A Marine suspected of killing a pregnant colleague told police he slept in fields and survived by eating fruit that he found during a three-month manhunt that ended with his arrest in western Mexico, authorities said.
FBI agents and police in the small town of Tacambaro arrested Cpl. Cesar Laurean on Thursday. 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 backyard of his home near Camp Lejeune.
Bearded, thin and chained at the wrists and ankles, Laurean spoke briefly with The Associated Press while being held at the Michoacan state Attorney General’s Office in Morelia, the state capital. He appeared slightly disoriented and stared straight ahead, his eyes occasionally filling up with tears as he answered a reporter’s questions in terse phrases.
“You know my name. You know who I am,” Laurean said. Asked if he wanted to say anything, Laurean answered, “Proof,” but wouldn’t explain.
Asked what he would do next, he replied, “Do I have a choice?... I don’t know.”
The FBI said Laurean, 21, 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.
"It will be smart for him to do it," Onslow County Sheriff Ed Brown said.
Suspicious look leads to arrest
Magdalena Guzman, a prosecutors’ spokeswoman, said police carrying out an anti-kidnapping operation stopped Laurean as he wandered on a street because they thought he looked suspicious.
When they realized he didn’t speak Spanish well, they became even more suspicious. After running his name through a computer — and recognizing his distinctive tattoos — they realized Laurean was wanted in the United States to face charges in Lauterbach’s death.
Guzman said Laurean told the arresting officers he had only 10 pesos — about $1 — in his pocket when arrested.
U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza said in a statement that “Laurean fled to Mexico early this year in the hope of avoiding justice” and called the arrest “a clear message to all would-be fugitives from U.S. law that Mexico will not provide them refuge.”
Laurean, of Las Vegas, was born in Guadalajara, but family members there have said he moved to the United States more than 10 years ago. He 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.
Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson said Laurean and his wife were in touch while he was in Mexico, sending messages to each other using the MySpace social networking service.
Hudson said investigators recently seized a computer belonging to Christina Laurean's sister, which she was using to send the messages. He declined to discuss their contents and would not say if authorities had Christina Laurean under surveillance.
Accused of rape
Lauterbach and Laurean were both personnel clerks in the same logistics unit at Camp Lejeune, an expansive coastal North Carolina base that is home to roughly 50,000 Marines. Detectives believe Laurean killed Lauterbach, who was 20 and eight months pregnant, on Dec. 14 after forcing her to remove money from her bank account.
Detectives have said Laurean left behind a note for his wife in which he denied killing Lauterbach but admitted to burying her remains. In the note, Laurean said Lauterbach committed suicide by cutting her own throat.
Authorities rejected the assertion, saying evidence indicates Lauterbach died of blunt force trauma to the head.
Lauterbach accused Laurean of rape last spring, a charge 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.
Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson has agreed not to seek execution in order to win the cooperation of Mexico, which refuses to send anyone back to the U.S. unless provided assurance they will not face a death sentence.
Tipped by the note, and not long after authorities went public in their search for the Lauterbach, detectives discovered the charred remains of the missing Marine and her fetus in a shallow grave in Laurean’s backyard.
'Shock and surprise' for accused's family
Phone messages seeking comment left at Lauterbach’s parents’ home in Vandalia, Ohio, with Lauterbach’s uncle Pete Steiner, and with family attorney Chris Conard were not immediately returned late Thursday.
Another family attorney, Merle Wilberding, said Lauterbach’s mother, Mary, received the call from the FBI informing her of the arrest with “shock and surprise.”
“She’s been living with Cpl. Laurean being on the run ... and living without an expectation that he was going to be captured any time soon, so when the word came it really caught her by surprise, and she’s still trying to let it all sink in,” Wilberding told WDTN-TV in Dayton, Ohio.
A woman who answered the phone at the home of Laurean’s father-in-law, Bruce Shifflet, near Prospect, Ohio, hung up without commenting when told of the arrest.