Slain Marine’s mom works to change military culture

Mary Lauterbach leads training sessions on sexual assault cases.

Mary Lauterbach of Vandalia remains a powerful voice for her daughter, Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, nearly four years after she was murdered by fellow Marine Cesar Laurean.

On Nov. 16, Mary Lauterbach and her attorney, Merle Wilberding, attended the North Carolina Court of Appeals hearing in Raleigh, N.C., and listened as Laurean’s attorneys argued that his first-degree murder conviction should be overturned because the judge did not allow jurors to consider a lesser charge of second-degree murder.

“We wanted to make our presence visible, and to remind them that Maria was a real person,” Lauterbach said.

“We wanted to be a witness to justice,” added Wilberding. “We’re glad we went.”

Laurean’s state-appointed attorney, Ann Peterson, acknowledged that her client killed Lauterbach, but argued that the crime might not have been premeditated. Attorneys for the state countered that the fact that Laurean burned the body and buried Lauterbach in his backyard was proof of premeditation.

Lauterbach, 20, was eight months’ pregnant at the time of her murder. Laurean is currently serving a life sentence without parole at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution, a high-security adult male prison in Elizabeth City, N.C.

“The trial court got it right,” Wilberding said.

It was the second time in less than a month that Lauterbach, who now leads training sessions for the military, had been called upon to bear witness for her daughter.

‘Deficient’ investigation

On Oct. 28, three Department of Defense staffers flew to Dayton to brief Lauterbach on the Inspector General’s report on the investigation of her daughter’s sexual assault case. The scathing 46-page report concluded that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service criminal investigation was both “substantively and procedurally deficient” and that NCIS agents did not conduct the investigation “diligently, timely or completely, and logical investigative steps were not completed.”

The report also noted that Camp Lejeune’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Response Program officials violated policy in its response to Lauterbach’s rape complaint. Consequently, the report concluded, Camp Lejeune’s Sexual Assault Case Management Group, which is responsible for reviewing rape cases, was unable to “assure her safety, well-being and recovery after the sexual assault, principally because it did not know about it.”

Lauterbach said the Inspector General’s report is an important step toward accountability. The yearlong investigation revealed much she hadn’t previously known about her daughter’s sexual assault case. On May 11, 2007, Lauterbach reported she was raped by then-Cpl. Laurean, one of her supervisors. Laurean claimed he had consensual sex with her. “The details of the investigation were even worse than we knew,” Mary Lauterbach said. “Only three of the eight witnesses were interviewed before Maria died, and they weren’t interviewed thoroughly. They didn’t investigate the crime scene or check Laurean’s alibis, or they would have found out that he was working on the day of the assault, as he claimed to be.”

Lauterbach reported to her officer in charge that Laurean had sexually assaulted her on two separate occasions. Typically, an Article 32 hearing on complaints such as this are heard within 60 to 90 days, but in this case it was not scheduled until Jan. 14, 2008. Wilberding said that the uncharacteristic delay may have contributed to Lauterbach’s death.

“The uncertainty was hanging over Cesar Laurean like a heavy weight,” he said. “He was worried about what it would do to his career, and speculating to his friends about what would happen if the complaining witness simply went away. It looks like he finally decided to take matters into his own hands.”

‘They didn’t do anything.’

Lauterbach said she was disappointed with the narrow scope of the report, which focused only on the rape case without not looking into what happened after Maria disappeared. Still, she said, “I was amazed at how forthright the report was and how open with details. It is refreshing that our government can criticize itself like that.”

Lauterbach said that she hopes the Inspector General report and other investigations into her daughter’s murder will have a lasting impact. “The moment that Maria reported the sexual assault, they concluded she was a liar,” she said. “Even after she reported being sucker-punched and having her car keyed, which should have been red flags, they didn’t do anything. I hope they’re serious now about changing the culture and the assumption that people are lying.”

Lauterbach is trying her best to change the culture. Last year, Lauterbach and Wilberding went to Washington and lobbied more than a dozen House of Representatives members in hopes of changing the way the U.S. military handles sexual assault cases.

Since then, she has become a sought-after speaker at military training sessions about dealing with sexual assault. She provides very personal the observations from the mother of a victim, hoping to help commanders and unit members become more responsive to claims of sexual assault. “Be careful about the assumptions you make,” she tells them.

“Mary is making a difference,” Wilberding said. “I’m sure she has saved a lot of lives.”

Slowly, she said, the culture seems to be changing, in part because of the international publicity and intensive scrutiny of her daughter’s murder.

Lauterbach acknowledged, “It doesn’t take away the pain, but I hope it does bring some meaning out of the tragedy.”

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