Deputy sheriff poses as Newsweek journalist

It sounds like the plot of a B movie. The charred corpse of a missing female U.S. Marine and her fetus are found buried beneath a fire pit in the backyard of a male U.S. Marine whom she had previously accused of rape. The Marine suspect flees North Carolina for south of the border where he is captured apparently by chance at a roadblock set up by Mexican police investigating a local kidnapping.

During the international manhunt for the suspected Marine, a crime beat reporter and blogger for the Jacksonville Daily News was on the story. “Couple of y’all have asked what was said in the press conferences,” blogged Lindell Kay on JDNews. In another post, crime reporter Kay encouraged readers to speculate themselves and post “what your theory is on the death of [the victim] Maria Lauterbach.”

Some of the comments posted in response seemed remarkably personal. “Maybe [the suspect] Cesar [Laurean] was naïve when it comes to women, especially if he married when he was only 17 and she 4 years older,” reads one post by USMCVET on April 30, 2008. The Sheriff’s Department grew suspicious, Onslow Country Sheriff Ed Brown later told reporters, as some comments “had more detail than [they] should have had.”

But Daily News crime reporter Lindell Kay had his own sources, too. “A reliable source inside the federal investigation has told me there is a very strong possibility that Cesar Laurean is not the father of Maria Lauterbach’s unborn child,” he blogged earlier in the investigation.

The Sheriff’s Department deployed an undercover officer to call the Daily News and ask Kay for sources of information about Laurean’s possible sexual preferences, reported the print version of the Daily News on August 16. Kay called a source and told him about the request, the Daily News report said. With the source’s permission, Kay shared the source’s phone number with the caller–whom he thought was a Newsweek reporter.

Robert Sharpe, a 33-year-old intern with the District Attorney’s Office, was indicted for alleged embezzlement and misdemeanor larceny. He attempted to sell copies of case documents to an undercover law-enforcement officer posing as a Newsweek reporter, District Attorney Dewey Hudson said in a press conference, according to the August 16 story by Jennifer Hlad.

The arrested intern soon lashed out at the Daily News. “I’m very disappointed with the Jacksonville Daily News,” Sharpe told Eyewitness News 9 in the Jacksonville region after his indictment. “I’m supposed to be a confidential source. They screwed me over and offered no help or assistance afterwards. I put my trust in this organization.”

Daily News Associate Publisher Elliot Potter addressed the overall matter. “Like many reporters, especially on a story as big as this one, we’ve cooperated with other media outlets,” Potter told reporters in a conference videotaped and posted on the Daily News Web site. “That kind of cooperation is the staple of our business. We were not part of this investigation. We were just a newspaper doing what we do every day. We were misled, and the investigation does put us in a place where we don’t want to be. That’s part of the story when we think our job is covering the story.”

In a telephone interview with CPJ, Potter blamed the Onslow County Sheriff’s Department for having misled his reporter. “We were outraged about it,” said Potter. “North Carolina has a shield law to protect reporters’ sources. What the Sheriff’s Department did was to simply circumvent that law.” He went on, “They could have gotten the same information without doing what they did.” 

“I have no comment,” said Onslow County Sheriff Ed Brown after being reached by telephone by CPJ.