Guilty; life - Jury finds Cesar Laurean guilty of first-degree murder
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 24, 2010 2:35 PM
The state contended ex-Marine Cesar Laurean used a crowbar to kill Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach Dec. 14, 2007. When the tool, after being given as a gift to former Marine Danny Ward by Laurean, was turned into Onslow County law enforcement several weeks after the homicide, it was submitted into evidence and sent to the State Bureau of Investigation lab in Raleigh for analysis. Ms. Lauterbach’s DNA was found on the object and the pathologist who performed the autopsy on the pregnant Marine’s remains concluded the crowbar could have generated the force necessary to cause the fatal wound — a skull-crushing blow — to the left side of Ms. Lauterbach’s head. Laurean’s DNA was not found on the weapon, however, DNA experts told the court the fact that it was handled by several people after the crime could have contributed to the lack of a DNA link between the crowbar and the defendant.
Her voice, at times, trembling, and with tears rolling off her cheeks, Mary Lauterbach confronted ex-Marine Cesar Laurean -- the man who had, moments earlier been convicted of murdering her oldest daughter -- late Monday afternoon inside the Wayne County Courthouse.
She told him how her life, and the lives of her family members, have not been the same since Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach went missing Dec. 14, 2007.
She called herself an "innocent victim" of his "horrible decisions."
And then she told him just how fortunate he was that his sentence would likely include a lifetime of reflection and repentance instead of death.
The following is testimony from a selection of key witnesses who took the stand during ex-Marine Cesar Laurean's first-degree murder trial:
Prosecution Witness No. 1 — Daniel Durham
Durham, a Marine with 10 years in the service, told the court the victim, Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, was his roommate in a house he owns just outside Camp Lejeune. The Marine described Ms. Lauterbach as someone who “kind of kept to herself,” and when asked to detail the events of Dec. 14, 2007, told the court he returned from work between 4 and 4:30 p.m. and found a note written by Ms. Lauterbach that stated her intent to leave the Marine Corps. A portion of the note read, “Sorry, but I cannot take this Marine Corps life anymore.” Durham testified that after finding the note, he tried to call his roommate’s cell phone several times, but it went “straight to voicemail.” He waited until the following Monday to notify Camp Lejeune officials about the note he found, hoping Ms. Lauterbach would return and was simply “blowing off steam.” During cross-examination, defense attorney Dick McNeil asked Durham if Ms. Lauterbach owed him any back rent. Durham said she owed him $600. He also told the court that Ms. Lauterbach confided in him that she was unsure about whether to keep her unborn child or put the baby up for adoption.
Prosecution Witness No. 4 — Blake Costa
A Marine who referred to himself as a “friend” of Laurean, Costa told the court he and Laurean hung out several times and that he even attended a “small barbecue” at the defendant’s home. He testified that one day, Laurean called and asked Costa to meet him in a parking lot. Costa complied and testified that when he arrived, he got in Laurean’s truck. The defendant, he told the court, proceeded to tell him that he had “consensual sex” with Ms. Lauterbach but was being charged with rape. Costa also said Laurean wanted to convince Ms. Lauterbach to move to Mexico, with the understanding that he would send her money as long as she stayed away. “She would be ... a deserter ad basically you’re discredited as a Marine once that happens,” Costa said. He also testified he told Laurean to seek civilian counsel regarding the situation. McNeil’s cross-examination, again, did not take much time. At one point, he asked Costa what kind of Marine Laurean was, a question to which he replied, “He was a good Marine in our eyes.”
Prosecution Witness No. 9 — Roshaun Hames
Hames, a Greyhound bus ticket salesman, told jurors that he saw Ms. Lauterbach enter the station on Dec. 14 and asked her if she needed help. Ms. Lauterbach asked if she could leave her car in the parking lot. Hames testified that he assisted her in the purchase of a bus ticket from Jacksonville to El Paso, Texas. The bus ticket was for Dec. 15. Hames said Ms. Lauterbach told him that she was pregnant from someone at the base. He said she did not leave her car that day, but that he saw the blue car in the parking lot later on. When a photo of the car was admitted into evidence, Hames said the car was not parked as he remembered. Hames also said that Ms. Lauterbach told him that she was leaving the Marines because the Marine Corps “did her wrong.” He described her as “a little distraught.”
