The murder trial of 19-year-old Erin Corwin began in San Bernardino County, California, last week, reports the San Bernardino Sun. On trial for the murder is 27-year-old Christopher Lee, a former U.S. Marine who is charged with felony murder with California’s special circumstance and sentencing enhancement of lying in wait. If he is found guilty of first-degree murder, with the sentencing enhancement, he could face the death penalty.
It was June 28, 2014, when 19-year-old Erin Corwin kissed her husband Jonathan Corwin goodbye for the last time, at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base in Twentynine Palms, California. She was not seen for another seven weeks until she was recovered from the body of a 140-foot mine shaft in Joshua Tree National Park. Erin was found on August 16, 2014, after seven grueling weeks of search by authorities, family, and friends.
Erin Corwin was also reportedly believed by family and friends to have been pregnant at the time of her death. An autopsy was unable to confirm this due to the extent of decomposition at the time of her recovery. The day after she was recovered from the mine shaft, Christopher Lee was arrested in Anchorage, Alaska, and extradited to San Bernardino County, reports the San Bernardino Sun.
During the early stages of the investigation and search, law enforcement learned of a romantic relationship happening between Erin Corwin and Christopher Lee. Erin’s husband was also a U.S. Marine and stationed on the same base. The two lived next door to each other and were involved in a romantic relationship that reportedly dated back to February of the same year.
Prosecutors allege that Erin became pregnant with Christopher Lee’s child, and was excited about the news. On the day that she kissed her husband for the last time, she texted a friend that she was going to share the news with him, and hopefully take the relationship further, according to testimony heard this week. Erin Corwin was never seen alive again.
Shortly after her disappearance, Christopher Lee was honorably discharged from the Marines and left the state to go to Alaska with his wife. This is a high-profile trial that has been followed by trial audiences all over the world, as Erin’s case hit the cover of People Magazine, and was covered extensively by many national media outlets at the time.
The family and loved ones of Erin have waited a very long time for this trial to begin, after a venue change and multiple delays.
Many following the case over the past two years believe that Christopher’s wife, Nicole Lee, has something to do with the murder after she made statements to investigators early in the case that they “would never find a body,” reports KTLA. In an affidavit filed by detectives during their investigation, KTLA reports that ranch owner Isabella Megli told investigators the following.
“Nicole told Isabella that without a body the detectives did not have a case against them and the detectives would never find the body. She also berated Lee in front of Isabella about not being able to keep his lies straight when he was interviewed by detectives because he was dumb.”
Last week, the trial began in San Bernardino County, with prosecutor Sean Daugherty of the District Attorney’s Major Crimes Unit leading the case, reports the San Bernardino Sun. Beth Ford Roth is inside the courtroom and has also been covering the trial since it began last week for the Erin Corwin Murder Trial blog. She reported that opening statements from the prosecutor began on Tuesday of last week and that the defense opted out of opening statements for this trial.
Prosecutors told the jury on Tuesday in opening statements that the DNA evidence found on the scene at the time would be the most damaging against the accused. State Attorney Sean Daugherty told the jury, “All evidence points to one person,” reports the Desert Sun.
DNA evidence reportedly included an olive-colored T-shirt that was “used to make a torch” that was found in the mine shaft with Erin. The prosecutor said in opening statements that Christopher Lee’s DNA was found on the shirt. A Sprite bottle with both the DNA of the victim and the accused was also found in the mine shaft.
Additionally, a propane tank was found in the bottom of the mine shaft as well as spent 22-caliber shell casings. A propane tank that matched the one found in the shaft was also found in the vehicle of the accused, as were matching shell casings. Also found with Erin was a garrote that was made with two pieces of rebar and some nylon rope, reports the Desert Sun.
Also found in Lee’s Jeep in the early stages of the investigation was nylon that matched that found on Erin, as well as some matching rebar. The Desert Sun reports that when Lee was first asked about the propane tank in his vehicle, he told investigators he was using it to blow up a mine shaft.
A garrote is a device referred to as a weapon used for capital punishment by the early Spanish, according to Dictionary.com. It refers to a collar-like device where the collar is applied to an individual until strangulation occurs. Wikipedia sources say that the American military used it in Puerto Rico until the early 1900s, when the 56th session of Congress discontinued it for the capital punishment of hanging.
Prosecutors from the Major Crimes Unit are charging Christopher Lee with California’s sentencing exception and special circumstance of “lying in wait.” This could make him eligible for capital punishment.
In the first day of trial, loved ones of Erin Corwin were put on the witness stand. The Erin Corwin Murder Trial blog reports that on Day 1 of the trial, Erin’s mother Lore Heavilin took the stand first. She testified on her last telephone conversation with Erin, one where she was planning an upcoming visit in the coming week.
Erin asked her to make some home cooked meals while she was there, and her mom told her the ingredients she would need to purchase in advance. Lore testified on Tuesday that when she arrived at the home to assist in the search for Erin, all of the ingredients had already been purchased. She would never see Erin alive again.
Erin’s husband, Jonathan Corwin also testified last week. He was questioned about his relationship with Erin and also about Erin’s relationship with her younger sister Trish, who had passed away when Erin was a child. Last on the stand for Tuesday’s testimony was Jessica Trentham, described as Erin’s best friend.
