CLARKSVILLE — Prosecutors could finish presenting witnesses in the murder case against Max Roybal today, but so far evidence and testimony have not linked Roybal to the death of his wife, Fort Campbell Sgt. Laura Cecere, more than seven years ago.
Jurors on Tuesday heard testimony from several witnesses, none of which connected the defendant to his wife's disappearance on Dec. 6, 1996. However, through cross-examination of the prosecution's witnesses, defense attorney Michael Terry has inferred other possible explanations to Cecere's disappearance.
For instance, Peter Cecere, the victim's father, was "unhappy with Laura's lifestyle," said Sandra Cecere, Laura Cecere's mother.
Laura Cecere was gay.
"He was very much opposed to homosexuality, wasn't he?" Terry asked.
"Yes he was," she replied.
During Thanksgiving weekend of 1996, Laura Cecere traveled home to Fountain City, Ind., to visit her parents, who were in the process of a divorce. Sandra Cecere testified that her husband at times was violent toward her.
"Peter was violent, threatened to kill you, and he was a beneficiary," Terry said to Sandra Cecere.
The Thanksgiving holiday was the last time Sandra Cecere saw her daughter, who was the oldest of six children. She cried when she was shown a picture of her daughter during her testimony that lasted for about an hour.
Laura Cecere was last seen alive by a surveillance camera at an ATM inside the Wal-Mart Supercenter here on Fort Campbell Boulevard. She left work early at the Sabalauski Air Assault School on post, where she was the only female instructor, to take care of "personal business," her commander, Maj. Michael Getchell, testified.
Her truck was found abandoned at an apartment complex near Wal-Mart on Dec. 23, 1996.
Laura Cecere was 25 years old at the time of her disappearance. She would have been 33 last month.
Roybal, 46, was charged with first-degree murder in July 2001, although authorities first identified him as a suspect in 1997.
In March 2002, Roybal was acquitted of the Nov. 11, 1994, death of Karen C. Anderson, whom he was dating at the time of her death. Prosecutors alleged then that Roybal killed Anderson so he could collect an $86,000 insurance policy of hers for which he was listed as a beneficiary.
Similar allegations have been raised in Laura Cecere's death. District attorney Art Bieber said Roybal killed Cecere to claim more than $375,000 in life insurance proceeds on a policy he had through his employment with Dynacorp, which is contracted through the Department of Defense to maintain the Army's helicopters at Fort Campbell.
But Roybal never received those proceeds, testimony revealed.
Karen Hartnett, who handles human resources for Dynacorp, said Roybal's claim for benefits was denied because he was considered a suspect in his wife's death. Roybal had increased the amount on Laura Cecere's policy on Dec. 4, 1996, which was during the company's annual enrollment period but two days before his wife disappeared.
Laura Cecere listed both Roybal and her parents as beneficiaries on a $200,000 life insurance policy she had through the military. Her mother received $100,000, and her father and husband each were given $50,000.
Roybal met Laura Cecere in the summer of 1994. She was assigned to the 8th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, a helicopter maintenance detachment for the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
Although Laura Cecere was gay, she and Roybal became friends and agreed to get married so she could live off post and claim additional military benefits totaling more than $700 a month, and he could become a military dependent. They were married on Sept. 1, 1994, but did not live together. She lived with other women who also were gay, and Roybal resided here on Gip Manning Road.
Her body was never found, and Laura Cecere was confirmed dead on Aug. 1, 1997, a couple of days after her jawbone was sent to television station TV-43 in Hopkinsville, Ky. Based on dental records, medical examiners concluded that the jawbone belonged to Laura Cecere.
Susanna Martinez was "heavily involved" in reporting stories on Laura Cecere's disappearance for TV-43. On July 20, 1997, about a week before she discovered the jawbone in the mail, Martinez received an unsigned letter in the mail that noted Laura Cecere's remains could be located in Gallatin, Tenn. "in a river next to Harris Lane between Vietnam Veterans Boulevard and Long Hollow Pike."
The letter was turned over to Sgt. Stephanie Spurlin, who investigated the case for the Oak Grove Police Department until she was removed from her duties. Martinez relied on Spurlin as a news source for her stories.
Spurlin on July 25 led a search team in the Gallatin river area described in the letter, and Martinez reported on the search. TV-43 was the only news media at the scene.
Sometime during the search, Martinez informed Spurlin that she was resigning from TV-43 to work in Tampa Bay, Fla., where she now is director of communications for the mayor's office. Spurlin became upset with Martinez's leaving and wanted to go with her to Florida, according to Martinez.
"She seemed very distraught and told me she didn't want to deal with anyone else in the media," the former reporter testified. "She said she wanted to go with me, which was unusual and made me uncomfortable."
Martinez on July 29 opened a white package sent to her at the TV station and saw a small, clear plastic square-shaped container with a blue lid on top. Inside the container, a paper towel covered something she could not identify.
The package, "did not appear to be from someone I knew," she said. "A feeling inside told me not to touch it."
On top of the lid, the letters "Cececr" were printed, apparently Laura Cecere's last name but misspelled. Martinez removed the lid, dumped the contents onto the floor and noticed it was a bone with teeth intact. An anonymous letter claiming that her death was accidental also was enclosed.
"You get this letter on July 20th, told Stephanie Spurlin you were leaving, she gets upset, and you got the jawbone on the 29th," Terry said.
Bieber said late Tuesday he could complete his case today.
Melony Leazer can be reached by telephone at 887-3239 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.