Laurean's capture shocks villagers

April 12, 2008 10:18:30 AM PDT
People wondered about the bearded foreigner who moved into a rustic cabin weeks ago in the pine-clad mountains surrounding this picturesque village.

Some thought maybe he was a drug trafficker -- something not unheard of in these parts. It was not until Friday when they saw Cpl. Cesar Laurean's photograph in the local newspaper that they learned he was a U.S. Marine suspected of killing a pregnant colleague.

olice arrested Laurean, 21, on Thursday as he was walking along the main street in San Juan de la Vina in the municipality of Tacambaro, ending a three-month manhunt. He is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, 20, who had accused him of rape.

Lauterbach's burned remains were found in January in the backyard of his home near Camp Lejeune, a coastal North Carolina base that is home to roughly 50,000 Marines.

FBI Public Affairs Specialist Amy Thoreson said FBI agents were present at Laurean's arrest in Mexico, but it was unclear what role they played.

Bearded and thin, Laurean told police he survived for months largely by eating avocados from the orchard in the mountains where he lived in Michoacan state.

After his arrest Thursday, a slightly disoriented Laurean spoke briefly with The Associated Press while being held by Mexican police.

"You know my name. You know who I am," Laurean said. Asked if he wanted to say anything, Laurean answered, "Proof," but would not explain.

Asked what he would do next, he replied, "Do I have a choice? ... I don't know."

Residents here said Laurean lived in a three-room wood cabin with a corrugated metal roof where he slept on a bed of crushed cardboard boxes. On Friday, there was a notebook on the cabin's floor showing that he kept a diary of his daily exercise routine, including push-ups, sit-ups and crunches. There were two shelves filled with canned tuna, instant soup and candy.

He walked to town daily, greeting those he passed, and spent hours at the local Internet cafe.

"He always seemed really happy to see us. He was serious, respectful," said Tomasa Boteyo, 78, who lived near his cabin.

Then on Thursday afternoon, state police officers drove through town looking for someone, residents say. They spotted Laurean walking toward the Internet cafe.

Lorenza Olayo, 96, who would greet Laurean daily from her front stoop, said he did not fight back when officers grabbed him.

She said she did not know why the young man was taken away until she saw his picture in the local newspaper the next day.

Lucio Tapia, 22, said before his arrest, Laurean told him he had just returned from Spain and that his parents were punishing him by making him live on an avocado orchard in Mexico.

Laurean was born in Guadalajara but reportedly moved to the U.S. more than 10 years ago.

"I thought he was a drug trafficker," Tapia said. "There's a lot of drugs here and drug traffickers hide out in the mountains here."

On Friday, Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson said Laurean and his wife, Christina, sent Internet messages to each other through the MySpace social-networking service. Christina Laurean used her sister's computer, which was seized, Hudson said.

Christina Laurean did not break any laws by communicating with her husband as long as she did not provide him with money or aid of any other kind, Hudson said.

Onslow County Capt. Rick Sutherland said Cesar Laurean "repeatedly asked for resources from family members" and that his wife "specifically denied those resource when she was asked."

Christina Laurean fully cooperated with investigators, he said, "and got us to the point where we are today."

The FBI said Cesar Laurean, of Las Vegas, is awaiting extradition to the U.S., although local authorities in North Carolina cautioned the process could take a year or more if he decides to fight it. They encouraged him Friday to waive extradition, saying the process -- however lengthy -- will inevitably lead to his return.

Hudson, the district attorney, agreed not to seek the death penalty against Laurean in order to win the cooperation of Mexico authorities, who refuse to send anyone back to the U.S. unless assured they will not face execution.

Authorities believe that on Dec. 14, Laurean killed Lauterbach, who was eight months pregnant, after forcing her to remove money from her bank account.

Lauterbach and Laurean were both personnel clerks in a logistics unit at Camp Lejeune. Detectives have said Laurean left behind a note for his wife in which he denied killing Lauterbach but admitted burying her remains.

In the note, Laurean said Lauterbach committed suicide by cutting her own throat, an assertion authorities have rejected, citing evidence that she died of blunt force trauma to the head.

Maria's mother, Mary Lauterbach, said Friday that a sheriff telephoned her with news of Laurean's capture.

"This has been a terrible tragedy, not only for our family but for Cesar and Christina and Laurean's family," she said as she backed out of her driveway at her Vandalia, Ohio, home.

In a separate statement released through her attorney, Lauterbach added that "nothing can replace the pain" of Maria's death. "At the same time, we know that Maria would want justice to be done in this case."

FBI PRESS RELEASE FROM THURSDAY'S CAPTURE BELOW

FBI agents and Mexican authorities arrested Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean Thursday around 7 p.m. EDT. He is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, whose burned remains were found in January in the back yard of his home near Camp Lejeune.

Magdalena Guzman, a spokeswoman for Michoacan, Mexico, state prosecutors office, said Laurean was detained by Mexican police on a street in the small town of Tacambaro, Michoacan. Police said Laurean matched a description circulated by U.S. authorities, Guzman said.