She may be the last loved one to have had a conversation with Erin, and had exchanged text messages with Erin on the day she went missing. Text messages revealed that Erin thought she was pregnant and had been planning on telling Chris Lee that day, who had arranged a surprise outing with Erin.
USA Today reports that Erin’s text messages read as follows.
“The location is only half the surprise. He said he’s honestly not sure how I’m going to react. Seriously, I don’t know why he would drag me to a very special place…for a big dumb surprise.”
According to USA Today, Jessica Trentham testified at the preliminary hearing of the case, saying that when she asked Erin if she thought she was getting a proposal. Erin texted in response, “Maybe” with “lots of exclamation points.”
In day two of the trial last week, neighbors of the Corwin family, as well as a mine expert, took the stand. Douglas Billings, 53, used images in June, 2014, to close in on the mine that Erin was found in.
Aisling Malakie, a neighbor also testified against the accused saying that Christopher Lee “talked about killing people” and also how to dispose of them frequently, reports the San Bernardino Sun.
“No one else I know talked about snapping necks and hiding bodies with coyotes. It wasn’t normal.”
Malakie said Lee told her if he ever wanted to get rid of a body, he'd bury it deep in woods somewhere, under a coyote carcass. #ErinCorwin— Joe Nelson (@SBcountyNow) October 12, 2016
When Malakie was asked how frequently Lee spoke of killing people, she testified, “More times than I can count.” Aisling also testified that she had asked Christopher’s wife, Nicole, at one point if she knew where Erin might be.
In day two of their trial reporting, the San Bernardino Sun said Aisling choked back tears in court on Wednesday when she said that Nicole responded, “I don’t care where that little [bleep] is.” Joe Nelson from the San Bernardino Sun is in the courtroom, and live tweeting the trial.
Aisling’s husband, Conor Malakie, also testified, having witnessed the propane tank in Christopher’s Jeep at the time of the disappearance. He asked his neighbor what he planned to do with it, to which Christopher Lee allegedly replied that he was going to “blow up a mine shaft.”
Lee told Malakie he was going to shoot the propane tank to create the explosion, Malakie said. #ErinCorwin— Joe Nelson (@SBcountyNow) October 12, 2016
Conor also testified that on the day that Erin went missing, Christopher had gone coyote hunting, but when he returned, the propane tank was no longer in his Jeep. He also testified that he immediately suspected Lee of being involved in Erin’s disappearance, and reportedly even asked Christopher Lee, “Did you do what I think you did?” according to the Erin Corwin Murder Trial blog.
Christopher Lee answered “No,” according to the San Bernardino Sun.
On Thursday, the last day of trial for last week, San Bernardino County Sheriff Cpl. Robert Whiteside testified on the search and rescue, and ultimate recovery of Erin Corwin, reports the San Bernardino Sun. He testified about the 6-week investigation, saying,
“We probably searched in the area of 300 mines during the 6-week investigation.”
Sheriff Whiteside described intense heat and “unforgiving terrain” during the search. It was reportedly around 3 p.m. on August 16 when investigators found a “very strong odor” of both decomposition and gasoline around the Rose of Peru Mining District.
Investigators then drilled a hole into a bucket, along with a camera and light attached to it, and lowered it into the mine. The jury witnessed this footage on Thursday, and also what the camera found which was “Corwin’s badly decomposed body, the water jugs, and propane tank, which had a rope tied around it,” reports the San Bernardino Sun in their day three report.
The Erin Corwin Murder Trial blog also recounted the interviews with Christopher Lee by San Bernardino County early in the investigation. In one interview he denied ever knowing Erin beyond an “acquaintance.” In another interview that was recorded, he admitted to Deputy Cathy Tabor that they had a romantic relationship but that it didn’t extend beyond kissing.
He also reportedly called Erin a “pathological liar” in that interview. After which the detective reportedly reminded Chris of the “many times” that he had lied to investigators early in the investigation. The San Bernardino Sun also reported that one detective testified that during interviews, Christopher Lee answered quickly and didn’t seem like he wanted to talk.
The area of abandoned mine shafts in Joshua Tree National Park is a dangerous one, with rough terrain. It took investigators nearly seven weeks to comb it all, and locate Erin.
Watch this interview with gold prospector Tom Koch, as he takes a reporter on the exact terrain, to the mine shaft where Erin spent her last moments and discussed the Erin Corwin homicide. He describes the area as “no man’s land” and fresh scuff marks from the Erin Corwin investigation are still visible.
With DNA evidence and neighbor testimony, it was reportedly a strong open for the state in the case of the State of California v. Christopher Lee. Christopher Lee is facing felony murder with the special circumstance of lying in wait.
The Lectric Law Library says that the facts required to secure a conviction on the special circumstance of lying in wait include a jury finding an intentional murder occurred and that the murder included the following elements.
“1.) A concealment of purpose, (2) a substantial period of watching and waiting for an opportune time to act, and (3) immediately thereafter, a surprise attack on an unsuspecting victim from a position of advantage.”
Shouse Law says, the element of surprise or tricking the victim is required for this special circumstance to be met beyond a reasonable doubt.
The trial continues this week in San Bernardino. If convicted, Christopher Lee could face the death penalty.
[Feature Image by San Bernardino County Sherriff’s Office]