The lawyer in the center of a sensational international murder investigation is a Breda, Iowa native now living in Ohio.
Merle Wilberding, a 1962 St. Bernard Catholic School graduate and a son of a Carroll County farmer who worked for the Breda Grain Company, is the attorney for Mary Lauterbach, the mother of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, the slain female Marine found buried in North Carolina last month.
Wilberding, 64, has appeared on the “Today Show” with Matt Lauer, taped a segment for “Dateline” and represented the family in other high-profile media venues.
With its chilling elements, Lance Cpl. Lauterbach’s case has generated a swirl of media attention around the world.
“This case caught the nation’s attention when it broke in a way few cases have,” Wilberding told Iowa Independent in a phone interview from his home in Dayton, Ohio.
Maria Lauterbach’s body — and that of her unborn baby — were found near the home of Cpl. Cesar Laurean, the main suspect in the case.
Laurean, who was accused of a May 2007 rape of Lauterbach, is believed to be on the run in his native Mexico with an international manhunt on his scent.
“He’s clearly still at large and the general belief is he’s still in Mexico,” Wilberding said.
Does he think Laurean did it?
“She was buried in his backyard,” Wilberding said.
He also thinks the alleged rape resulted in the pregnancy.
“Yeah, that’s how she got the baby,” Wilberding said.
Living in Ohio near the Lauterbachs, Wilberding was familiar with the family before the murder. When the case generated so much ink and airtime, Mary Lauterbach looked to him as an attorney.
“The real reason was that when all this broke she was overwhelmed and friends urged her to have a lawyer,” Wilberding.
A major reason for his role in the case is Wilberding’s experience with the military in sensitive, closely watched cases with major social implications. A generation ago, Wilberding served as a military attorney in the infamous trials surrounding the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.
That case is very much on his mind now.
Wilberding, who earned his law degree from Notre Dame University, wrote the cover story this month for Vietnam magazine on the 40th anniversary of My Lai on March 16, 1968.
“One of the rifle platoons of Charlie Company was led by Lt. William L. Calley who swept through the My Lai 4 subhamlet and, according to the testimony at his court-martial, gathered together hundreds of old men, women and children — perhaps as many as 500 — and then systematically massacred them,” Wilberding said.
Calley was charged and subsequently convicted by a general court-martial board.
As a young Army Judge Advocate General captain, Wilberding was assigned the responsibility to represent the government in Calley’s appeal of his conviction. Wilberding briefed and argued the case before the military appellate courts with the eyes of the nation on it.
Calley’s life sentence was later reduced. He lived under house arrest in Fort Benning, Ga., and then served four months at Fort Leavenworth before being paroled by the Army. Today he manages a jewelry store in Georgia that he inherited from his father.
Wilberding said he has not spoken to Calley since the trial.
Wilberding said the lessons of My Lai are relevant today.
“There is an enduring risk that one or more incidents like My Lai will recur in other ‘nonconventional’ wars,” Wilberding writes in the Vietnam magazine article.
He referenced the Abu Ghraib prison abuse cases in Iraq as one episode that has been compared to My Lai.
“The need for discipline in the military must be tempered with more effective training on the absolute obligation to protect both non-combatants and combatants who are no longer a danger and completely under control,” Wilberding said.
Like My Lai, the Lauterbach case also involves a breakdown in military order, he said.
Wilberding, who told Iowa Independent that suing the Marines is a “difficult proposition,” said the military could have done more to protect Lauterbach after she made the rape charge — chiefly separating the duties of the two Marines as the investigation proceeded.
“Yeah, clearly I think they could have done things to protect her,” Wilberding said.
Since he has been a visible advocate for Lauterbach, and by extension, women serving in the U.S. military, Wilberding said he’s been contacted by many parents of females in the services — and women in uniform themselves.
One parent told him, “The only difference is my daughter hasn’t been murdered yet.”
They see parallels with the Lauterbach case and their own experiences in the military, a culture Wilberding said that has not fully accepted women.
“I don’t think they (the military) have been fully able to absorb the cultural aspects,” Wilberding said.
After graduating from St. Bernard’s High School in Breda, Wilberding earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University (Minnesota), and then his law degree from Notre Dame.
He has practiced law for the past 35 years in Dayton, Ohio, at Coolidge Wall, LPA, a law firm of more than 40 lawyers. He has authored four books and a large number of law review and general interest articles.
(Photos: (Top) As a young Army JAG captain, Merle Wilberding was assigned the responsibility to represent the Government in Lt. Calley’s appeal of his conviction in the infamous My Lai massacre. Merle Wilberding briefed and argued the case before the military appellate courts. Those arguments were memorialized in a series of courtroom sketches that appeared in a report by Bob Schieffer on the CBS Evening News on Dec. 4, 1972. After his own discharge, Merle Wilberding acquired one of those original courtroom sketches and is seen standing beside it in the accompanying photograph. Today, Wilberding is the attorney for the family of a slain female Marine whose suspected killer is reportedly on the run in Mexico. (Middle) Maria Lauterbach. (Bottom) Cover of Vietnam magazine.)