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08/22/10 — The Maria she loved

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The Maria she loved

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 22, 2010 1:50 AM

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Troy Herring

Mary Lauterbach testifies as images of her daughter, Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, sit next to the stand during the murder trial of Cesar Laurean.

Before Maria Lauterbach became a household name, she was her mother's little girl.

She was a Brownie.

She loved to swim.

She brought an energy and enthusiasm to things that, to others, might have seemed routine.

"You always knew when she was in the house," her mother, Mary, said. "You couldn't miss her."

But since her death, missing Maria is all those who loved her have been able to do.

So as Mary listened to her daughter's comrades testify about a different kind of girl -- a troubled and confused young woman -- she chose not to remember Maria in those terms.

Instead, she reached back to those memories she covets now that her oldest child is gone.

Like the day Mary adopted a 19-month-old little girl and her biological sister.

"I had been trying to have a child for seven years and by that point, we had pretty much given up," she said.

Or the first time she took Maria to the park.

"She jumped off the jungle gym and it's like five feet high," she said. "I'm like, 'Oh my goodness. She's hurt herself,' but she landed on her feet."

The mother can still feel her daughter's "very high energy level."

"She was so fun to have around because she would get incredibly excited about things. Anytime we had a holiday ... she loved to play games, and she would just get very excited about anything and it would make things a lot of fun," Mary said. "Like you would go to an amusement park and she says, 'Whoa, this is the greatest.' She was just extremely enthusiastic about things."

And she can see her interacting with the other children who would come into the Lauterbachs' lives.

"She liked to be the alpha sister and liked being the oldest and center of attention," Mary said. "She liked to be in charge of things."

As the first-degree murder trial of ex-Marine Cesar Laurean comes to an end -- closing arguments are set to take place Monday inside the Wayne County Courthouse before a jury determines whether or not the onetime corporal is guilty of killing Maria -- Mary said she has few regrets about her decision to sign her daughter up for a life of service to her country.

"At a festival, they had a contest, and people who could do a pull-up and hold their head above the bar for 30 seconds, you would win a T-shirt," Mary said. "Maria had done it for 70 seconds ... and that Marine recruiter said, 'We want you.'

"I thought it was a very good solution for her because she really was not intellectually oriented, but she was a very physical person. I assumed it would be a very structured environment and a real physical challenge for her. She was excited about that idea."

And the rest of her family was excited, too.

Maria did, after all, come from a "very patriotic family" -- both of her grandfathers served in World War II and her father has been a member of the Air Force Reserves for more than 28 years.

But in their grief, family members likely won't remember her for her commitment to the cause of freedom.

Mary says her legacy will be her inner strength -- the fact that she fought for the life of a child who might have, in part, led to her own death.

"You'll have to excuse me. It upsets me," Mary said, choking up. "This is a hard process."

Tears started falling.

"I know a lot of people probably don't like to hear this, but she very much had a commitment that she chose to give life to her baby, at a great sacrifice to her," Mary said. "We all recognize that if she had had an abortion, a lot of this might not have happened. So in a sense, I think her legacy is her strength. She is a martyr and hero for her baby."

Regardless of whether or not Laurean is convicted of Maria's murder, Mary knows there will never be total closure.

She will never again hear her daughter's voice or see the smile she said lit up the lives of those who knew her.

"You know, her family will never quite be the same without that big cheerleader there," she said.

But the Lauterbachs, she said, will be forever grateful for those simple acts of kindness they have been on the receiving end of since the trial began earlier this month.

Like the warmth of the community that housed it.

"I would say that people have been very respectful. You can kind of feel people staring at you a little bit sometimes, you know, looking your way, but I think people have been very respectful under the circumstances," Mary said. "It's been a very hard two weeks. I've seen some shocking things during the testimony that I've never seen before, so I think during those hard days, people kind of sensed that. They kind of kept their distance.

"And Seymour Johnson, they just couldn't have been more hospitable and accommodating. As we were coming in, they offered us anything we could possibly want. They said, 'We are just completely at your service.'"

So when they leave Wayne County after the jury makes its decision, Maria Lauterbach's family will take home the good that came out of a trip that could have been completely dark.

Like the images of the South in the summertime.

"All the flowering trees and everything, being from up north, it's a real treat to see all the beautiful flowers, even when it's so dry outside," Mary said.

And at least a few fond memories of a state Maria said, since she was first stationed in Jacksonville, she loved.

"It's just beautiful," Mary said. "You know, Maria loved North Carolina. She was just in her element down here."

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