Prosecution Witness No. 13 — Frank Davis
A former Marine and current vice president of Marine Federal Credit Union, Davis told the court his duties at the bank include managing ATM security and investigating fraud. He testified that he was called on to assist the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office in its investigation of the December 2007 ATM usage of Ms. Lauterbach’s ATM card. Davis explained to the court how video surveillance is used in ATMs and revealed what he found upon reviewing bank records and ATM security camera footage associated with the charges against Laurean. Davis testified that on Dec. 14, a white female who was pregnant withdrew $700 using Ms. Lauterbach’s card — prosecutors contend it was Ms. Lauterbach. But on Dec. 21, four unsuccessful attempts to withdraw funds were documented by the bank. Two of those transactions were denied due to use of an incorrect PIN number, he said. And the other two — the correct PIN was used — were canceled due to insufficient funds in the account. Davis then told the court the Dec. 24 security tape showed a white male who “appeared to be trying to conceal himself,” using the card. “He covered the camera,” Davis said. But the device was still able to capture several images of the man, ones Davis saved onto his computer and used to create still photos for investigators. Those photographs were later introduced as evidence and members of the jury got to look at the man prosecutors claim is Laurean. McNeil objected when the state asked Davis to compare the photos to one of the defendant and Smith dismissed the jury before telling prosecutors the jury was capable of making its own comparisons.
Prosecution Witness No. 14 — Malo Menard
Laurean’s neighbor for more than a year, Menard told Assistant District Attorney Michael Maultsby he did not really know the defendant, but “had seen him around.” But when asked questions about December 2007, he testified sections of the Laurean’s fence were suddenly gone and that his neighbor lit a “bonfire” in his back yard around Christmas. Menard also told the court he saw a blue vehicle parked on the road around the day of the fire, and when he was shown a photograph of Ms. Lauterbach’s car, he confirmed it was the blue Hyundai parked outside the Laurean home. During cross-examination, Menard explained the Laurean’s dog, one he told prosecutors the defendant began tying up out front in the days after the fire, was small. McNeil then asked Menard if he had seen the blue car outside the Laurean’s home on more than one occasion, to which the neighbor responded, “Yes.” Menard also testified there were six or seven others around the fire the day it was burning, including Laurean.
Prosecution Witness No. 15 — Richard Alander
Also Laurean’s neighbor, Alander told the court he, too, noticed sections of the Laurean fence going missing in December 2007. He also remembered the bonfire, particularly because, “My wife had been complaining of the smell.” Alander then said he, too, had seen a blue car parked at the defendant’s home around the time of the fire. During cross-examination, McNeil asked Alander about the car and Alander said it was “parked out front by the mailbox.” The state asked one additional question before Alander stepped down — the neighbor testified he had witnessed Laurean driving that blue car.
Prosecution Witness No. 16 — NCIS Special Agent Randy Dulay
An NCIS computer analyst, Dulay told the court his role in the Laurean investigation included involved copying the hard drives of government-owned computers issued to Laurean, his wife and Ms. Lauterbach. He testified he was tasked with reviewing the Web activity and documents on the computers and told the court what he found. He also explained that to access the computers, a Department of Defense ID card and PIN number are needed to verify the identity of the user. After examining the contents of the computers, Dulay wrote a report — one he would share with the court. He testified Laurean conducted several Google searches after Ms. Lauterbach’s disappearance, including one for “what happens in a homicide investigation” and another for a criminal defense attorneys in the Jacksonville area. Dulay also said Laurean conducted a Mapquest search for directions from his home just outside Camp Lejeune to a Holiday Inn in Raleigh and performed a Google search for employment opportunities in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Analysis of Laurean’s wife’s computer and that of Ms. Lauterbach, however, did not result in any findings relevant to the case, Dulay said. During cross-examination, McNeil asked Dulay if he had found any e-mails sent between Laurean and Ms. Lauterbach. Dulay testified he had not, but explained, “There is no way to tell once an e-mail is deleted.” McNeil also asked if it could be determined how much time was spent at each Web site and Dulay said it would be difficult to know for sure.
