JACKSONVILLE, N.C. For months after a pregnant 20-year-old Marine accused a colleague of rape, her family says, she continued to work alongside her attacker and endured harassment at Camp Lejeune.
In the weeks after she disappeared, they believe, the sheriff's department was slow to act.
As authorities recovered Maria Lauterbach's remains Saturday from a fire pit where they suspect Marine Cpl. Cesar Armando Laurean burned and buried her body, her family asked why authorities didn't treat her case with greater urgency.
Naval investigators on Saturday said the pair had been separated on the job, a rape case was progressing and Laurean was under a protective order to stay away from Lauterbach. And Onslow County Sheriff Ed Brown insisted his department acted as best it could on the facts available.
"As soon as it went suspicious, we contacted the media and asked for help," Brown said. "The case did not produce enough evidence, other than she was just missing."
On Saturday, her burnt remains, and those of her unborn child, were excavated from Laurean's back yard.
"As well as I could see, the body was much charred," Brown said. "The fetus was in the abdominal area of that adult. ... That is tragic, and it's disgusting."
Authorities have issued an arrest warrant on murder charges for Laurean, 21, of the Las Vegas area. They say he fled Jacksonville after leaving behind a note in which he admitted burying her body.
In his note, Laurean wrote Lauterbach cut her own throat in a suicide, but Brown doesn't believe it and challenged Laurean to come forward and defend his claims of innocence.
Authorities have described a violent confrontation inside Laurean's home that left blood spatters on the ceiling and a massive amount of blood on the wall.
County prosecutor Dewey Hudson said Laurean had been in contact with three attorneys, including Mark E. Raynor, who declined to comment Saturday.
Lauterbach disappeared sometime after Dec. 14, not long after she met with military prosecutors to talk about her April allegation that Laurean raped her.
Her uncle, Pete Steiner, said that Lauterbach stung by the harassment that eventually forced her to move off base decided to drop the case the week before she disappeared.
Paul Chiccarelli, the special agent in charge of Naval Criminal Investigative Service at Camp Lejeune, told The Associated Press on Saturday that Marine commanders submitted requests in October to send the case to the military's version of a grand jury. A military protective order had been automatically issued in May and renewed three times.
"Anytime there is a sexual assault allegation involved, that's a standard routine," he said.
Lauterbach and Laurean served in the same unit of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, and court documents indicate Lauterbach's mother told authorities Laurean had threatened her daughter's career.
Steiner said Saturday on ABC's Good Morning America the Marines didn't separate the two personnel clerks, but Chiccarelli said Marine commanders assigned them to separate buildings on May 12.
Neither Brown nor Hudson would say Saturday if they would have treated the case differently had they known about the protective order, which they discovered Friday night.
Chiccarelli said sheriff's office investigators were told about the order on Monday.
But Chiccarelli again said investigators didn't consider Laurean a threat to Lauterbach, or later a flight risk, because they had indications the pair were on friendly terms. He declined to detail those indications on Saturday.
Lauterbach's mother reported her daughter missing Dec. 19 five days after she last spoke with her. By that time, she had been placed on "unauthorized absence" status by the Marine Corps.
"Several steps were taken to contact her via telephone, cell phone, even in person by sending Marines to her residence," said II MEF spokesman Lt. Col. Curtis Hill. "At that time, there was no reason to believe anything other than she had voluntarily placed herself in an unauthorized absence status."
Hill said that Lauterbach also left her roommate a note saying she was "going away" and apologized for "the inconvenience."
An Onslow County sheriff's employee contacted naval investigators Dec. 19 after hearing from police in Ohio and listed her as a "missing person at risk" in a national law enforcement database. He met with Lauterbach's roommate the next day, but court documents indicate he was unable to reach the Marine officer who had been notified of her absence, as he was away on holiday leave.
The employee checked ditches along several highways for her car, and asked the State Highway Patrol and several area hospitals if they had had any contact with the missing Marine. None had. He left word with the department radio room to contact him with any developments before leaving Dec. 22 for a vacation.
Steiner said he and his sister, Maria's mother, told authorities they planned to fly to North Carolina around the Christmas holiday, but were advised not to because authorities believed Lauterbach was headed for Dayton.
Believing that authorities "dropped the ball," Steiner said the Lauterbachs eventually decided they could no longer wait. They flew to North Carolina and met with detectives Monday, the same day court documents indicate authorities first discovered Lauterbach's ATM card had been used by a white male on Christmas Eve and she missed a prenatal care appointment on Dec. 26.
Brown also learned about the case Monday. A series of search warrants were filed, and the case went public and he asked for help.
By that point, it was too late. Laurean refused to meet with investigators, and eventually skipped town before dawn Friday without telling his lawyers where he was going.