JACKSONVILLE -- In the back yard of a comrade she had accused of rape, investigators found Friday what they believe is the burial site of a pregnant Marine missing since mid-December.
Friday night, police were still looking for Marine Cpl. Cesar Armando Laurean, 21, who they believe has left Jacksonville. He has not been charged with a crime, but has been called the main suspect in the disappearance and presumed death of Lance Cpl. Maria Frances Lauterbach.
Lauterbach, 20, last spoke with her mother on Dec. 14. Onslow County Sheriff Ed Brown said Friday that investigators believe Lauterbach had "friendly" contact after that date with Laurean, but that by Dec. 20, she was dead and in a shallow grave somewhere in the vicinity of Laurean's home.
Brown said Laurean had left Jacksonville around 4 a.m. Friday, while Brown and other investigators still believed Lauterbach was alive and possibly hiding. Though Laurean had a head start on investigators, Brown assured, "We'll get him one way or the other, somewhere."
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Last year, Lauterbach accused Laurean of rape. She was scheduled to testify about the incident at a hearing at Camp Lejeune in December.
Lauterbach was 8 1/2 months pregnant, and had told at least one friend that Laurean was the father of the baby boy she was carrying.
But on Dec. 19, when Lauterbach's mother, Mary Lauterbach of Dayton, Ohio, had not heard from her daughter for several days, she reported the woman missing.
Investigators contacted the Marines and learned of the rape allegation, and of inconsistencies in Lauterbach's account of what had happened.
In his report, a detective for the Onslow County Sheriff's Department noted that Lauterbach's mother said she was bipolar and prone to lie. The detective also noted Lauterbach was under considerable stress and may have been facing a military discharge, fueling speculation that she had intentionally disappeared.
Investigators said Lauterbach bought a bus ticket from Jacksonville to El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 14 but never used it.
Lauterbach had been staying with another fellow Marine, Sgt. Daniel Durham, who told police it appeared that she had left the house at some point with makeup and a few items of clothing.
Lauterbach's cell phone was found Dec. 20 on the roadside near the main gate to the Marine base. She missed a prenatal care appointment Dec. 26. Her car was found Monday night at the bus station in Jacksonville.
But investigators had received reports that Lauterbach had been seen after Dec. 14, and they had subpoenaed bank records to check whether she had been transferring funds.
Brown said they had asked to talk with Laurean about Lauterbach but Laurean had said no on the advice of his attorney. Brown said detectives did not consider Laurean a flight risk.
Early Friday morning, Sheriff Brown went on national television saying he was hopeful Lauterbach would be found alive.
The case took an abrupt turn a few hours later, when investigators spoke with a witness whom they described as a female former Marine.
Brown said police had gathered evidence that indicated Lauterbach had been injured and connected Laurean to her demise. When he realized she was dead, Brown said, "I just wanted to cry. You want the result to be positive."
After Brown's announcement, media attracted to the case shifted their attention to the Half Moon community about 4 miles north of Jacksonville off Gum Branch Road, where Laurean lives with his wife and a small child. Television satellite trucks were parked in people's yards; reporters were held several blocks away while police searched.
Richard Alander, who lives next door to the Laurean home, said he had often seen Laurean's wife cutting the lawn with a push mower and had sometimes done the job himself to save her the work.
He saw Laurean a few weeks ago, he said.
"He just came over and asked to borrow a shovel," Alander said. "He didn't say what he needed it for."
Just after 5 p.m., investigators announced they had stopped searching after locating a cavity in the back yard of Laurean's modest brick home. A spokesman said they would not dig at the site Friday night but would not be looking elsewhere. The area was secured and covered with a tent.