Ex-Marine gets life after being convicted of killing pregnant colleague found in backyard

A former Marine has been sentenced to life in prison after a jury convicted him of murder in the death of a pregnant colleague who had accused him of rape, an allegation that threatened to derail a military career that had earned him promotions and praise.

Cesar Laurean, 23, of Las Vegas, was found guilty Monday of killing Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, 20, of Vandalia, Ohio, in December 2007. The two were assigned to the same logistics unit at Camp Lejeune, the base in Jacksonville, N.C., that is home to about 50,000 Marines. The trial was moved because of extensive pretrial publicity.

The former Marine corporal was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. Defense lawyer Dick McNeil told the court Laurean would appeal his conviction.

Before the judge imposed the sentence, the victim's mother, Mary Lauterbach, read a tearful statement. She told Laurean to remember the pain in his mother's face, and to think of the daughter who will have to live with the shame of a father who is a killer.

"Now you will have time to think about your shame, time to think about your failures," Mary Lauterbach said. "There are many people out there who will die today, people who would love to have the time that God has given you."

One juror said the panel didn't believe the theory McNeil presented that someone else, perhaps Laurean's enraged wife, could have killed Lauterbach with a single swing of a crowbar that fractured her skull. The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for three hours Monday before convicting Laurean.

"The thought entered out minds, but everything pointed to the fact that he is the one who did this crime," juror Brenda Peters said. "We went back over every speck of evidence that there was, piece by piece. That's how we reached our verdict."

Neither Laurean nor his wife testified during the trial.

Laurean's father, Salvador, and sister Blanca said they wished more of the testimony would have explained the problems the ex-Marine had with Lauterbach, whom the higher-ranking Laurean was ordered by superiors to help shape up.

"He's a nice, nice guy," Blanca Laurean said. "He doesn't deserve everyone thinking he's the worst man in the world. He's not."

Laurean also faced three other charges of robbing Lauterbach of her bank ATM card, and of theft and attempted fraud for allegedly trying to use it to withdraw cash. He was found not guilty of the robbery charge, but Laurean was convicted on the fraud and theft charges.

Lauterbach's rape accusation never was corroborated, but a Marine buddy testified Laurean told him the sex was consensual. A DNA test would prove later that Laurean was not the father of Lauterbach's child. She was seven months pregnant when she died.

Even if the rape accusation was false, the married father of a young child faced having his career derailed for committing adultery with a subordinate, District Attorney Dewey Hudson said. Laurean had already faced an order to stay away from Lauterbach, and his Marine superiors said a hearing on the rape allegation was approaching.

"He was a married man. He was her boss. He had sex with her," Hudson told jurors in his closing argument. "He's damned if he does or damned if he don't."

Laurean, who was born in Mexico, fled his home and was on the run until police arrested him in April 2009 in the Mexican municipality of Tacambaro. Prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty so Mexican authorities would return Laurean, who was born in Guadalajara, to the U.S. Laurean was kicked out of the Marines after fleeing as investigators closed in.

Testimony showed that hours before Lauterbach was last seen alive, she withdrew $700, left a note for her roommate saying she was quitting the Marines, and bought a bus ticket to El Paso, Texas, on the Mexican border. Lauterbach told the ticket agent that her child was fathered by a fellow Marine she was barred from seeing, but she expected him to join her soon.

The same Marine buddy, Lance Cpl. Blake Costa, testified that Laurean told him he wanted to tell Lauterbach she could stay with his relatives in Mexico, where he would send her money and join her later.

Laurean knew that once Lauterbach was declared a deserter, her already shaky credibility within their unit would be destroyed. He hoped he would be cleared to continue his career, Hudson said.

Lauterbach's charred corpse was discovered nearly a month later in a hole under the firepit Laurean built over the grave, prosecutors said.

"It almost worked. She bought the ticket," Hudson said. "But something happened at his home that day. And then he used a second plan, and that was smashing in her head with a crowbar."