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The hunt for the missing Marine

She expected to face the rigors and dangers of Marine life, but instead found a different kind of danger.

The story of what happened to 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach earlier this year is heartbreaking and haunting.  And still there are questions about it.  The only one that really matters to Maria's mother is this: Could the ending have been different? 

Mary Lauterbach: There was an assumption from the beginning this was not a legitimate case.

Victoria Corderi, Dateline NBC: You don't think she has the full story?

Megan Grafton: I know she doesn't. Because she can't. Because I'm not legally allowed to tell her the full story.

Maria Lauterbach grew up in Vandalia, Ohio. She was 19 months old -- and had been severely neglected -- when Mary and Victor Lauterbach adopted her. She seemed to thrive in a family that grew to include five children.

Mary Lauterbach: Maria was just a bold, daring person, always looking for a challenge or to push herself. She pushed her sisters and even her little brother to do things that on their own, they never would have done.

She was a girl in motion, passionate about sports, a star of her school's soccer and softball teams.

But as blissful as she was on those playing fields, as Maria grew into a teen and young adult, her mom says that shestruggled to find her footing in trickier social situations -- making friends, dating and dances. It seemed at times like she just wasn’t ready to grow up.

Victoria Corderi: Did that concern you? Or it just didn't seem like her personality yet--

Mary Lauterbach: It just wasn't her style yet. 

So Mary was pleased when her daughter told her what she wanted to do after high school graduation.  

Mary's family has been serving in the military for generations. The Marines seemed like a good fit for her daughter.

Mary Lauterbach: I felt she would be much safer in the Marines than she would be loose on the streets or loose in a college environment. And in particular with the Marines -- they have a brotherhood of Marines, where they look out for each other.

For a time, Maria was happy. She wrote long letters from boot camp describing how much  she loved it, and when the Marines sent her to Camp Lejeune, 600 miles away, a steady stream of phone calls kept her mom up to speed on the smallest details of base life.

Mary Lauterbach: She would religiously call me at 11:30 every day. Sometimes she'd call me at 2:30 in the afternoon. And then, she'd call me at 6.  I'd say, "Maria, I have to cook dinner now."  And she'd call back later in the evening.

On Friday, Dec. 14, 2007, at 2:30 p.m., Maria made one of her regular phone calls.  The conversation turned to the Christmas party at the base that day.

Mary Lauterbach: I said, "Maria, I have to get off the phone and work."  But I said, "But make sure and call me when you get back from the party."

Victoria Corderi: So you were expecting a call that night.

Mary Lauterbach: Oh, absolutely.

It never came.

Mary Lauterbach: When I got home from work right when I opened the door my daughter Anne said, "Mom, did you talk to Maria today?"  And I said, "Matter of fact, I did.  She sounded pretty good."

Then Anne told her mother about another call. Maria's housemate, Sgt. Daniel Durham, had just been on the phone to say Maria was gone, taking some clothing, toiletries and her car. She'd left behind a note that said:

"I could not take this Marine Corps life anymore.  So I am going away. Sorry for the inconvenience. Maria"

Mary Lauterbach: I thought "that is weird." Because it just didn't match our conversation that day at all.

Mary and her brother, Pete Steiner, say the note didn't sound like Maria.

Mary Lauterbach: "Sorry for the inconvenience." That particular phrase sounded odd to me.

Pete Steiner: That's not her.

Mary Lauterbach: Yeah, that's not--

Pete Steiner:  Maria wouldn't--

Mary Lauterbach: "Sorry for the inconvenience."

Mary tried to call her daughter repeatedly that night, and all day Saturday and all day Sunday, but to no avail. They'd rarely gone a day without speaking. Now, nothing.  Finally that Sunday, she called Durham, Maria's housemate, and asked him to report her absence to the Marines.

But, she says,  Durham wanted to wait -- he didn't want to get his friend into trouble.

Mary Lauterbach: He said, "If she turns up tonight, you know, I will have gotten her into a lot of trouble for no reason."

At 7:30 the next morning, Maria, a personnel clerk, was due at her duty station at Camp Lejeune.

She never turned up.

And when Durham reported her missing and handed in the note that morning, her supervisors figured she'd done what other marines before her had done -- taken off. Even so, the Marines tried calling Maria and even went off-base to knock on her front door. No luck.  Back in Ohio, Mary wanted more. She says she called a supervisor at Camp Lejeune and asked him what he was going to do.