"He was walking down the street. He did not resist," said FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson. "We had FBI agents, NCIS agents as well as the Mexican authorities (there) at the time."

The FBI said Laurean is now awaiting extradition to the U.S. "Laurean's swift arrest in Mexico was due to the diligence and dedication of the Mexican government and our law enforcement partners," Nathan Gray, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Charlotte office, said in a statement.

"This was truly an international effort, and we will do all we can to ensure Laurean is brought back to Onslow County (N.C.) as quickly as possible to answer the charges against him."

But Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson immediately cautioned Thursday night that should Laurean decides to fight the extradition process, "it could be a year or two" until authorities are able to bring him back to North Carolina to stand trial.

"The extradition process is one where you have a right to appeal," Hudson told The Associated Press. "I have no idea whether he would waive extradition."

Authorities believe Laurean killed the 20-year-old Lauterbach, an Ohio native who was eight months pregnant when she died, in mid-December. Detectives have said before fleeing for Mexico, Laurean left behind a note for his wife Christina in which he denied killing Lauterbach but admitted burying her remains.

In the note, Laurean said Lauterbach committed suicide by cutting her own throat. It's an assertion that authorities have rejected, citing evidence that she died of blunt force trauma to the head.

Tipped by the note, and not long after they went public in their search for the missing Lauterbach, authorities discovered the charred remains of the missing Marine and her fetus in a shallow grave in Laurean's backyard. Authorities determined Lauterbach had not given birth at the time of her death, and under North Carolina law that meant prosecutors were only able to charge Laurean with a single count of murder.

Hudson said Thursday investigators had recently seized a computer belonging to Christina Laurean's sister, which she was using to communicate with her husband. He said he didn't know if that led directly to Laurean's arrest. He declined to discuss the contents of the communications, but authorities have previous said Christina Laurean was cooperating with detectives.

"Just communicating with her husband is not against the law," Hudson said. "To be an accessory after the fact you have to show someone provided assistance like information or money, and we don't have any evidence of that."

Lauterbach and Laurean were both personnel clerks in the same logistics unit at Camp Lejeune, the massive base on the state's Atlantic Coast that home to roughly 50,000 Marines. Detectives believe Laurean killed Lauterbach on Dec. 14, after forcing her to remove money from her bank account.

She had accused Laurean of rape last spring, a charged he denied and one that Naval investigators were unable to corroborate. Even though Lauterbach later told investigators she did not feel Laurean posed a danger or threat to her, the pair was separated on base. The Marines have said their regimental commander was intent on taking the case to a hearing that could have led to a trial.

Laurean, 21, of Las Vegas, had told members of his unit that he would flee to Mexico if it appeared he would be found guilty. Authorities believe he entered Mexico on a bus on Jan. 14, two days after fleeing from Jacksonville. He was born in Guadalajara, but family members there have said he moved to the U.S. more than 10 years ago.

Mexico hesitated to extradite foreigners for much of the 1980s and 1990s, but U.S. officials have praised the county's increased cooperation in recent years. State Department officials said Mexico extradited 73 suspects to the U.S. in 2007, most to face drug or murder charges.

Sometimes Mexico will forgo the traditional extradition and deport a suspected criminal for entering the country illegally -- a much quicker process. More than 150 U.S. citizens were deported from Mexico last year.

Messages seeking comment left at the Lauterbach home in Vandalia, Ohio, with Lauterbach's uncle Pete Steiner, and with family attorney Chris Conard were not immediately returned late Thursday. At the home of Laurean's father-in-law, Bruce Shifflet, near Prospect, Ohio, a woman who answered the phone hung up when told of the arrest.

Lauterbach's family has criticized the Marine Corps for what they feel was a lack of urgency in investigating the rape allegations. In a letter sent this week to Ohio GOP Rep. Michael Turner, who has rallied to their cause, the Marines said no effort was made to question Laurean about Lauterbach's disappearance because the two were no longer working together.

The Corps added the pair were no longer associated as far as their commanders knew and there was no evidence to indicate Laurean had anything to do with her unauthorized absence.

If and when Laurean returns to North Carolina to stand trial, he will not face the death penalty. Hudson agreed not to seek an execution in order to win the cooperation of Mexico authorities, who refuse to send anyone back to the U.S. unless provided assurance they won't face a death sentence.

"We had intel that he had gone back to America to visit his family in Las Vegas and I was hoping they would arrest him in America," Hudson said. "But they didn't. This is a case that certainly is deserving to be tried as a capital case."

There will be a news conference at the Onslow County Sheriff Office at 2 p.m. Friday.

According to Captain Rick Sutherland with the Onslow County Sheriff's Office, special agents are finishing reports about the capture. Until then no other information is being released.

FBI Public Affairs Specialist Amy Thoreson says they are not being specific about where Laurean was captured.


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