Video: From suspicious to homicide

By Clint Van Zandt
updated 6/30/2008 5:12:31 PM ET 2008-06-30T21:12:31

It was 1945 and WWII was finally drawing to a close. After 72 million deaths, the war related killings would soon stop, but the crime of murder would continue unabated in most countries, to include America. A woman was stabbed to death in Chicago in June 1945, and then another woman met the same fate, probably by the same killer, that December.  The killer would leave a message for police and society at his second victim’s home, a frightening message scrawled in lipstick on a wall in the dead woman’s home that terrorized an entire city. 

“For heavens sake catch me before I kill more. I can not control myself.”  The now double murderer, someone who would claim at least one more victim, a six-year-old girl, was dubbed “The Lipstick Killer” by the local media.  Police would identify many suspects, but finally settled on 17-year-old William Heirens who would subsequently confess to all three murders. He later recanted his confession, stating he had been questioned by police for six days without sleep, food or water, beaten and administered truth serum in law enforcement’s attempt to build their case against him.  Although much of the physical evidence that linked Heirens to the murders was subject to both challenge and various forensic interpretations, he was nonetheless convicted and remains in prison today.   

Crime has a habit of repeating itself — at least that’s what many residents of Fayetteville, N.C., home of the U.S. Army’s Ft. Bragg, are saying after another pregnant soldier was found dead in a local motel. Every townsperson can recall the brutal murder of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, who, while eight months pregnant, disappeared in December 2007 from Camp Lejuene, N.C. Her remains were later found were later found buried in a firepit behind the home of the believed father of Lauterbach’s unborn child, fellow Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean.

"Life," it is said, "imitates the movies." Many criminals copy their actions after other well-known criminals, researching and striving to be as infamous as the person they’re trying to imitate, so they too can “be somebody.” When the decomposed body of 23-year-old Army specialist Megan Lynn Touma was found on June 21 in her motel room bathtub located just outside of Ft. Bragg, it wasn’t her AWOL status that brought her remains to the attention of investigators; it was the odor coming from her room. How long the seven-month pregnant woman had been dead is yet to be determined, but she had not reported to her new military assignment since June 16. Her cause of death has yet to be announced, but a police search warrant lists items seized from her motel room including the keys to her rental car, sections of drywall with suspected blood, unidentified fingerprints and a mirror.

Although all physical evidence is important, the mirror seized was of particular significance. It was on this mirror that someone used lipstick to scrawl a historically significant symbol on the mirror, one identical to that used by the infamous California serial killer called Zodiac, someone who killed five or more people from 1963 through 1970. While many suspects came up in that case, no one was ever charged with the murders. Zodiac wore a shirt with the circle and crosshairs symbol that would become synonymous with his crimes, and the subject of books and a 2007 movie. Richard Ramirez, the so-called “Night Stalker” who murdered 14 people between 1984-1985, used lipstick to leave messages and drawings at his crime scenes, and on bodies of some victims. Then there’s the tub where Touma’s lifeless body was found, one perhaps like that in which Kathleen Savio, the former wife of Chicago area police officer Drew Peterson was found. Was Touma placed in the tub by her killer, and if so, was it to wash away potential evidence or, perhaps, copied from the believed murder of Savio?

Local police would get a big clue days after the discovery of Touma’s body. An anonymous letter was received by The Fayetteville Observer, a message written by someone claiming to have murdered the person found in room 143. In a typewritten letter dated June 17 and postmarked locally on June 24, the writer said the following:

"17 JUNE @))*

To whom it may concern. The following is to inform that I am responsible for the dead body that was found on Saturday June 21 @ 1130 in room 143 at Fairfield INN by Marriot Skibo RD. It was a master piece. I confess, that I have killed many times before in several states, but now I will start using my role-model’s signature. There will be many more to come. Fayetteville law enforcement are very incompetent. I basically,sat there and watch while investigators were on site."

Investigators will note the order of date on the letter, in this case day, month, and year, is consistent with the form used by members of the military. The writer typed in 2008 while holding the shift key so it came out as "@))*". The writer then attempts to separate him/herself from any personal knowledge of the victim: He or she doesn't refer to Touma by name, or sex, but only as “the dead body.” The writer’s apparent reference to the suspected murder, “it was a master piece,” appears to have been inserted to suggest someone who has killed before.  The writer then attempts to suggest his/her far-reaching ability to commit similar crimes by following “I have killed many times before” with the statement “in several states.”