Mary Lauterbach: He said, you know, "We don't do anything about this."

Pete Steiner: Until she's gone for 30 days.

Mary Lauterbach: For 30 days. 

After 30 days, missing Marines are classified as deserters, and their names are entered into a national criminal database.

Mary Lauterbach: And I said, "What about contacting the police?"  He said, "We can't do that either."

Victoria Corderi: "We can't"?

Mary Lauterbach: "We do not have the authority to contact police."  He said, "Now, if you wanted to, you could."

Mary immediately filed a missing person's report. She soon got a call from an investigator with the County Sheriff's Department in North Carolina. 

Mary Lauterbach: He said, "Can you just tell me anything I might need to know about this."  At that point, I  sent him a three-page e-mail.  I just pounded out anything that I knew about her that I thought might remotely be helpful in finding Maria.

Mary says she poured out her heart in that email and even included some unflattering details about her daughter. That growing up, she was hyperactive and aggressive.  And she added a phrase that would come to haunt her.

Mary Lauterbach: I said she has problems with occasional compulsive lying.

Mary was referring to her daughter's tendency to make up stories when she got into a tight spot. For example, a year earlier when Maria was discovered taking money from the office kitty on base, she made up an outrageous tale about her father accidentally killing her brother.

Mary Lauterbach: I think she was short on money. To cover for herself, she had made up that story, that she needed money to go home for her brother's funeral.  And it was a ridiculous story.

And now Maria was missing. And her mother was doing everything she could think of to try to find her. Then, six days after she disappeared, there was an ominous development. Maria's cell phone had been found on the highway near Camp Lejeune.

Mary Lauterbach: It just took my breath away. At that point, I thought-

Pete Steiner: Right.

Mary Lauterbach: The-- foul play here.  Something's wrong.

Victoria Corderi: Mary knew her daughter would never abandon her phone, especially not now, not in her condition.

Because Maria was pregnant and due within weeks.

That's why Mary Lauterbach was certain her daughter's disappearance was no simple case of desertion.

She also knew this: Her daughter had been living in fear of one Marine in particular.

Christmas 2007 was miserable for Mary Lauterbach and her family

Mary Lauterbach: I spent the whole day in my living room just looking out the front window. Hoping she'd come strolling up.

By then, Maria, a Marine based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., had been missing for 11 days. And while authorities from both the Marines and the County Sheriff's Department believed that Maria had simply taken off, with each passing day her family became convinced that the truth was something far more sinister. 

Mary Lauterbach: I was very scared by that point. I knew something was really wrong.

She says no one was making a critical connection about the disappearance -- that it might somehow be linked to a harrowing event Maria told her about seven months before she vanished.  Something so traumatic her daughter hadn't known how to handle it.  

Mary Lauterbach: Maria was weeping in the phone, and shared that she had been raped.  I'm like, "Maria." 

Maria's mother was stunned. All through high school, her daughter had never even had a boyfriend. And now this.

Victoria Corderi, Dateline NBC: Did she tell you what happened?

Mary Lauterbach: She said that she was on a night duty. And she and a supervisor. It was their turn to be there.  And the doors were locked, and she was attacked.

Maria told her mother the rape occured in April, a month earlier.

Mary Lauterbach: I said, "Why did you wait so long?"  "All the evidence is gonna be gone.  It's going to be really hard to prove."

Maria said she'd been afraid. Her mother wanted to make sure the story was true.

Mary Lauterbach: I said, "To falsely accuse someone of something, you're going to ruin this man's life.  And you're not doing yourself any favors, either.  So, you know, you have to make sure you got that straight."

Mary says her daughter did not back down.

Victoria Corderi: So was it clear in your mind that, "My daughter was raped.  I believe her"?

Mary Lauterbach: She was very distraught, yes.

Distraught about the attack and what she feared would happen if she reported it.  Still, Mary urged her daughter to go to her superiors.

Mary Lauterbach: "You owe that to women everywhere.  You have to report a rape."

And on May 11, Maria did.  She named her alleged attacker: Cpl. Cesar Laurean, a popular, hard-working Marine in her unit.  He out-ranked her, a married Marine with an 18-month-old daughter. 

