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08/17/10 — The witnesses

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The witnesses

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

Here is a selection of the state's witnesses who took the stand Tuesday:

Prosecution witness No. 23 -- SBI Special Agent Matthew Clifton: A crime scene investigator, Clifton told the court that in addition to his search of Ms. Lauterbach's vehicle, he was present at Cesar Laurean's home Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, 2008.

After explaining to the jury that during a crime scene investigation, agents go through every room, he testified he was among those who found the defendant's passport in a desk drawer in the home's office area. Other items were discovered, too -- bills, family photographs and articles of clothing that indicated the residence was, indeed, Laurean's. Clifton then told the court about several items found in the master bedroom, including a white T-shirt he later testified was "similar" to the one worn by an unidentified man in ATM surveillence photographs taken during four failed withdrawl attempts from Maria Lauterbach's account after the pregnant Marine lance corporal disappeared in December 2007.

Prosecutors then shifted their focus to Jan. 15, 2008, when Clifton was called on to assist in the search of a black Dodge Ram found in a hotel parking lot near Raleigh. Several photos of the truck were admitted into evidence and shown to the courtroom to help confirm it belonged to Laurean -- one of the licenses plate, another of a DoD/Camp Lejuene sticker, a third of the vehicle's registration and a photo of Laurean and his wife. Clifton also tesitified he found a toothbrush in a bag behind the driver's seat.

The state then admitted more evidence, including photos and the white T-shirt -- a Quicksilver T-shirt with black and red printing in the chest area -- and gave them to the jurors for further review.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Dick McNeil questioned Clifton about several articles of military equipment found in the truck and then asked about the agent's inspection of Ms. Lauterbach's vehicle. When prompted by McNeil, Clifton acknowledged that while processing the victim's car, he found Prozac in the glovebox.

The defense then asked Clifton if he, in fact, was among those who searched the Laurean home Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, 2008. Clifton said that he was and acknowledged that the search revealed Laurean's wife also resided in the home.

The agent also told McNeil he witnessed Onslow County Sheriff Ed Brown walking in the vicinity of the fire pit area and explained the soil could not be examined for footprints as a result. Then, Clifton testified the SBI also looked through Mrs. Laurean's vehicle and located a "possible blood sample."

Prosecution witness No. 24 -- SBI Special Agent Steven Combs: A crime scene specialist who said he has worked more than 100 homicide investigations, Combs told the court he, too, was present at the Laurean home Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, 2008. He testified that his primary focus was the one-car garage, because Special Agent Coble photographed "what appeared to be blood" there.

Throughout his testimony, Combs used a large sketch of the garage to detail what he found: a "great deal of items," ranging from a stack of plastic containers that appeared to have blood on them to paint cans, brushes and rollers that also appeared to be stained.

Combs then explained that the first thing he did was photograph the garage, before disturbing any of the items within it. He then began his search for evidence. The agent testified there was "a great deal of what I believed to be blood in the garage."

The items seized as evidence included the plastic storage containers, paint equipment, an inflatable raft and a stained pillow. Prosecutors then showed the court photos taken by the SBI inside the garage and Combs used them to describe what he found -- and how.

He also told the court he noticed a section of the wall that had been painted over near where much of the suspected blood was found. The victim's mother, Mary Lauterbach, broke down as the agent pointed out, using a laser pointer, the different "blood" stains and spots -- on items that also included a child's swing, peg board and bag of clothing.

Photos of all the areas and items of interest were shown to the court and passed to the jury for further review. McNeil chose not to cross-examine the witness.

Prosecution witness No. 25 -- Noel William Strawn: A part-time employee at an alterations shop located just outside the Camp Lejeune gates, Strawn told the court Laurean and Ms. Lauterbach were both "regular customers." He testified that on two occassions in September 2007, the two came to the shop together. During cross-examination, McNeil asked Strawn how busy the shop was. The witness told the court that on a "busy day," 30 to 35 people might grace the shop. McNeil also asked if the two seemed to know each other well and get along. Strawn said the appeared to.

