SAN JUAN DE LA VINA, Mexico – People wondered about the bearded stranger with a foreign accent 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.
Police 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. Laurean was being held at a Mexico City prison.
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. Hudson said Friday that Mexican law requires an extradition process that will take at least 60 days to complete.
Authorities believe that on Dec. 14, Laurean killed Lauterbach, who was eight months pregnant, after forcing her to remove money from her bank account.
On Friday, Navy investigators said they would wait until Laurean is returned to the United States to perform a paternity test to determine if he was the father of the unborn child, because they want a reliable DNA sample from him.
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."