Megan Grafton: He had an impeccable record. He was-- the go-to guy in that command.

Victoria Corderi: A leader?

Megan Grafton: A leader.

Special Agent Megan Grafton is a Naval Criminal Investigator at Camp Lejeune.  She interviewed Maria about the alleged attack.

Megan Grafton: She had moments where she lost her composure and she was very upset.  She reacted in a way that was not unusual for a person making that kind of complaint to react.

Victoria Corderi: So she was believable.

Megan Grafton: Her complaint was-- yes.  She was believable.

Victoria Corderi: What did she describe happened to her?

Megan Grafton: It was after hours.  She said he approached her.  That he indicated he wanted to have sex.  She said, "No."  And he pursued the issue a little further.  And she said, "No."  And then he took her by the hand and led her into a different part of the office and said, "Don't worry, we won't get caught."  And then they proceeded to have a sexual encounter.  During the sexual encounter, she said that she said, "I want you to stop."  And he stopped.

Victoria Corderi: So does it rise to the level of the crime of rape, or just enough to merit an investigation into rape?

Megan Grafton: It certainly rose to the level to merit an investigation.  It's about at some point the individual says "No, I don't want this sexual contact." And if the individual continues beyond that, then we have to look into it as a potential rape.

As far as Special Agent Grafton was concerned, it would be a tough case.

Megan Grafton: There was no physical evidence.  No crime scene. We had the complaint of the victim and the response of the suspect.

Victoria Corderi: He said/she said?

Megan Grafton: Yes, ma'am.

The next day, the Marines reassigned Maria to work in a building on the base about two miles away from Laurean. The two were told to stay away from each other and report any contact.   And a week later, Naval investigators summoned Laurean for an interview. 

Megan Grafton: He denied the allegation.  He said he was willing to take a polygraph.    

Victoria Corderi: And how did he seem?        

Megan Grafton: He was very composed.

Victoria Corderi: Very convinced of his innocence?

Megan Grafton: Yes.  He was upset by the allegation, but he was not emotional about the allegation.

Soon after, the Marine Corps issued an official military protective order. But Maria told her mom it didn't cover everything because her unit held regular meetings that both she and Laurean had to attend.

Mary Lauterbach: She's like, "I can't stand to be in the same room with him."  And I would say to her, "Maria, I just don't understand.  If you have this restraining order, how they can force you to go to meeting."  She said, "They do."

Victoria Corderi:  Wasn't there a space requirement in that restraining order?

Mary Lauterbach: A thousand feet. But not for these meetings.

And that upset her greatly.

In late June, six months before she disappeared, the case--and Maria's life -- became even more complicated. She discovered she was pregnant. 

Mary Lauterbach: I said, "Do you think it's a result?"  She goes, "Yes."   And--

Victoria Corderi: Did you ask her if she'd been seeing anybody else?

Mary Lauterbach: She hadn't been.  Yeah, no one that she told me about.

And the family had no reason to think otherwise.  It was deeply troubling news for Maria, who was in no position to raise a baby on her own. But for the rape investigation, the pregnancy was a significant development.

Megan Grafton: At that point, we may have had some physical evidence.  That would have proven the contact between the two of them.

Victoria Corderi: As word of the pregnancy and the rape allegation spread, troubling things began to happen.  Someone scratched up Maria's car with a sharp object. Another time, she told her mom, she'd been confronted by a woman.  It was Cpl. Laurean's wife.

Mary Lauterbach:  She called her names.  And said, you know, "Why are you doing this to my husband?"

But the most frightening thing of all happened one evening at twilight. Maria was in a parking lot at the base, getting something out of the trunk of her car, when a man came up behind her.

Mary Lauterbach: Someone touched her shoulder and said, "Maria." She turned around to look, and was punched in the face.  And it kind of knocked her over.

Victoria Corderi: The person had fled, or--

Mary Lauterbach: She could see a male running away. She was not able to identify positively who it was.

Victoria Corderi: How rattled was she?

Mary Lauterbach: It scared her.

Peter Steiner: She was very scared.

Maria reported that attack. And the scratch on her car. And she told her mom she'd requested a transfer to another base.

Mary Lauterbach: And that was declined.

Victoria Corderi: She put in a request?

Mary Lauterbach: Yes.

