08/18/10 — The witnesses

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The witnesses

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 18, 2010 1:46 PM

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

Prosecution witness No. 35 -- Onslow County Sheriff's Office Sgt. T.J. Cavanagh: A crime scene investigator and former Marine, Cavanagh told the court he was tasked with coordinating the investigation surrounding the first-degree murder case against ex-Marine Cesar Laurean. He testified that on Jan. 11, 2008, he put out a nationwide "be on the lookout," for Laurean's black Dodge Ram. Then, he told Onslow County Assistant District Attorney Ernie Lee he also administered the taking of DNA samples via cheek swabs from Dennis and Samantha Ward, a husband and wife who testified Tuesday they handled a crowbar the state is trying to prove was used in the death of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach. Cavanagh also told the court he was among those investigators who searched Laurean's home in January 2008 -- that he found a receipt from a Jacksonville Lowe's dated Dec. 16, 2007, at 4:45 p.m. He then read the contents of the receipt -- 12 concrete blocks, a wheelbarrow and a dishwasher -- from his seat in the witness stand. During cross-examination Cavanagh told defense attorney Dick McNeil he had also put out a nationwide "be on the lookout" for Lauterbach and her vehicle, before noting that within that bulletin, he informed law enforcement that Lauterbach had a history of mental illness.

Prosecution witness No. 36 -- Onslow County Sheriff's Capt. Patrick Garvey: A crime scene investigator who was involved in the chain of custody of evidence collected at the crime scene, Garvey told the court he conducted a DNA swab on Laurean and sent the sample to the State Bureau of Investigation for analysis. He then testified he also collected a cheek swab sample from the defendant's wife. During cross-examination, Garvey reiterated he took a DNA swab from Mrs. Laurean -- and that he did so in July.

Prosecution witness No. 37 -- Special Agent Donald Faggart: An expert in forensic science and fingerprints, Faggart told the court he uses his training to compare prints found to characteristics of prints taken by law enforcement during the course of a criminal investigation. Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith said the court would recognize him as an expert during his testimony. Faggart then testified he cannot always positively ID a print -- sometimes the surface of an object being tested isn't conducive to identifying prints and fingerprints are "very fragile" and can "easily be wiped away." The agent then told the court he reviewed eight prints lifted off Lauterbach's car but could not identify any of them. The car, though, "could have been cleaned," he said, and other factors, including exposure to extreme weather and rain could have distorted the prints as well.

Prosecution witness No. 38 -- Special Agent Jenny Elwell: A forensic scientist who specializes in bodily fluids and conducts DNA analysis from crime scenes, Elwell was recognized by Smith as an expert during her testimony. She told the court her role in the Laurean case was to examine evidence collected from the defendant's garage for the potential presence of blood. She evaluated numerous items from the crime scene -- swabs from paint equipment, an inflatable raft, a peg board, plastic container, crowbar, tan pillow and the garage floor -- and tested each for potential presence of blood by conducting both visual and chemical tests on them. Many of the items, she testified, tested positive and were sent to an SBI DNA analyst for further review. Elwell told the court "there was definitely staining on the edge of the crowbar" and subsequent chemical testing confirmed what the visual test indicated. And her methods also indicated the presence of blood on the tan pillow, paint equipment, peg board, garage floor, inflatable raft and plastic container. After confirming the likely presence of blood on the items, she said, she swabbed each and turned those samples over to DNA analyst Sharon Hinton. Elwell also told the court that just because a test indicates the presence of blood, it does not mean there is a large enough sample to determine a DNA match. During cross-examination, Elwell told McNeil there are tests the specifically confirm blood is present but that the SBI lab uses a method to simply get an indication. She then told the court that while handling evidence, she wears gloves to protect herself from potentially hazardous fluids and to protect the evidence, itself.

Prosecution witness No. 39 -- State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Sharon R. Hinton: A forensic biologist and expert in bodily fluids and DNA, Hinton was recognized by Smith as an expert during her testimony. She told the court that DNA is "your genetic blueprint" and is a good way to eliminate suspects who are falsely accused of a crime. She then testified her role in the Laurean case was to analyze evidence collected at the crime scene -- a plastic container, crowbar, inflatable raft, paint roller, paint brush, tan pillow, sample from the floor of the garage -- and other evidence that would be used to create DNA "standards" for Laurean, Lauterbach and other people of interest. Hinton told prosecutors she used a femur bone collected during the autopsy conducted on Lauterbach's remains as the DNA standard for the victim and a toothbrush -- and, later, a cheek swab -- as the standard for Laurean. She then compared those standards to the swabs taken by Special Agent Elwell. The other people of interest -- Christina Laurean, Dennis Ward and Samantha Ward -- also had DNA standards created from cheek swabs each volunteered to Onslow County lawmen. Hinton testified she compared the swab taken from the plastic container found in Laurean's garage to the profile created from Lauterbach's bone and Laurean's toothbrush. The swab, she said, matched the victim's DNA profile but not the defendant's. The DNA, she added, "could have come from no one other than Maria Lauterbach." Hinton also told the court she used the same standards to test the other items and got the same result from the inflatable raft, tan pillow, paint roller, peg board and garage floor. Each contained DNA that "could have come from no one other than Maria Lauterbach." The crowbar, though, told a different story. When Hinton analyzed a swab taken from the end of the tool -- the spot Dennis Ward testified Tuesday he noticed blood on after Laurean gave him the crowbar a few days after Lauterbach disappeared -- she confirmed the DNA could have come from no other person than Maria Lauterbach. But the tool's handle contained a "mixture" of DNA. "There is more than one person on this piece of evidence," she said. Using the standards as her guide, she found that both Dennis Ward and his wife's DNA were on the handle -- both acknowledged Tuesday they handled the crowbar before turning it in to Onslow County investigators. Laurean's DNA, though, was not present. But when asked by prosecutors if there was a reasonable explanation for how, if Laurean, in fact, had handled the tool, it did not contain his DNA, Hinton testified when multiple people handled an item, skin cells can be wiped away or knocked off fairly easily. During cross-examination, McNeil asked Hinton about the mixture of DNA found on the crowbar and she confirmed Laurean's DNA was excluded from possible matches. She also told the court she was told to rush the results regarding whether Mrs. Laurean's DNA was present on the tool -- it was not. Hinton confirmed cleaning off an object also would prevent agents from locating a DNA match.