Prosecution Witness No. 18 — Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joel Larsen
The Officer in Charge of Laurean in 2007, Larsen told the prosecutors he was aware of Ms. Lauterbach’s sexual assault charge against Laurean and had discussed the matter with him. “I asked him pointed questions about whether there was a sexual relationship there,” he said. Lauren, Larsen said, denied any contact. The Marine then testified after the rape charge was made, Ms. Lauterbach was moved across Camp Lejeune from where Laurean worked. “There was a military protection order in place” so they were supposed to avoid contact with one another, he explained. Larsen also told the court he did not see Laurean at a Dec. 14, 2007, Christmas party everyone was aware they were supposed to attend. Then, on Dec. 17, Larsen found out about the note Ms. Lauterbach left for her roommate about her intentions to leave the Marine Corps. He testified Laurean He said that Laurean wanted to know, “career-wise,” how Ms. Lauterbach’s disappearance would effect his rape trial. Then, on Dec. 27 of the same year, Laurean told Larsen that after deserting, Ms. Lauterbach had sent him flowers. “It was odd. Why would she send flowers, especially to him?” Larsen also answered questions about a phone call he received from NCIS on Jan. 8, 2008. Investigators, he said, wanted to talk to Laurean. Larsen told the court after the defendant was interviewed by NCIS, he started “asked a lot of questions” about Ms. Lauterbach and whether the rape charge would move forward if she never returned. The Marine also testified that Laurean wanted to deploy to Iraq — that he was a “stellar performer.” But he later told prosecutors his opinion of the defendant has since changed. During cross-examination, McNeil asked Larsen if he knew Ms. Lauterbach well and he said he did not, but acknowledged he had discussed her performance with other Officers In Charge. When McNeil asked Larsen if he knew of Ms. Lauterbach’s reputation as “a discipline problem,” the state objected, prompting Smith to ask the jury to leave the courtroom. In the absence of the jury, Larsen told the court it was his opinion that Ms. Lauterbach “is not credible” and had a reputation as someone who “stretches the truth.” Smith then called a meeting with McNeil and prosecutors in his chambers and when they returned, he brought the jury back in and allowed McNeil to, again, ask Larsen about Ms. Lauterbach’s reputation. “She’s not always truthful,” Larsen said.
Prosecution Witness No. 19 — Retired Master Sgt. Mariane Pruneda
One of the Officers in Charge of Laurean’s wife, Mrs. Pruneda told the court that on Jan. 9, 2008, she first learned Ms. Lauterbach was missing, so she told her Marines that CNN was reporting a missing Lejeune Marine and asked if any of them had any information about the case. Moments later, Mrs. Laurean, Mrs. Pruneda testified, came to her crying. “She was agitated. She was upset. She was crying.” The defense objected to the Marine discussing the details of that conversation, so Mrs. Pruneda moved on to a phone call she received from Mrs. Laurean two days later. “She was literally hysterical on the phone.” Mrs. Pruneda told the court, before explaining that later that day, she met the defendant’s wife at an off-base McDonald’s and drove her to an attorney’s office. She then said while she waited for Mrs. Laurean to finish with the attorneys, NCIS showed up and took Mrs. Laurean to the Onslow County Sheriff’s office, where she gave a statement to law enforcement.
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 SBI Special Agent Chip 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. 27 — Dennis Ward
A former Marine, Ward told the court he worked with Laurean from 2006 until his unauthorized absence in 2008. He testified he and the defendant had a social relationship also, as he and his wife went to Laurean’s home several times for various functions. Prosecutors 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 disappearance, 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. 39 — State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Sharon R. Hinton
A forensic biologist and expert in bodily fluids and DNA, Mrs. 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, Ms. Lauterbach and other people of interest. Mrs. 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 SBI Special Agent Jenny 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 Ms. 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.” Mrs. 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 Ms. 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 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 Mrs. 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. Mrs. 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 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 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.”
