By Bill Hewitt
January 28, 2008 12:00 PM

The sheriff’s deputies came to the house near Camp Lejeune, N.C., looking for any sign of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, a Marine eight months pregnant and missing since the middle of December. What they found in the home of Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean on Jan. 11 left them horrified. When investigators applied the chemical Luminol, used to find traces of blood, two areas in the house glowed as if lit by neon. “They found blood all over the garage and in another room that had been painted over to conceal the blood,” said a visibly shaken Sheriff Ed Brown. “There was blood all over the walls, even on the ceiling.” The next day investigators dug up a shallow grave in the backyard: in it were the burned remains of a woman and a fetus.

By then Laurean had fled, leaving behind a tangled tale of he said/she said and troubling accusations that the Marines had mishandled their end of the case. Last May Lauterbach, 20, had accused Laurean, 21, a well-liked personnel clerk with whom she worked at Camp Lejeune, of raping her. (At one point Lauterbach said the baby was a result of the rape.) According to her family, the Marines had—incredibly—allowed Laurean to continue working in the same unit with Lauterbach, and then, when she went missing on Dec. 14 as she was about to testify against him, failed to press her alleged assailant on what he might know. “Nothing was being done,” says her uncle Peter Steiner, who has been speaking for the family. “It was frustrating.” While expressing sympathy for the family, a Marine spokesman at a Jan. 15 press conference said, “I don’t know … that any mistakes were made.”

The tragedy was all the deeper because Lauterbach had long dreamed of serving in the Marines. Raised in Vandalia, Ohio, by her parents, Victor and Mary Lauterbach, she was a gung-ho daredevil from early childhood. Family members describe her diving off a cliff headfirst into unknown waters and talk about how hard she competed even when playing board games. “She pushed herself to the extreme in everything,” says sister Anne. “That’s most of the reason she joined the Marine Corps: for the extreme challenge.”

She graduated from boot camp in September 2006, but just seven months later she accused Laurean, who is married and has a young daughter, of raping her. The Marines launched an investigation, discovering that Lauterbach had allegedly had some sort of sexual encounter before the alleged rape. Laurean remained free, and according to a Marine spokesman, Lauterbach was transferred to a different workplace as a “prudent step.” According to Paul Ciccarelli of the Navy Criminal Investigation Service, the Marines concluded that some aspects of Lauterbach’s complaint were “inconsistent.” What’s more, Lauterbach’s mother (who declined to talk to PEOPLE) supposedly told police that her daughter was bipolar and a “compulsive liar.”

Lauterbach’s uncle vehemently disputes much of the Marine account. According to Steiner, who is a psychiatrist, Lauterbach was treated for bipolar disorder while in the Marines, but he insists that her mother only mentioned to investigators that her daughter had a tendency “to exaggerate the truth when she was stressed.” Says Steiner: “She was not a compulsive liar.” He also maintains that Laurean’s friends harassed and intimidated Lauterbach after the alleged attack. But the Marines contend there was no evidence of that. Said the Marine spokesman: “At no time did she indicate that she was threatened by Corporal Laurean.”

What is clear is that Lauterbach’s life was in turmoil. In conversations with her family, with whom she was close, she had gone back and forth over whether she would keep the child, whom she intended to name Gabriel Joseph. Her mother urged her to put the baby up for adoption, but one friend believes she was leaning the other way. “To me,” says the friend, “you don’t choose a name unless you intend to keep the baby.” (The Marines say that on Nov. 5 Lauterbach revised her statement to say that she no longer believed the pregnancy was the result of the alleged sexual assault.) In any event on Dec. 17, a few days after she last spoke to Maria, Mary Lauterbach called the base to say she hadn’t heard from her daughter. She was told that in such missing persons cases nothing could be done for 30 days. When the sheriff’s office quickly got involved, say the family and the DA, the Marines seemed slow to react. Early on, for instance, a detective tried repeatedly to talk to the Marine officer in charge of the rape case but got “no results,” according to a sheriff’s investigative report. Marine authorities say that a note from Maria found by her roommate on Dec. 14, in which she said she was fed up with the Corps, led them to assume she had merely skipped the base. But as District Attorney Dewey Hudson put it at one point, “I’m waiting for [their] investigators to do their job.”

Lauterbach was last seen at a bus station near the base on Dec. 14. Later her car was found abandoned, and there were transactions involving her ATM card. Sheriff’s investigators believe she was kidnapped by Laurean and killed the next day. According to a neighbor, Richard Alendar, Laurean borrowed a shovel around that time to dig a fire pit in the backyard. On Christmas Eve, say Alendar and wife Wanda, the Laureans had a blaze going in the pit, which left a strange aroma. “I asked my husband, ‘What’s that smell?'” says Wanda. “It smelled like something dead.”

In a note found after he fled, Laurean, who is being hunted for the murder, said that Lauterbach had cut her own throat and that he had merely buried her. Like so much else in the case, that made little sense. “We all knew she was in deep trouble,” says Steiner. “We unfortunately assumed somebody was doing something about it.”