However, when Maria asked to move off-base to prepare for the birth of her baby, the Marine Corps said OK.  Permission was granted.  Six weeks before she vanished, Maria moved into Sgt. Durham's house.

As December wore on, Mary knew her daughter had a lot on her mind:  Her baby was due soon.  Would she keep it, or give it up for adoption? And then there was the rape investigation. Her family says she was just trying to get through it, letting them know that whatever happened was beyond her control

And then she was gone.  The daughter who called home three or four times a day suddenly silent.

Mary Lauterbach: She would have called.  There's a reason.

Peter Steiner: She was in deep, deep trouble.

Mary Lauterbach: Yeah.  Maria would not disconnect from home.  She just wouldn't do it.

By New Year's, 2008, Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach had been missing for more than two weeks. She was about 8 months pregnant when she left a note saying she'd had it with the Marine Corps life and she was leaving.

But her mom didn't buy that.

Mary Lauterbach: All I knew, and I kept repeating over and over, there is a reason why she can't call. She would have called. There is a reason.                 

Seven months earlier, Maria had accused another Marine, Corporal Cesear Laurean of rape. And now, Maria's mother was convinced there was a connection. 

Peter Steiner: Finally, Mary and I said we're heading down there and we're going to get some answers.

On Jan. 7, Pete, Mary and detectives from the local Sheriff's Department met a Marine Corps representative and Naval investigator Megan Grafton, who was in charge of the rape investigation.

Megan Grafton: She was concerned that something had happened to her daughter.

Victoria Corderi, Dateline NBC: That her daughter had been murdered?

Megan Grafton: It wasn't quite as blunt as "I fear she's been murdered."  But "I fear she's dead."

Even though Maria had been missing for more than three weeks, and even though she'd accused another Marine of rape, the Marines say it's the first time they heard foul play might be involved.  They offered the Sheriff's Department any help it needed as investigators began considering every possible explanation for Maria's disappearance.

Cpt. Rick Sutherland: The Sheriff would say "We're working a missing persons case. We 're looking to see if it's a criminal case. This could go either way."

For the time being, they had more questions than answers. Were there more clues in that note Maria had supposedly left behind? Naval investigators say the handwriting looked like hers. But was it?

And what about Maria's housemate, the one who found the note the day she disappeared.  Did Sgt. Durham know more than he was letting on? 

Sheriff Ed Brown: He would be the last person in contact with her.

And of course there was Cpl. Laurean. What had he been up to around the time Maria disappeared?

If he had anything to hide, he hadn't let on. He hadn't missed any days at work and had even invited friends to celebrate the holidays at his home.  Richard Atlander lived in the house next door. 

Richard Atlander: Christmas time, he had a big dinner over there and a lot of people.  And New Year's, he had a big party. There was a whole bunch of Marines out there and a bunch of different trucks and vehicles. 

At this point, investigators considered Laurean a possible witness -- not a suspect.  They asked NCIS to make him available for an interview.  And NCIS did so. 

Victoria Corderi: He was being interviewed as a possible witness, not a suspect.  Why not a suspect?

Rick Sutherland: If they are not someone that is being actively sought for charges or warrants, we give everyone the benefit of the doubt and we call them a witness.

Still, when the sheriff's office tried to interview him, Laurean refused to answer.  Was he hiding something?  Investigators kept after him.

Rick Sutherland: Two investigators went to his residence, and met him face-to-face.  And he agreed to come to our office and discuss the case.

He never showed up, investigators say. He delayed and delayed until his attorney finally cancelled for him.

Victoria Corderi: So were you more suspicious then?

Captain Rick Sutherland: That certainly raises our suspicions about why.

Meanwhile, more curious developments. Investigators learned that on the day she vanished, Maria had been seen at the bus station, buying a ticket to El Paso, Texas. Then Maria's blue Hyundai Sonata turned up.

Rick Sutherland: It was discovered at the bus station. And that's processed.

There was more. Surveillance tape from an ATM showed a man who resembled Laurean using Maria's card on Dec. 24 -- 10 days after she'd disappeared. The man was trying to cover the camera with a rag.  It was shattering news for Mary.   

Mary Lauterbach:  And, at that point, I just knew.

Peter Steiner: Right.

Mary Lauterbach: It was coming.  I knew it was. 

Three and a half weeks after Maria disappeared,  Mary -- at the Sheriff's request -- gave TV interviews to try to shake loose some leads.

