Suspect in slaying of pregnant Marine arrested in small town in western Mexico

Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean, right, is presented by police in Morelia, Mexico, Thursday, April 10, 2008. Laurean, who was wanted in the brutal slaying of a pregnant Marine at Camp LeJeune who had accused him of rape, was arrested Thursday night in Mexico af Alexandre Meneghini, The Associated Press

AP

Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean, right, is presented by police in Morelia, Mexico, Thursday, April 10, 2008. Laurean, who was wanted in the brutal slaying of a pregnant Marine at Camp LeJeune who had accused him of rape, was arrested Thursday night in Mexico af Alexandre Meneghini, The Associated Press

By Traci Carl

MORELIA, Mexico – 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.

Mexican police in the small town of Tacambaro arrested Cpl. Cesar Laurean on Thursday.

FBI Public Affairs Specialist Amy Thoreson said FBI agents were present at the arrest, but it was unclear what role they played.

He is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, 20, who had accused him of rape. Her 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,” said Onslow County Sheriff Ed Brown.

Lauterbach family attorney Merle Wilberding said in a statement that “we hope this presents an opportunity to unravel the mystery that has surrounded so many of the disconnected but frightening actions and events that attended her death.”

Mexican police carrying out an anti-kidnapping operation stopped Laurean as he was wandering the streets because they thought he looked suspicious, said Magdalena Guzman, a prosecutors’ spokeswoman in Michoacan state.

When officers ran 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.

Guzman said Laurean told the arresting officers he had only 10 pesos – about US$1 (_.60) – in his pocket when arrested.

Laurean, of Las Vegas, was born in Guadalajara, but family members there have said he moved to the U.S. 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 of rape. 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.

Authorities believe that on Dec. 14, Laurean killed Lauterbach, who was eight months pregnant, after forcing her to remove money from her bank account.

Lauterbach and Laurean were both personnel clerks in a logistics unit at Camp Lejeune, a coastal North Carolina base that is home to roughly 50,000 Marines.

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 Laurean’s family. We pray for them at this time. They are very much in our thoughts,” she said as she backed out of her driveway at her Vandalia, Ohio, home.

“It doesn’t bring Maria back. Nothing can replace the pain of that loss,” she said in a separate statement released through her attorney. “At the same time, we know that Maria would want justice to be done in this case and we know that this is an important step in that process.

“We also hope that more of the true facts surrounding her death can now be established.”

Associated Press writers James Hannah in Vandalia, Ohio, Estes Thompson in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.