Prosecution Witness No. 41 — FBI Special Agent Steve Kling
An agent assigned to find Laurean in Mexico, Kling told the court that he was charged with working with Mexican officials to capture the defendant after he fled across the border. He testified that while in Mexico, he does not have the power to arrest a fugitive, but often cooperates with the country’s police and government to apprehend those sought by the United States, but worked with Mexican authorities. Kling then told the court that on April 9, 2008, he met with a six-man team provided to help him “look in the hills” for Laurean in a location about 10 hours from the U.S.-Mexico border. The group first went to a small town to locate the pay phone from which Laurean had contacted his family, and, then, a cyber cafe the fugitive also was believed to have used. Kling testified his team then established surveillance at the location, where they kept watch until 9:30 that evening. The following day, after added several NCIS agents to the team, Kling decided to become “more aggressive” in its search for Laurean — questioning local shop owners about whether or not they had seen Ms. Lauterbach’s alleged killer. The team was told he was residing in one of the small towns nearby, so they traveled there and were waiting to speak with the “village elder” when they saw Laurean approaching. “At first we weren’t sure it was him,” Kling said. “He was a lot thinner ... had a beard, a baseball cap.” But when the man got closer, they knew they had spotted their mark and gave chase. Moments later, Kling testified, Laurean was apprehended. “He lifted up his shirt sleeve and there was the tattoo, a very distinct phoenix tattoo,” the agent said. Then Laurean started speaking in Spanish, saying, “What’s going on? What’s happening?” Kling told the court he replied, “Cesar, your tattoo doesn’t lie. You’re caught.” After he was arrested, the defendant was ultimately taken to Mexico City, where he remained until formal extradition proceedings took place — Laurean ended up in Miami where he was turned over to FBI and North Carolina lawmen. During cross-examination, McNeil only asked that Kling confirm that he received information about Laurean’s whereabouts via phone calls and the Internet sent to Jacksonville from the pay phone and cyber cafe in that Mexican town.
Defense Witness No. 3 — Navy Cmdr. Lynn Carlton
A registered nurse and midwife assigned to the OBGYN section at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, Ms. Carlton told the court Ms. Lauterbach was one of her patients from September to the end of November 2007. She testified that Ms. Lauterbach’s last menstrual period was documented as beginning May 10, 2007, and that on Aug. 9, an ultrasound confirmed Ms. Lauterbach was 13 weeks and 1 day pregnant — that the conception likely took place in the middle to end of May. Ms. Carlton described Ms. Lauterbach’s pregnancy as “routine.” During cross-examination, Lee asked the nurse to confirm the last time she saw Ms. Lauterbach. Ms. Carlton responded it was during an appointment in late November 2007, explaining that she did not show up for her Dec. 27 appointment. The defense redirected and Ms. Carlton testified Ms. Lauterbach’s estimated due date was Feb. 14, 2008. McNeil then showed the nurse a document indicating that Ms. Lauterbach had a scheduled mental health appointment that was to take place over the phone.
