Police indicated today that the Marine sought in the murder of a pregnant soldier who had accused him of rape was allowed to remain free for weeks after she disappeared because of questions about the validity of the sexual assault allegation.
The manhunt for Cpl. Cesar A. Laurean, 21, escalated today with wanted posters distributed nationwide and a $25,000 bounty for information leading to his capture. He is wanted for the death of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, 20, whose charred bones were discovered buried in a fire pit behind his house.
Sheriff Ed Brown of Onslow County, N.C., said his investigation has determined that Lauterbach was murdered Dec. 15, the day after she was last seen by her roommate, Sgt. Daniel Durham. Durham reported to the woman's family that Lauterbach had gone missing on Dec. 16. A formal missing person's report was made Dec. 19 and Lauterbach's military status was changed to "unauthorized absence."
Brown struggled to explain why the Marines had never taken Laurean into custody or shared information about the rape allegations even after Lauterbach was reported missing. The sheriff indicated that Marine officials in her unit had doubts about Lauterbach's claim of being raped by Laurean last April. She was eight months pregnant at the time of her death.
Brown said commanders at Camp Lejuene whom he'd spoken to were not aware of the rape accusation until he told them about it on Jan. 9. He also explained to the military commanders that Laurean's lawyers were preventing police from questioning him. The probe into Lauterbach's accusations had been handled at a low, or "downhill," level, Brown said.
"In the initial report, the incident on the base was being played down because of the validity of the behavior that was being attached to Maria Lauterbach," Brown said.
Marine's Mother Doubted Rape Story
Doubts about Lauterbach's accusation may have been fueled by the Marine's mother who had told sheriff's authorities that her daughter had a history of lying and suffered from a mental illness.
Nevertheless, Brown said that suspicions about Lauterbach's character should not have stopped military officials from contacting the sheriff's office after she was reported missing. "Once she became a reported person, that should have caused someone to come to us and tell us, 'This is what's going on on the base,'" Brown said.
The U.S. Marine Corps said it is reviewing its handling of Lauterbach's case, specifically looking at how information was shared among officials at Camp Lejeune.
"The command is currently collecting information and conducting a review to determine what information was available to commanders and when that information was available in relation to Lance Cpl. Lauterbach," the statement read.
In an e-mailed statement to ABC News after Brown's news conference, a spokesman for the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune said that the military did not anticipate the release of any additional information regarding the Lauterbach case today.
Military officials had previously said they did not consider Laurean a flight risk despite the rape accusations made by Lauterbach, citing an ongoing relationship between the two even after she made the rape accusations. On Saturday, however, naval investigators said that Laurean and Lauterbach had been assigned to different buildings and that Laurean was under a protective order to stay away from Lauterbach. Sheriff's office authorities did not know about the protective order.
Dewey Hudson, the county prosecutor in Onslow County, cautioned today against a conclusion that Lauterbach had been sexually assaulted by Laurean, calling it an "alleged" rape. But he also raised questions about why his office had never heard anything about the rape complaint.
This weekend, Peter Steiner, Lauterbach's uncle, said that his niece had been the victim of harassment at Camp Lejeune, with pressure being put on her to drop the rape charges. Steiner also said that the military had not made an effort to separate Lauterbach and Laurean on the base, where the probe into the alleged rape is ongoing.
Note Left Claiming Woman Killed Herself
Before going on the lam, Laurean left a note admitting to burying the woman and her unborn baby, but claiming that Lauterbach had slit her own throat. Christina Laurean, the Marine's wife and the mother of his 18-month-old son, handed the note over to police. Brown has questioned the suicide account, citing evidence of a violent struggle inside Laurean's house, with blood on the wall and ceiling, and an effort to "cover up" blood stains.
Authorities this weekend failed to confirm possible sightings of Laurean aboard a Texas-bound bus in Shreveport, La. Brown said that Laurean's family has not been able to provide the fugitive's location or direction, and suggested that Laurean, a native of Nevada who should be considered armed and dangerous, is likely receiving help as he runs.
"Even though he's committed this horrible crime, he's got friends out there," Brown said.
Authorities are looking into reports that Laurean's black, extended-cab Dodge pickup truck may have been seen in the Durham area, about 150 miles north west of Jacksonville. Lauterbach's ATM card was also found at a bus station in Durham.