Prosecution witness No. 26 -- Onslow County Sheriff's deputy Linwood Foy: A lawman whose focus is on investigating security matters at county businesses, Foy told the court what his job entails. He testified investigators are able to use a receipt to obtain video footage relevant to particular matters. Foy's role in the Laurean investigation began when he was dispatched to a Jacksonville Lowe's, where he was told to download a particular video and create still images from it. He told the court his focus was on Dec. 16, 2007, from footage of the store's entrance at 4:03 p.m. to footage of the store's exit 45 minutes later. McNeil chose to not cross-examine Foy.

Prosecution witness No. 27 -- Dennis Ward: A former Marine, Ward told the court he worked with Laurean from 2006 until his unauthorized absence in 2008. He testifed he and the defendant had a social relationship also, as he and his wife went to Laurean's home several times for various functions.

Prosuctors then turned their focus to Dec. 16, 2007, the day Ward said Laurean called him and asked him to help him purchase a dishwasher from Lowe's. But while at the store, the defendant seemed more interested in building a "fire pit," Ward said.

He testified Laurean asked him what he might need to construct one, and having built fire pits several times as a child with his father and grandfather, Ward explained how to do so. The men then purchased cinder blocks and a wheelbarrow. "He picked out some cinder blocks," Ward said. "You want to contain the fire. ... You don't want it to burn the house down," Ward testified he told Laurean, "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 the photographs pulled from the video footage by Foy. And then, after being prompted by Assistant District Attorney Ernie Lee, Ward testified he watched Laurean dig the fire pit from which investigators later excavated Ms. Lauterbach's remains.

Later that afternoon, Laurean dropped his comrade off at his home, Ward told the court. But before he left, the defendant offered him a crowbar, and he accepted the gift. Lee then admitted the crowbar into evidence and asked Ward if he could identify it as the one Laurean had given him. The former Marine said it was, in fact, the same tool. Then, he testified that after he saw news reports linking Laurean to Ms. Lauterbach's dissapearance, he examined the crowbar. "It didn't add up to me," he said. And when he looked at it, Ward said he noticed a piece of tape on the top of the tool, one that appeared to have a "tiny" blood drop on it. On Jan. 12, 2008, Ward said, he took the crowbar to the Onslow County Sheriff's Office and volunteered to give a DNA sample in order to cooperative with investigators. On that day, he also gave a statement, during which he told investigators about his trip to Lowe's with Laurean and how he watched the fire pit being dug by the defendant.

During cross-examination, McNeil asked Ward if he cooperated with law enforcement and he said he did. He then told the defense he told McNeil he went to the Laurean home about twice a month. He testified Laurean told him he wanted to make the fire pit to burn sections of his fence that had fallen down. He also told the court he "knew of" Ms. Lauterbach but had never seen Laurean and Ms. Lauterbach together.

Prosecution witness No. 28 -- Samantha Ward: The wife of prosecution witness No. 27, Mrs. Ward told the court she knew the Laureans and had gone over to their house several times for visits and meals. She testified that on Dec. 16, 2007, she was in California visiting family, but spoke to her husband, Dennis, on the phone while he was at Lowe's with Laurean. She said she returned to Jacksonville the following day and told prosecutors that on Christmas Day, she, her husband and son went to the Laurean's home where they watched TV, ate a meal and played video games. She later testified she saw the crowbar in her car when her husband picked her up at the airport and was with him when he turned the tool into investigators. She, too, submitted a DNA sample. During cross examination, McNeil asked Mrs. Ward if Laurean treated her well and she said, "Yes."

Prosecution witness No. 29 -- Onslow County Sheriff's Office Detective David South: A seasoned lawman, South told the court he received the crowbar from Ward and interviewed him before turning the tool over to an evidence technician around Jan. 4, 2008. During cross-examination, McNeil asked South if he had touched the crowbar, but the detective said he did not because it was wrapped in a plastic bag.