COMMENTARY: Recalling the case that changed military sex assault laws

It was just over 10 years ago, on Dec. 14, 2007, when Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach went missing from Camp Lejeune, N.C. In a phone call with her mother, Mary Lauterbach, Maria explained she was expected to be at an on-base Christmas party that evening. Her mother never heard from her again, despite repeated phone calls.

Maria, who was born in Dayton and grew up in Vandalia, was eight months pregnant and her mother was concerned about her well-being. After being rebuffed again and again by base security, Mary filed a missing person report. It would be a month before her story finally aroused the suspicions of a local sheriff’s detective who then pursued her desperate pleas.

On Jan. 11, 2008, her body was discovered in a fire pit in the back yard of Cpl. Cesar Laurean, her direct supervisor at Camp Lejeune, against whom Maria had filed a sexual assault claim six months earlier. By the time her body was discovered, he had fled to Mexico. Arrested two months later, he fought extradition for a year before being brought back to the United States and tried for murder. He was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and is now prisoned in North Carolina.

Maria’s death was devastating to her family and friends. Mary Lauterbach vowed to become the voice of Maria, to tell her story and to address systemic problems in the military’s approach to sexual assault.

Drawing on my four years of service in the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, I had the opportunity to work with Mary Lauterbach to help identify changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that would improve the protection of victims of sexual assault. With the help of U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, Mary Lauterbach testified multiple times at congressional hearings which, along with the efforts of others, produced important changes in the military justice code, including: 1) adding the right for an expedited base transfer, so a victim could relocate to a new environment; 2) appointing counsel for the victim of a sexual assault claim; and 3) improving the training and quality of victim advocates who previously had been direct superiors in the chain of command of the victim and who, all too often, had seemed to be only victim listeners who couldn’t do anything.

Over the past 10 years, Mary Lauterbach has continued to put a face on the stories of sexual assault, encouraging victims to stand up for their rights, and urging them to use the new legal tools available to them. She is invited by the commands of all of the services to share Maria’s story with their troops to emphasize the military’s rules of conduct. She has spoken locally at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, nationally across the country, and internationally at bases as far away as Japan and South Korea.

Sexual assault may still be rampant in the military, as it seems to be throughout our society. But there have been significant changes in the law that will better protect victims and increase prosecution of perpetrators. It is clear that Mary Lauterbach has played a big part in those changes. By continuing to speak out on these issues, she has increased the awareness of our service men and women to sexual assaults. Indeed, Mary strongly believes that if those measures had been in place 10 years ago, her daughter would be alive today. Maria would be proud of her mother.

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Dayton attorney Merle Wilberding is a regular contributor.

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