By now, Maria's picture -- and her story -- were everywhere. And so were those unflattering descriptions that her mother had included in that e-mail to investigators.

Mary was upset.  Not just because the comments were out in public, but because they were fueling speculation that her daughter had simply run off.

Mary Lauterbach:  Unfortunately, those statements, too, were taken to write Maria off as a deserter.

But what if she had run off and was watching the story unfold?  Sheriff Ed Brown sent her a message:

I want her to know that sometimes people do things. If they could turn the clock back, they wouldn't do them the way they've done them.

And then the biggest break yet. A Marine called to say he'd seen Maria after Dec. 14, after she disappeared.  

Rick Sutherland: He went in depth describing some mannerisms, what she was wearing, a conversation that he had with her. And everything was very credible. 

The next morningSheriff Brown gave an upbeat morning interview:

Right now the needle of hope is pointing more positive than negative.

Mary got a call at home from the Sheriff.

And said, "You know I woke up feeling very positive about this."

On the morning of Friday, Jan. 11,  2008, things were looking up in the case of the missing Marine, Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach.  A fellow Marine had phoned the Sheriff's Department to say he was sure he'd seen her alive after she'd disappeared.

But within hours, that optimism was gone.  Maria's mom was at home in Ohio when the sheriff called to say there were negative developments. She didn't know what they were until she turned on the TV.

Mary Lauterbach:  All of a sudden, on the television, in bright red letters it said, "Maria Lauterbach is Dead." And at that -- it's strange -- it was like you move into another world.

Sheriff Ed Brown:  Miss Lauterbach is dead. And has been buried here in Onslow County. The suspect is the Marine accused by her of assaulting her.

Mary Lauterbach:  I went into a state of shock.  I was just really-- I couldn't believe it.

The final breakthrough had come from Cesar Laurean's wife.  That morning, she'd handed the authorities a note he'd written.  We don't know what it said, but this is what she told investigators: On Dec. 14, Maria went to the Laurean home and said she was planning to leave the area. There was an argument.  Maria became disoriented and agitated and slit her throat with a knife.  She said her husband told her he'd panicked and buried Maria's body near the house.  

And while investigators weren't buying that scenario, they were now convinced Maria was deadBy nightfall, they'd made a grisly discovery in the backyard of the Lauarean home.

Dewey Hudson: We think that we have found what will be the skeleton remains of the victim, Maria Lauterbach.

And the next day, stunned neighbors watched as the remains of Maria Lauterbach and those of her unborn baby were removed from a firepit in the backyard of the Laurean's house.

When she heard the gruesome details, it was too much for Maria's mom to bear.

Mary Lauterbach:  I just could-- yeah, I could ha-- but I just ran out of the room at that point.  I just couldn't hear it. 

The authorities now faced a huge challenge, because Cesar Laurean was gone. He'd skipped town about 4 a.m. that morning, hours before his wife handed in the note. So the FBI had a fugitive to find. And he had the jump on them.

Sheriff Ed Brown:  Citizens who are watching, keep your eyes open for Cesar Laurean. We still want him.

As the manhunt was launched, investigators pieced together events on the day Maria disappeared.  They're not releasing all the information they have.  But this is what we know.

Maria's last call to her mom took place about 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 14, but investigators believe she never intended to go to the Christmas party she mentioned to her mom. They're convinced she did in fact have a plan to run off -- that she packed some clothes and wrote that note saying she was leaving. NCIS Special Agent Megan Grafton.

Megan Grafton: As soon as I saw the letter, I was confident it was her letter. It struck me as identical to handwriting I had seen from her before.

At about 4 p.m. that afternoon, Maria went to an ATM in JacksonvilleShe withdrew $700 --according to her mother, a huge sum for her.

Victoria Corderi: There was nothing in that ATM tape to suggest that it was under duress, that she was taking out $700?

Megan Grafton: No.  She was only person that was in the frame of that video.  So there's no indication that anyone was standing next to her and forcing her to do anything against her will.

A short time later, Maria was seen at the bus station. Reporter Chelsea Donovan of WITN-TV says she bought a ticket to El Paso, Texas.

Chelsea Donovan: There wasn't anybody with her. She didn't have any luggage with her.

