Victim's mom takes stand in murder trial
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 18, 2010 1:46 PM
Mary Lauterbach reacts to an image of her daughter Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach during the murder trial of Cesar Laurean Tuesday.
Mary Lauterbach kept her composure -- even after a forensic biologist confirmed her daughter's DNA was found on the majority of evidence collected inside ex-Marine Cesar Laurean's garage, even while she sat on the witness stand and fielded questions about the last time she heard Maria's voice.
But when Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson showed her an image captured by an ATM around the time the Marine lance corporal disappeared, her mother fought back tears.
"That's my daughter," Mrs. Lauterbach said, choking up. "That's my daughter Maria."
The prosecution focused, Tuesday, on what SBI analysts found on several items seized from the Laureans' garage in January 2008 -- paint equipment, an inflatable raft, a peg board, plastic container, crowbar, tan pillow and a swab taken from the garage floor.
And after confirming, via testimony given by bodily fluid specialist Special Agent Jenny Elwell, that visual and chemical tests indicated the presence of blood on the items, the state called DNA expert Sharon Hinton to the stand.
A forensic biologist who specializes in bodily fluids and DNA, Hinton was first recognized by Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith as an expert.
Then, she testified her role in the Laurean case was to analyze swabs taken from several pieces of evidence collected at the crime scene and to compare them with other evidence that would be used to create DNA "standards" for Laurean, Ms. Lauterbach and other people of interest.
Ms. Hinton told the court she used a femur bone collected during the autopsy conducted on Ms. Lauterbach's remains as the DNA standard for the victim and a toothbrush found in Laurean's truck -- and, later, a swab taken from his cheek -- as the standard for the defendant. 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.
Ms. Hinton testified she compared the swab taken from the plastic container found in Laurean's garage to the profile created from Ms. Lauterbach's bone and Laurean's toothbrush -- that the swab 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."
The agent then 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 Ms. Hinton analyzed a swab taken from the end of the tool -- the spot former Marine Dennis Ward testified Tuesday he noticed blood on after Laurean gave him the crowbar a few days after Ms. Lauterbach disappeared -- she confirmed the DNA could have come from no other person than the victim.
But the tool's handle contained a "mixture" of DNA.
"There is more than one person on this piece of evidence," Ms. Hinton said.
Using the standards as her guide, she told the court, 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 Onslow Assistant District Attorney Ernie Lee 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 handle an item, skin cells can be wiped away or knocked off fairly easily.
During cross-examination, defense attorney Dick McNeil asked Ms. Hinton about the mixture of DNA found on the crowbar, and she confirmed Laurean's DNA was excluded from possible matches, but added cleaning off an object also would prevent agents from locating a DNA match.
After Ms. Hinton stepped down, the victim's mother was called to the stand -- she took a deep breath before making her way to the seat she would spend the next hour in.
Hudson handled the questioning and began by asking her to detail her relationship with Maria.
Mrs. Lauterbach testified she adopted the girl when she was only 19 months old -- that she gave consent so that Maria could join the Marine Corps at 17 years old.
But even while her daughter was stationed several states away from home, the two, she said, kept in close contact -- speaking on the phone at least once a day.
Mrs. Lauterbach then told the court Maria called her on Mother's Day 2007 and said she had been "attacked, raped."
Her mother responded by asking the young woman why she waited a month to report the incident, but "urged her" to report the incident to authorities.
She testified she saw Maria in June of that year -- her daughter came home to show her family her new car, the blue Hyundai investigators would end up finding in 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 the mother found out her daughter was pregnant. And when they saw each other again in September 2007, "she was visibly pregnant at that time."
But Mrs. Lauterbach testified her daughter had "a very hard pregnancy."
"She was sick constantly," she said.
And she told the court Maria struggled with whether or not to keep the baby after it was born -- an issue that created strife between the mother and daughter.
Mrs. Lauterbach referenced a particular phone conversation that took place Dec. 8, 2007, when Maria called home to talk about a baby shower that had been thrown for her.
"She was upset that day," Mrs. Lauterbach said, adding she felt her mother was being insensitive by again telling her to seriously consider giving the baby up for adoption.
"She was upset with me and sad," Mrs. Lauterbach said.
But during another phone conversation a few days later, "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, her mother testified.
Later that day, when she returned home from work, Mrs. Lauterbach was informed that Maria had left a note for her roommate, Daniel Durham.
"(My other daughter) said 'She left this strange note with Dan,'" Mrs. Lauterbach told the court.
After hearing the note read to them, one that detailed her intention to desert from the Marine Corps, family members "immediately started calling her, but every time it went straight to her voicemail," her mother said.
"We called it so many times," Mrs. Lauterbach said. "For days and days."
Maria never called again.
Mrs. Lauterbach then told the court her daughter hated buses and had never spoken about going to Mexico and did not speak Spanish.
During cross-examination, McNeil asked Mrs. Lauterbach about the circumstances that lead to her daughter joining the Marine Corps.
She told the court in the fall of 2005, 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. "But I was very proud of her."
Mrs. Lauterbach then told McNeil she did not recall telling one of Maria's officers that she thought her daughter joining the Corps was a mistake, and that her daughter was not taking any prescription medication prior to entering the Marines.
The defense then shifted its focus to the victim's "truthfulness" and mental health.
"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," Mrs. Lauterbach told the court. "In our family, we would talk about how she was a terrible liar."
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," Mrs. Lauterbach said. "I never did."
Mrs. Lauterbach then acknowledged, again, it was always her belief that her daughter should give her child up for adoption after it was born, but that "as the baby grew" and Maria felt the child moving around inside her, she started to "second-guess herself."