Defense Witness No. 5 — Chief Warrant Officer 3 Caroline Biers
Laurean and Ms. Lauterbach’s Officer in Charge, Mrs. Biers took the stand in the absence of the jury, to allow Smith to hear a “run through” of the testimony. The judge would later rule that many of the questions McNeil asked her would not be allowed in front of the jury — that they were inadmissible and irrelevant. Among those things in her preliminary testimony the judge ruled the jury would not hear were stories that spoke to the image the defense painted of Ms. Lauterbach: a troubled young woman with a tendency to lie and steal. Mrs. Biers said on one occasion, her unit had collected money for Christmas decorations and it was told to her that Ms. Lauterbach took it. Upon questioning the victim, Mrs. Biers said Ms. Lauterbach admitted to taking the money and returned the funds. “I told her, ‘Marines don’t lie, cheat and steal,’” Mrs. Biers said. Ms. Lauterbach responded, Mrs. Biers continued, by telling her OIC she needed the money to visit her brother’s gravesite because she had missed the funeral. “I was concerned because she did not get to go to the funeral,” Mrs. Biers said, explaining that she called the Marine’s mother, who told her the brother was not dead, “that he was alive and well.” Mrs. Biers said Mrs. Lauterbach then told her that her daughter “had the tendency to create fantasies in her mind.” After that, Mrs. Biers told the court, she felt Ms. Lauterbach “needed to go to medical because this didn’t seem like normal behavior.” She also had heard that the Marine’s biological parents suffered from mental illness. “I was hoping she could move on from the incident,” Mrs. Biers said. After the incident, Ms. Lauterbach was “formally counseled” and was not recommended for promotion. And in March 2007, Mrs. Biers told Laurean to watch over the young Marine. Mrs. Biers then said that in May 2007, the sexual assault allegation was made, and that around that time, Ms. Lauterbach “was at times distraught at work — crying.” “When she made the allegation about Cpl. Laurean raping her, I did ask her if she stopped taking her medication.” Mrs. Biers said. “She said, ‘Yes.’ I asked her if the doctor told her to stop ... And she said, ‘No.’” The jury, though, heard only that Mrs. Biers was Laurean and Ms. Lauterbach’s Officer in Charge — that the victim “checked in” to the unit in November 2006. And she acknowledged part of Laurean’s duties were to “counsel” Ms. Lauterbach. She testified she was aware of the rape allegation and that Ms. Lauterbach had spoken to her about it -- that “the day she made the allegation,” Ms. Lauterbach told Ms. Biers she wanted out of the Marine Corps. Mrs. Biers then said Ms. Lauterbach was transferred to a different unit across Lejeune, due to the Military Protective Order that had been put in place. She also told the court that if a Marine was charged with adultery, it was a punishable defense, and when asked about the two Marines’ character, Mrs. Biers said Laurean was “mature” and an “outstanding performer” and Ms. Lauterbach was “not always truthful.”
Defense Witness No. 6 — Special Agent Megan Grafton
An NCIS family and sexual violence investigator, Mrs. Grafton told the court she was working on Lejeune in May 2007 — that on May 11 of that year, Ms. Lauterbach alleged Laurean raped her. She testified she took a statement from the victim, one that was signed by Ms. Lauterbach a week later. The victim, she then told the court, reported the alleged assaults took place in late March and early May 2007, and reported her pregnancy to the agent May 27 of that year. Mrs. Grafton said she was aware of the Military Protection Order preventing Laurean and Ms. Lauterbach from contact and explained that both parties are obligated to report contact with the other individual — she never received any reports of the MPO being violated. Mrs. Grafton then told the court the case remained open until January 2008 and that no charges were ever filed against Laurean. She then testified she was made aware of the paternity test which established Laurean was not the father of Ms. Lauterbach’s baby. And she also told the court that during a search of the home Ms. Lauterbach lived in with Durham, no adoption paperwork or baby gifts were found. During cross-examination, the state asked Mrs. Grafton about her interview with Base Exchange employee Pamela Chavis. Mrs. Chavis, she testified, told her she saw “a pregnant blonde female ... with a Hispanic male” around Christmas 2007 — that she ultimately identified the two as Laurean and Ms. Lauterbach. Mrs. Grafton then confirmed she was ordered to go to the office of Paul Castle to pick up Mrs. Laurean one day and take her to the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office — that when she arrived, she saw Mrs. Laurean in the lobby of the attorney’s office. “She was crying,” Mrs. Grafton said. “Very visibly upset.” The jury was excused from the courtroom when the defense objected to the state asking Grafton what kind of questions she asked Mrs. Laurean that day and later in the investigation of Ms. Lauterbach’s disappearance. The state asserted the line of questioning had merit because it established Mrs. Laurean’s level of cooperation with authorities. Smith said he would allow the state to ask some of its questions and when the jury returned to the courtroom, Mrs. Grafton testified she interviewed Mrs. Laurean approximately eight times from Jan. 11, 2007, to April 2008 — that Mrs. Laurean cooperated. Mrs. Grafton then told the court Laurean was scheduled to have a probable cause hearing involving the rape charge against him sometime between December 2007 and January 2008. And she also said no charges were ever filed against Mrs. Laurean in the Lauterbach case.