But Maria never got on a bus; the ticket was for the next day. That afternoon, she somehow ended up at Laurean's home.

Rick Sutherland: And we're not going to at this point conclusively say how that occurred. 

And investigators will not reveal exactly what happened inside the home that day, either. But they do believe Maria died in the garage sometime before 7 p.m.  As for that slit on her throat -- the one Laurean's wife's had said was self-inflicted -- according to the medical examiner, it was superficial and may have been done after Maria died from a head injury.

Rick Sutherland: The medical examiner said that it was blunt force trauma to the head, which is consistent with blood evidence that was found in the garage, which leads us to believe that that's where it occurred.

The evidence shows Laurean's wife wasn't at home at the time. Christina -- a Marine herself -- was at that Christmas party on base.  Investigators say she got home at 7 p.m.  That left, at most, a narrow three-hour window for murder and its aftermath.

Victoria Corderi: So, how could she not know, if there was blood everywhere?

Rick Sutherland: It did not look like a horror film, or something like that.

But it might have at one point. By the time investigators discovered the crime scene, 28 days had passed. There was plenty of time to cover up the crime.

Rick Sutherland: There was a portion of the garage, small, maybe 4-foot by 3-foot, that looked like it had been painted in an attempt to conceal evidence.     

In the days after Maria's body was discovered, investigators tracked down security video which showed Laurean at a home improvement store buying a wheelbarrow and cinderblocks.  He also bought paint.  The fire pit where Maria's body was discovered was surrounded by cinderblocks.  And his next door neighbor remembered Laurean had asked a favor in December sometime after Maria disappeared.

Richard Atlander: He had asked me if I had a shovel. I said yeah.  He said, "Can I borrow it?"  I said, "Yeah, it's leaning up against the house."   

But as investigators collected evidence and came up with a detailed timeline, they were missingsomething important: The accused himself.  A suspected killer was on the loose.

Sheriff Ed Brown:  The search for Laurean is Earth wide.

While Sheriff Ed Brown faced the cameras,  behind the scenes, the FBI was racing to form a fugitive task force, pulling in agents from NCIS, the U.S. Marshals Service, Customs and Border Protection and the County Sheriff's Department.

FBI Special Agent Shane Taylor was in charge of the hunt for Laurean.

Shane Taylor: The most important thing for me was to talk to his wife.  So I had his wife come in.

Victoria Corderi: Did she seem torn?

Shane Taylor: Yes.

Victoria Corderi: It was her husband. The father of her child.

Shane Taylor: Exactly. And, you know, she could have told me "No. I don't have to tell you anything."

Christina was very concerned that she was going to get in trouble with law enforcement.  And her child already lost a father. She didn't want her to lose her mom.

She quickly agreed to cooperate. She told them her husband had kissed their daughter goodbye, and then he departed.

Shane Taylor: He wanted to go. And she was awake and he left. He got in the truck and drove off.

Victoria Corderi: Did he have some cash on him?

Shane Taylor: Small amount of cash.  And a credit card and the clothes on his back. 

Christina also told Special Agent Taylor she believed Laurean was heading to Mexico, where he was born and where he still had relatives.  Alerts went out to Customs and Border Agents and Law Enforcement nationwide along with descriptions of the Marine with a tattoo on each arm -- one, a phoenix rising.

Shane Taylor: We worked quickly as possible to try to prevent him from leaving the United States.  Because we knew once he left, we had to deal with another country.

By now, the Fugitive Task Force was working out of a command post in Wilmington, N.C. Dateline was given exclusive access to it.  From here, FBI agents got their orders -- to talk to Laurean's family, track down his friends, follow up on tips.  The NCIS was asked to line up interviews with Laurean's fellow Marines.

But Laurean eluded them. He ditched his truck near the Raleigh-Durham Airport in North Carolina.  He took one bus to Houston.  He got another bus there and crossed the border into Mexico -- just what they'd hoped to avoid.

Victoria Corderi: How did he cross the border?

Shane Taylor: He was on a bus that could have been fully loaded. He could have been waved in. He could have hid somewhere.

Working with the Mexican authorities, the FBI launched a search in Mexico.  But then the trail went dead.

Shane Taylor: He was hiding in Mexico.  And no one saw him for weeks.

Taylor called in FBI profilers to get a clearer picture of Laurean.  What kind of man was he? Could he make it on his own? Would he consider suicide?