Why didn’t the Army seek to account for the missing and presumed AWOL pregnant woman? She was new to the post and apparently slipped between the cracks without anyone being accountable for her. Why wasn’t her body found days before? A “Do Not Disturb” sign apparently hung outside of her motel room door since June 17. Whose blood, DNA, fingerprints and other physical evidence, along with the victim, was found in the hotel room? Who had visited the young woman in her room?  The room was found in some stage of array. Who wrote the message on the mirror and sent the letter to the media and why? If she was engaged and obtained the transfer to Ft. Bragg to be with her fiancee, where was he, did they meet, and if not, why didn't he report her missing?  She must have told him she was coming and somehow arranged to meet upon her arrival if he was available and in town.  Who wrote the message on t he mirror and sent the letter to the media and why?  And what was Megan Touma’s cause of death, and if murder, who was her killer?

Police will probably accept that at least part of the message from the killer is true. Who used lipstick to put the Zodiac symbol on the mirror and wrote the anonymous confession letter is likely to be responsible for Touma’s death, but it would be a stretch at this point to believe this writer was responsible for other murders in the past and was even now planning on more victims.  “Serial killer” is a term the movies love, but a term that police normally shy away from as it can create a panic.  Although serial killers have many times communicated with the media and others, a single letter does not make this writer a serial killer. A possibility, yes, but more likely her suspected killer was someone attempting to make her death look like the work of a random serial killer, when in reality it may turn out to be someone close to her.

Those who knew her closest
Who could have known that Touma had just returned from a three-year assignment in Germany and had elected to live off-post, at least until June 21 when she was due to check out of the motel? Her ex-husband, a corrections officer in Charleston, S.C., professes shock at Touma’s death, indicating he learned of her death via e-mail from his father. And who, of course, is the father of Touma’s unborn child? By one report he is a married U.S. Army sergeant who was stationed with her in Germany and who is now stationed at, of course, Ft. Bragg.  In the case of Marine Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, her killer was the married father of her unborn child.

By another report Touma was engaged to a soldier stationed at Ft. Bragg, again someone she had served with in Germany.  If either story is correct, one or both soldiers will need to account for their whereabouts around the time of the victim’s suspected death.  Police have allegedly searched the home of at least one local suspect and removed items from the home for scientific analysis.  This “person of interest” is assigned to the JFK Special Warfare School studying psychological operations (PSYOPS), which, would include using subterfuge, lies and half-truths to confuse your enemy. Perhaps this man will prove to be the last person to have had any type of contact with Touma. “The investigation continues.”

If the writing on the mirror and the anonymous letter were simply done to mislead police, to point them in another direction by someone who’s watched, read and studied about past serial killers, then investigators will be quick to return to the usual suspects in such crimes.  Police will look at those closest to the victim, someone who could have known she was back in America and someone who could have found her at the motel; someone who could slip quietly in and out of her room to visit, and apparently kill her. If the police and the FBI are unable to link the death of Touma with the murder of other victims, this as suggested in the confessed killer’s letter, then the usual suspects will likely include her killer.

Right now there is no reason to believe a copy cat serial killer is stalking new victims in other states as the letter suggests, but this case will take on a media life until Touma’s cause of death is determined, and her believed killer is identified. And while investigators and the medical examiner consider Touma’s likely cause of death, they will likely also consider the remote possibility of an elaborate suicide.  By this, could Touma have become depressed, perhaps related to the father of the child she carried, to the point that she would take both her and her unborn child’s life after weaving a complicated hoax, to include writing and mailing the letter just prior to taking her own life?  But why would anyone construct such a morbid hoax?  Depending on the victim’s cause of death, this “CSI” type of suicide is perhaps something investigators will need to consider, but at the present time a scenario on the lower end of their list of Touma’s likely cause and method of death.

Meanwhile the murder of Megan Lynn Touma, someone described by those who knew her as friendly and fun-loving, a crime the anonymous letter writer has suggested was a “master piece,” will likely turn out to be one more sad and terrible incident of anger, frustration and rage directed against a pregnant woman who, statistically, has the most to fear from the very person who impregnated her.

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC analyst. His Web site,, provides readers with security-related information.

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