"Cesar, you have been given a wonderful gift of time," Mrs. Lauterbach said, looking toward him. "There are many people who will die this very day, people who would love to have the time God has given you. I hope you use it well."
A jury consisting of 12 Wayne residents -- two of them, former Marines -- determined only several hours after it began its deliberation that Laurean was guilty of first-degree murder and attempted financial card fraud.
Moments later, Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith gave his judgment: life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
But even after Laurean was handcuffed and lead out of Courtroom No. 1 by law enforcement officers, members of his family proclaimed his innocence, accusing Smith of conducting an "unfair" trial -- second-degree murder, they said, should have been an option for the jury.
"They didn't have no option ... to give him anything else," Laurean's youngest sister, Barbara said. "That's why we don't think the trial was fair."
And neither the testimony nor evidence proved to them beyond a reasonable doubt that their beloved brother and son was the killer he was convicted of being.
"Her son is the best man -- caring, protective of his family," Barbara said, acting as a translator for her mother, Elvira. "He would protect anybody. And he's innocent."
The girl agreed.
"He's a protector. He will protect his family," she said. "He will take care of his family before he takes care of anybody else."
Defense attorney Dick McNeil tried, one last time, to get Smith to allow a lesser murder charge to be entertained by those men and women who, ultimately, determined his client's fate, just before closing statements began earlier in the day.
"We disagree, respectfully, with some of the judge's decisions, like not offering second-degree as an alternative," he said after the trial. "We think there are some issues that the appellate court will want to look at and that will be raised by the appellate lawyer."
McNeil also tried to convince the jury that despite the overwhelming evidence collected at Laurean's home, somebody else could have committed the crime -- like the defendant's wife, Christina, who evoked her constitutional right to not testify against herself or her husband.
But during his closing argument, Onslow County Assistant District Attorney Ernie Lee had his own theory.
"Christina did not purchase those cinder blocks at Lowe's. ... Christina did not build that fire pit. Christina did not attempt to use Maria's ATM card. Christina was not driving the victim's car around. Christina did not give the crowbar with the victim's blood on it to Dennis Ward," he said. "Christina was not the one who used a computer ... to look into what happens during a homicide investigation. ... On Jan. 11, 2008, Christina did not flee North Carolina like the defendant did. ... The killer of Maria Lauterbach is not Christina Laurean. The killer of Maria Lauterbach is the man sitting right there."
And clearly, lead prosecutor Dewey Hudson said, the jury agreed.
"We're very happy with the verdict," he said. "Obviously, we were not surprised by this verdict. We were expecting this verdict."
But that doesn't mean the case was a total victory, he added.
In fact, Hudson remains disappointed that Laurean was not eligible to be sentenced to death -- the U.S. and Mexican governments agreed that extradition of the defendant from Mexico would only occur if the death penalty was off the table.
"We are somewhat disappointed that we did not allow the jury to have the opportunity to decide what the punishment would be ... because this is a case that deserves the death penalty," he said. "I think they need to revisit that treaty."
McNeil, too, said he felt some loss when the verdict was read and sentence handed down.
"It's not unexpected, but pretty disappointing," he said. "You know, as I said, it's an uphill battle being a defense counselor. ... Even though you know the odds might be stacked against you, based on the evidence or the circumstances, it still kind of kicks you."
And then there was Mrs. Lauterbach, who said no real closure will ever come -- not now that her daughter's killer has been brought to justice; not when two lives were taken, in such an untimely fashion, from her family.
"We will never again hear Maria laugh. We will never again see her smile," she said. "We will never again have Maria wake us up on Christmas morning. Our holidays will never be the same. Our lives will never be the same."