Shane Taylor: I just wanted to see what I was dealing with.

Victoria Corderi: And what were they able to tell you?

Shane Taylor: He is a very narcissistic person.  That the Marine Corps was his number one thing in life.  They indicated to me they didn't have reason to believe that he would kill himself.

The profilers also said Laurean was very attached to his wife and daughter, and that could be the key to his capture.

Shane Taylor: It was just a matter of time before he'd try to contact them. 

And he did. In March, the FBI seized a computer Christina had been using and discovered that Cesar had reached out to her. The two had been secretly communicating.

Victoria Corderi: Did the e-mails say anything about what he was going through?

Shane Taylor: He missed her, loved her. Loved the daughter. That he was out of money.

Victoria Corderi: And did you advise her to answer him?  What to say?  Because this was your connection now.

Shane Taylor: Exactly.

Special Agent Taylor knew he had to convince Christina Laurean to give him more than information. He needed her to keep her husband talking until they could pinpoint his location.

Victoria Corderi: How hard was that to ask her to do? 

Shane Taylor: I could see that she was tired. And I think she wanted a resolution to the thing. She agreed to cooperate.

Now each time Christina e-mailed her husband, and even when he used a phone card, the FBI tracked every word, using high tech equipment to hone in on Laurean.   

Shane Taylor: He was starting to let his guard down. He was starting to give us clues as to where he was more and more every day.

Laurean seemed tired, broke and increasingly paranoid.

Steve Kling: There was never a moment where he thought he was safe and free and not going to be arrested.

By early April, the FBI had tracked him to a mountain town west of Mexico City.  FBI Case Agent Steve Kling, working with the Mexican Police, started surveillance. On Thursday, April 10, the team caught a break.

Steve Kling: We had shown a photograph of Caesar Laurean to an individual. And this person remembered him.

And this person directed them to a tiny village nearby called San Juan De Vina.  A place with two public pay phones and of all things, an internet cafe.  And then, suddenly, there he was.  Cesar Laurean heading toward the cafe -- the Mexican Police approached and identified him.

Steve Kling: The commandante in charge of the group raised up his sleeve and the phoenix tattoo was on his shoulder. And he turned and said, "We got him."

Laurean didn't put up a fight.

Steve Kling: As soon as he saw myself and the two NCIS agents, though, I believe he understood that the chase was over.

That night, pictures of Laurean in custody went round the world.  He was scrawny and dazed after living on a diet of avocados, peaches and rodents he trapped himself.

When local reporters asked if he had anything to say, he muttered one word: "Proof." But if Maria's suspected killer wanted proof, Maria's family wanted answers. Could Maria's death have been prevented?  

The Lauterbach family buried Maria in Ohio in a service attended by hundreds of mourners and a contingent of US Marines.

In the weeks since, her family has focused on one crucial question: Could Maria's death have been prevented? They're convinced that if the Marines had handled the rape investigation differently, Maria would be alive today.

Pete Steiner: It was crazy for her to have reported this rape.  The way she was treated, the harassment that she received. It really was not handled appropriately.

Her family says Maria should have been transferred to another base when she asked for it, and that when she disappeared, the Marines should have zeroed in on Cesar Laurean more quickly.  But above all, they are convinced Maria wasn't taken seriously when she first came forward.

Mary Lauterbach:  I think she was not believed. That there was an assumption from the beginning; this was not a legitimate case.

The Marines and Naval Investigators say that's simply not true.  NCIS Special Agent Megan Grafton.

Victoria Corderi, Dateline NBC: Do you think the Marines failed Maria Lauterbach in any way?

Megan Grafton:  No, I don't.

Victoria Corderi: Her mom has said that her daughter wasn't taken seriously because of credibility issues.  And had she been taken seriously, she'd be alive today.  Is that fair?

Megan Grafton: I think she's entitled to her opinion. I wish that she could be exposed to all the information that we have and simply by law I can't expose her to all the details that we have collected. Because she would have a different opinion.

Despite what Maria said to her mom, Grafton says the 20-year-old Lance Corporal never told anyone involved in the rape investigation or her command that she was afraid of Laurean.

Victoria Corderi: Did she tell you that she felt unsafe?

