Mary Lauterbach dreads the upcoming trial of Cesar Laurean, the Marine corporal accused of murdering her 21-year-old daughter, Maria, and her unborn son in a case that made international headlines.
“Who knows what they’ll say about Maria?” she asked. “She can’t speak for herself.”
Since Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach disappeared Dec. 14, 2007, her mother has worked tirelessly to be her daughter’s voice. Maria’s charred remains were found in a shallow fire pit in Laurean’s backyard in Jacksonville, N.C., on Jan. 11, 2008.
This February, Mary Lauterbach and her attorney, Merle Wilberding, went to Washington, D.C., and lobbied more than a dozen members of the House of Representatives in hopes of changing the way the U.S. military handles sexual assault cases.
“The consensus was that we’ve heard this kind of story over and over and it’s time to do something,” Lauterbach, a Vandalia resident, recalled.
Their efforts appear to have made an imprint on the National Defense Authorization Act passed May 28 by the House and heading for the Senate in the fall.
Among the most important provisions: establishing the independence of the role of the victim advocate and removing them from the chain of military command. Maria’s victim advocate, in contrast, was her direct supervisor.
“You need someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in their careers and they can advocate for people who are experiencing problems,” Lauterbach said. “When she went missing, where was her victim advocate? The attitude was, ‘Oh well, she’s gone,’ even though she was eight months pregnant and coming to work barely moving.”
While stationed at Camp LeJeune, N.C., Maria Lauterbach formally reported the sexual assault case as well as two other incidents — being punched in the dark by an unknown assailant and her car being keyed. Yet it would be weeks after her disappearance before authorities looked seriously at Laurean — and by that time he had fled to Mexico, prompting an international manhunt that ended in his capture April 10, 2008. His trial is to begin Aug. 9 in Goldsboro, N.C., about 65 miles north of Camp LeJeune.
The case was so egregious, Lauterbach believes, that it sparked long-overdue outrage.
She praises U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Centerville, for his unflagging commitment to the case: “He didn’t just stir up a little dust and move on; he has never let it drop. He has been working hard behind the scenes. I think he sees this as a real injustice that can be righted.”
Turner lauded Lauterbach for her “courageous work ... to help ensure no other family faces a tragedy similar to the one she faced .”
Turner added numerous provisions to the NDDA, including one ensuring confidentiality between victims and victim-advocates. Another requires that service members who have filed a military protection order are informed of their right to request a base transfer.
“Maria talked about that all the time, and if she had been granted a base transfer, she would be alive today,” Lauterbach said.
Lauterbach feels driven by a sense of guilt about the way she responded when her daughter first told her that she had been raped by Laurean.
“Maria, if this happened to you, it is your duty to report it,” she urged.
Recalled Lauterbach, “I had no idea what I was asking her to do. I gave her bad advice. If I had said, ‘Oh, just let it go,’ things would have turned out differently.”