Prosecution witness No. 40 -- Mary Lauterbach: The mother of the victim, Mrs. Lauterbach told the court she adopted Maria when she was only 19 months old and that her family has lived in Ohio for generations. She then told Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson her daughter left for boot camp days after high school graduation and that she attended her Maria's graduation from Parris Island. After graduating from boot camp, she continued, Maria was assigned to Camp Lejeune. But she kept in close contact with her family -- particularly, her mother, who said the two talked on the phone at least once a day -- except during bootcamp when Maria was not authorized to make phone calls, but wrote her mother "often." Mrs. Lauterbach then testified her daughter called her on Mother's Day 2007 and told her she had been "attacked, raped." Mrs. Lauterbach said she responded by asking Maria why she waited a month to report the incident, but "urged her" to report the incident to authorities. She told the court she Maria in June of that year -- the girl wanted to show her family her new car, the blue Hyundai investigators would end up finding in a the parking lot of a Jacksonville bus station. "That was her baby," Mrs. Lauterbach said. "She was very proud of (her car)." It was during that June visit that Mrs. Lauterbach found out her daughter was pregnant. And when they saw each other again in September 2007, "she was visibly pregnant at that time," the mother said. But she testified her daughter had "a very hard pregnancy. She was sick constantly." And she told the court Maria struggled with whether or not to keep the baby after it was born. In late November of the same year, Maria moved in with fellow Marine Daniel Durham, the victim's mother said. And she failed to make it home for Thanksgiving that year -- she was not allowed to travel because she was so close to her due date. Mrs. Lauterbach then told prosecutors that on Dec. 8, her daughter called her to talk about a baby shower that had been thrown for her. "She was upset that day," Mrs. Lauterbach said, because her mother again told her to seriously consider giving the baby up for adoption. "She was upset with me and sad," Mrs. Lauterbach told the court. But during a phone conversation they had Dec. 11, she testified, "she seemed a little calmer." And on Dec. 14, the two spoke for "close to half-an-hour" and Maria seemed at peace with the decision to give her child up for adoption. But when the mother got home from work around 6 p.m., Maria's sister was on the phone with Daniel Durham. "She said 'she left this strange note with Dan,'" Mrs. Lauterbach told the court. After hearing the note read to them, family members "immediately started calling her, but every time it went straight to her voicemail," Mrs. Lauterbach told the court. "We called it so many times. For days and days," she said. None of them, though, have talked to Maria since. Mrs. Lauterbach then positively identified her daughter in an ATM photo previously entered into evidence by the state. "That's my daughter," she said, fighting back tears. "That's my daughter Maria." She then testified her daughter hated buses and had never spoken about going to Mexico and did not speak Spanish. "She absolutely refused to ride buses," Mrs. Lauterbach said. And she "was very immobile" during her pregnancy. During cross- examination, McNeil asked Mrs. Lauterbach about the circumstances that lead to her daughter joining the Marine Corps. In the fall of 2005, she said, she signed for Maria to join because she was not yet old enough to do so without parental consent. McNeil then asked Mrs. Lauterbach if she was against her daughter joining the service. "I wanted her to think carefully about it," she said. "I was very proud of her." Mrs. Lauterbach told McNeil she did not recall telling one of Maria's officers that she thought her daughter joining the Corps was a mistake. And she testified Maria was not taking any prescription medication prior to entering the Marines. Mrs. Lauterbach then told McNeil her daughter was never married nor divorced, before fielding questions about the summary she wrote for law enforcement to use in their missing person's report. Mrs. Lauterbach told McNeil she remembered filling out the form. And when the defense asked her if she had an opinion regarding Maria's "truthfulness," she said, "My opinion is that Maria certainly told the truth but there where occasions where she ... would come up with these stories, but when she would it would become very apparent she was not telling the truth. In our family we would talk about how she was a terrible liar. It was occasional, not constant." McNeil then asked if Mrs. Lauterbach remembered making contact with Onslow County law enforcement when her daughter went missing. She testified that on Dec. 17, Durham gave her a number to call at Camp Lejeune, but when the Marines told her they couldn't do anything, she called Sheriff's Office. But she denied telling authorities at any point in time that her daughter was a compulsive or pathological liar. "Nancy Grace calls Maria a pathological liar. I never did," she later told McNeil. She did testify, however, that she told investigators her daughter had "occasional problems with ... lying." McNeil then turned his focus to whether or not Mrs. Lauterbach believed Maria should have kept her child. The victim's mother said it was always her belief that her daughter should go the adoption route. She, herself, she said had a "marvelous experience" with adoption -- she adopted both Maria and her biological sister -- but when she told Maria that, it caused some strain between the two. Initially, Mrs. Lauterbach said, Maria agreed with her, but "as the baby grew" and she felt the child moving around inside her, she started to "second-guess herself," Mrs. Lauterbach said. McNeil then asked if Maria ever told her mother if she was social with the person she alleged sexually assaulted her, to which she replied, "No." And when the defense asked her if Maria had ever discussed any financial troubles with her mother, she said, "she didn't discuss the money thing. She made things look rosy."