecutors in the Cesar Laurean murder trial unveiled photographs depicting what they look to prove is blood in the defendant's garage and a crowbar the state contends was used in her daughter's death.

And when a former Marine testified he helped Laurean buy items used to build the fire pit Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach's remains were excavated from in January 2008, her mother, again, broke down.

SBI Special Agent Steven Combs was the second state's witness to walk into Courtroom No. 1 Tuesday. He told the court he was the one charged with searching Laurean's garage for evidence related to Ms. Lauterbach's disappearance.

But it was the pictures he took inside the room that evoked the most emotion from those in the courtroom, from members of the jury to family members of the pregnant victim.

Combs testified he was among those investigators who performed searches for evidence at 103 Meadow Trail Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, 2008 -- that shortly after he photographed the garage area, he began looking through the many "stacks of items" located inside it.

The agent then gave detailed testimony about just what he found -- a stack of plastic containers, an inflatable raft, a child's swing, peg board, tan pillow, paint cans, brushes and rollers that all appeared to be stained with blood.

Combs said there was "a great deal of what I believed to be blood in the garage."

And he also told prosecutors he noticed a section of the wall had been painted over near where much of the suspected blood was found.

Defense attorney Dick McNeil chose not to cross-examine the witness.

But he would question Dennis Ward, a former Marine who admitted to prosecutors he helped Laurean purchase items used to construct the fire pit from which Ms. Lauter-bach's remains were later excavated -- that he watched the defendant dig the hole and told him, from his own childhood experience, how to do so.

Ward told the court he worked with Laurean from 2006 until his unauthorized absence in 2008 -- that he and the defendant had a social relationship, as he and his wife went to Laurean's home several times for various functions.

But prosecutors seemed more interested in the events Ward said transpired Dec. 16, 2007.

Ward testified that while shopping that day with Laurean for a dishwasher at Lowe's, the defendant turned his focus to constructing a "fire pit."

Ward explained that he had built fire pits several times as a child with his father and grandfather, and proceeded to detail how to do so.

The men, Ward said, then purchased cinder blocks and a wheelbarrow.

"He picked out some cinder blocks," Ward said. "I told him ... 'You want to contain the fire. ... You don't want it to burn the house down. ... You put a barrier around the hole.'"

And when they got to Laurean's home shortly after leaving Lowe's, that is exactly what the defendant did, Ward said.

The former Marine then identified himself and Laurean in photographs pulled from Lowe's security video footage.

And then, after being prompted by Assistant District Attorney Ernie Lee, Ward testified he watched Laurean dig the fire pit in his back yard.

Later in his testimony, the former Marine told the court that when Laurean dropped him off at his home later that afternoon, the defendant offered him a crowbar. He accepted the gift, he said.

But when he saw news reports linking his comrade to Ms. Lauterbach's disappearance, he examined the tool given to him.

"It didn't add up to me," Ward said.

He testified he noticed what looked like tape on the top of the crowbar -- tape that appeared to have a "tiny" blood drop on it.

So on Jan. 12, 2008, Ward, with his wife, Samantha, beside him, took the crowbar to the Onslow County Sheriff's Office and volunteered to give a DNA sample to cooperative with investigators.

During cross-examination, McNeil asked Ward if he cooperated with law enforcement and he said he did.

The former Marine then told the defense he went over to the Laurean home about twice a month, and testified Laurean told him he wanted to make the fire pit to burn sections of his fence, which had fallen down.

DNA experts and the medical examiner who performed Ms. Lauterbach's autopsy are expected to testify this morning, as the state looks to prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the blood samples Combs found in Laurean's garage and collected belonged to the victim -- that the crowbar turned into law enforcement by Ward was used in her death.