Megan Grafton: No. And I found that unusual, that she didn't say "I'm scared for my life. I'm scared that someone's out to get me." I gave her my cell phone number; "Call me if you ever need anything."  And she never called.

And contrary to what she told her mother, the Marines say Maria didn't have to attend those meetings on base that included Cesar Laurean.

Lt. Col. Curtis Hill, Marine Corps Public Affairs Officer.

Curtis Hill: When there was a meeting that both of them were scheduled to be at, one of them would be excused.  The command would not require both of them to attend a meeting in the same location.

Victoria Corderi: But she told her mother that she felt that she had to go to these meetings.  And the fact that she saw him made her life very difficult.

Curtis Hill: We have no records or any reports that indicate that the two of them were less than a thousand feet from each other at any time prior to what appears to have occurred on Dec. 14.

As for the base transfer request, that didn't happen either.

Victoria Corderi: Did she ask for a transfer to go off to another base?

Curtis Hill: There's no indication that she made that request to anyone in her chain of command.

Still, a big question surrounding this case is why the Marine Corps didn't question Laurean as soon as Maria disappeared.

Victoria Corderi: Here you had a missing Marine who uncharacteristically is gone is out of touch with everyone when she's in an advanced stage of pregnancy.  And she's accused someone of rape.  So to the outside person, it seems like a no-brainer that you make a beeline to Laurean.

Megan Grafton: The reality is, there were a lot of factors at play.

Grafton says six weeks before Maria vanished, there'd been a huge development in the case. Maria had changed her story and told investigators that Laurean was not her baby's father; she'd been dating someone else at the time.

Victoria Corderi: What made her believe that it was not Laurean's baby?

Megan Grafton: My understanding is that she said that she had misjudged her due date. And that her due date was later than she had originally believed it was. And therefore Corporal Laurean could not have been the father.  

If Laurean was not the father of Maria's child, Naval investigators knew there was a good chance the rape charge would not stand up in military court -- and a hearing was expected to take place soon.  So, when Maria disappeared, the Marine Corps says it was reasonable to assume that she had done exactly what the note said and run off.

Now, you have to weigh that against the fact that her mother was calling and saying, Something's wrong.                                     

Megan Grafton: When I actually spoke with her mother, I could understand her concerns. She also conceded that Maria was under a lot of stress and that she was prone to doing things that were impulsive like going U-A.

Victoria Corderi: So it made sense?

Megan Grafton: I could see why someone in that position would want to leave town and avoid what was about to happen.  Which was this hearing. That she may have believed, and probably believed was not going to go in her favor. 

And at that point, she had said "He is not the father of this child." Then what motivation would he have to have anything to do with her? Especially since her case was really becoming weaker by the moment.

Hardest of all to answer is a mother's charge that the Marines -- that caring brotherhood -- did not care for her daughter.

Victoria Corderi: She feels that the military failed her daughter.

Megan Grafton: I wish she could understand that her daughter was absolutely cared for by the military.  That they did everything they could in response to her complaint.  And NCIS did everything we could do in response to her complaint.  And unfortunately, had a tragic, horrible outcome.

Days after Maria's charred body was discovered in his backyard, Cesar Laurean was indicted for first-degree murder. He is now in custody in a Mexican jail.  Because Mexico will not extradite its citizens to face the death penalty, the U.S. took it off the table in this case.It's not clear if Laurean will waive extradition or not.

Shane Taylor: He wants to come back. He doesn't believe that the U.S. is not going to seek death against him.

Victoria Corderi: That's already been established.

Shane Taylor: Right, but my understanding, that's the assurance he needs.

Mary Lauterbach is bracing herself for Laurean's return and eventual trial.  She knows it will be difficult, but she does want justice.

Mary Lauterbach: Justice is making sure that he can't hurt anyone else. I just don't want him to hurt anyone else.

What matters to Mary most now is Maria's legacy. She wants the world to know her beautiful daughter may have died a terrible death, but she lived a meaningful life.   

Mary Lauterbach:  Maria always wanted to be a hero.  And to me she was a hero. Because she took the hard road.

Pete Steiner: She followed through with the rape allegations.

Mary Lauterbach: And she knew how hard, because she told me, "There's going to be hell to pay for this."  She knew that.  But she wasn't afraid to take the hard way.

She wasn't afraid to take the hard way.

She is a hero.

If Laurean does decide to fight extradition -- the process could take months.