RALEIGH, N.C. - A Marine wanted in the brutal slaying of a pregnant colleague who had accused him of rape was arrested Thursday night in Mexico after a three-month international manhunt, authorities said.
FBI agents and Mexican authorities arrested Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean around 7 p.m. EDT. He is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, whose burned remains were found in January in the back yard of his home near Camp Lejeune.
"You know my name. You know who I am," Laurean told The Associated Press while being held at the Michoacan state Attorney General's Office in Morelia, the state capital.
Asked if he wanted to say anything, Laurean simply said "Proof," but wouldn't explain.
Laurean appeared slightly disoriented. Asked what he would do next, he replied, "do I have a choice? ... I don't know."
Magdalena Guzman, a spokeswoman for Michoacan, Mexico, state prosecutors office, said police carrying out an anti-kidnapping operation stopped Laurean as he wandered on a street in the rural township of Tacambaro, Michoacan, because they thought he looked suspicious.
When they realized he didn't speak Spanish well, they became even more suspicious. After running his name through a computer, they realized Laurean was wanted in the U.S. to face charges in the Lauterbach's death.
Guzman said Laurean told the arresting officers he had only 10 pesos (about US$1) in his pocket when arrested, and that he had been surviving by eating avocados and other fruit he found in the fields of the farming community where he was found.
The FBI said Laurean, 21, is awaiting extradition to the U.S., although local prosecutors in North Carolina cautioned Thursday that is a process that could take a year or more.
"Laurean's swift arrest in Mexico was due to the diligence and dedication of the Mexican government and our law enforcement partners," Nathan Gray, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Charlotte office, said in a statement.
"This was truly an international effort, and we will do all we can to ensure Laurean is brought back to Onslow County (N.C.) as quickly as possible to answer the charges against him."
Authorities believe Laurean killed the 20-year-old Lauterbach, an Ohio native who was eight months pregnant when she died, in mid-December. Detectives have said he left behind a note for his wife in which he denied killing Lauterbach but admitted to burying her remains.
In the note, Laurean said Lauterbach committed suicide by cutting her own throat.
Authorities rejected the assertion, saying evidence indicates Lauterbach died of blunt force trauma to the head.
Tipped by the note, and not long after authorities went public in their search for the Lauterbach, detectives discovered the charred remains of the missing Marine and her fetus in a shallow grave in Laurean's backyard. Under North Carolina law, Laurean could not be charged in the death of the fetus.
Onslow County District Attorney Dewey Hudson told The Associated Press that investigators recently seized a computer belonging to Christina Laurean's sister, which Christina Laurean was using to communicate with her husband. He said he didn't know if evidence from the computer led directly to Laurean's arrest. He declined to discuss the contents of the communications, but authorities previously said Christina Laurean was cooperating with detectives.
"Just communicating with her husband is not against the law," Hudson said. "To be an accessory after the fact you have to show someone provided assistance like information or money, and we don't have any evidence of that."
Lauterbach and Laurean were both personnel clerks in the same logistics unit at Camp Lejeune, an expansive coastal base about three hours southeast of Raleigh that is home to roughly 50,000 Marines. Detectives believe Laurean killed Lauterbach on Dec. 14, after forcing her to remove money from her bank account.
Lauterbach accused Laurean of rape last spring, a charge he denied and one that Naval investigators were unable to corroborate. Even though Lauterbach later told investigators she did not feel Laurean posed a danger or threat to her, the pair was separated on base. The Marines have said their regimental commander was intent on taking the case to a hearing that could have led to a trial.
Laurean, of Las Vegas, had told members of his unit he would flee to Mexico if it appeared he would be found guilty. Authorities believe he entered Mexico on a bus on Jan. 14, two days after fleeing from Jacksonville. He was born in Guadalajara, but family members there have said he moved to the U.S. more than 10 years ago.
Lauterbach's family has criticized the Marine Corps for what they feel was a lack of urgency in investigating the rape allegations. In a letter sent this week to Ohio GOP Rep. Michael Turner, who has rallied to the family's cause, the Marines said no effort was made to question Laurean about Lauterbach's disappearance because the two were no longer working together.
The Corps added the pair were no longer associated as far as their commanders knew and there was no evidence to indicate Laurean had anything to do with her unauthorized absence.
Phone messages seeking comment left at Lauterbach's parents' home in Vandalia, Ohio, on her uncle Pete Steiner's cell phone, and with family attorney Chris Conard were not immediately returned late Thursday. A woman who answered the phone at the home of Laurean's father-in-law, Bruce Shifflet, near Prospect, Ohio, hung up without commenting when told of the arrest.
Mexico hesitated to extradite foreigners for much of the 1980s and 1990s, but U.S. officials have praised the county's increased cooperation in recent years. State Department officials said Mexico extradited 73 suspects to the U.S. in 2007, most to face drug or murder charges.
Sometimes Mexico will forego the traditional extradition and deport a suspected criminal for entering the country illegally - a much quicker process. More than 150 U.S. citizens were deported from Mexico last year.
Hudson said "it could be a year or two" before authorities are able to bring Laurean back to North Carolina if he decides to fight the extradition process.
"The extradition process is one where you have a right to appeal," Hudson said. "I have no idea whether he would waive extradition."
Should Laurean be returned to North Carolina to stand trial, he won't face the death penalty. Hudson agreed not to seek an execution in order to win the cooperation of Mexico authorities, who refuse to send anyone back to the U.S. unless provided assurance they won't face a death sentence.
"We had intel that he had gone back to America to visit his family in Las Vegas and I was hoping they would arrest him in America," Hudson said. "But they didn't. This is a case that certainly is deserving to be tried as a capital case."