JACKSONVILLE, N.C. - Authorities on foot and all-terrain vehicles searched a neighbourhood near Camp Lejeune on Friday for a shallow grave containing the body of a pregnant marine, and said the chief suspect in her death was a comrade she had accused of rape.

Information from another woman, a former marine, left investigators certain that Lance Cpl. Maria Frances Lauterbach was dead, Sheriff Ed Brown said.

Lauterbach, 20, vanished three weeks ago, just before she was to testify in a military probe.

The search was focused on a wooded area not far the home of the key suspect, Cpl. Cesar Armando Laurean, 21. Megan Melton, who lives about 100 metres from the area, said dozens of vultures had descended on the area in the past few weeks.

Laurean refused to meet with investigators and apparently left the area without telling his lawyers where he was going, the sheriff said.

"They don't know where he is," Brown said. "He's gone."

Lauterbach met with military prosecutors in December to discuss pursuing rape charges against Laurean, said Kevin Marks, supervisory agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service at Camp Lejeune. He said military prosecutors believed they had enough evidence to argue that the case should go to trial.

In court papers filed this week, prosecutors said the anticipated birth of the baby "might provide evidentiary credence to charges she lodged with military authorities that she was sexually assaulted." Lauterbach reported the rape in April and was due to give birth in mid-February, authorities said.

Authorities said they were not concerned that Laurean would flee because they had information the pair carried on a "friendly relationship" even after she reported the assault to military authorities.

There is no indication Lauterbach asked the military to protect her after she levelled the rape allegations, investigators said.

Detectives received news of Lauterbach's death from an unidentified female witness who is a former marine, the sheriff said.

Evidence and statements the witness provided made investigators feel certain Lauterbach was dead, Brown said.

"I had my insides knocked out with this negative information," he said. "I was about to cry."

Laurean and Lauterbach worked in the same unit as personnel clerks.

Lauterbach, originally from Dayton, Ohio, was reported missing Dec. 19 by her mother, who last spoke with her daughter on Dec. 14, authorities said. Her cellphone was found Dec. 20 near the main gate at Camp Lejeune, and she missed a Dec. 26 prenatal care appointment.

Lauterbach was assigned to the 2nd Marine Logistics Group of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Lejeune. She joined the marines in June 2006, and had not been sent to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

At the Lauterbach family home in Vandalia, Ohio, a man who identified himself only as a family friend turned away reporters Friday.

The family, in a statement given to WDTN-TV of Dayton, said: "Maria has been a gift for her family and friends. Please understand that the family needs time alone to deal with this tragedy. We wish to thank everyone for their love and concern."

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