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Body of missing Marine wife Erin Corwin found; Christopher Lee arrested

Aug. 18, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Erin Corwin
Erin Corwin (The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun / Submitted)
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Christopher Brandon Lee (San Bernardino County Sheriff / AP)
Erin Corwin, left, with her husband, Jonathan Wayne Corwin, a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps. (San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department / AP)
Members of the Urban Search and Rescue team prepare to recover the body of Erin Corwin from an abandoned mine shaft on Aug. 17 near Twentynine Palms, Calif. (San Bernardino County Sheriff / AP)

Former Marine Christopher Lee was arrested Sunday night in the killing of Erin Corwin, a missing Marine wife who was found crumpled at the bottom of a 140-foot-deep mineshaft in a remote area of the High Desert.

Authorities have also said that Lee’s wife, Nichole Lee, is a “person of interest” in the death.

Corwin’s body was located Saturday afternoon by specialized mine search teams, who used cameras to explore more than 100 mine shafts and bodies of water in the remote desert. An urban search and rescue team recovered the body on Sunday, and dental records were used to ensure it was Corwin.

The mine was on federal land, a few miles southeast of Twentynine Palms, outside of Joshua Tree National Park.

A warrant for Lee’s arrest was issued after the body was found. An autopsy confirmed that Corwin was the victim of a homicide, but the cause of death has not been released.

In a statement released Monday, the Corwin family praised the search teams that combed the desert.

“While we were praying for a different outcome, we cannot begin to express the gratitude we have for every person that has been involved in the search for Erin,” the family’s statement said. “The countless hours that have been spent by volunteer search crews and multiple branches of law enforcement ... are more than we could have asked for and are ultimately what have led to finding her.”

“Please continue to pray for our family and for justice for Erin and her unborn baby,” the family added.

Corwin, 19, was a Marine wife who vanished on June 28 after telling her husband, Cpl. Jonathan Corwin, that she was headed to Joshua Tree National Park. During the seven-week search that followed, law enforcement officials and volunteers inspected more than 300 squares miles of desert and several bodies of water.

During a press conference on Monday, sheriff’s Sgt. Trevis Newport said volunteers were critical in the massive search. Nearly 5,000 volunteer hours were dedicated to the search.

“There is no way that Erin ... would have been located without their assistance,” Newport said.

Lee, 24, is a former Marine, originally from Anchorage, who lived next to the Corwin couple at the desert base. Detectives believe that Lee and Corwin were having an affair, and that Lee may have been afraid that his wife, Nichole, would discover his infidelity.

Lee left the Marine Corps about the same time that Corwin went missing, and he moved off of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms in early July. Lee and his family have since moved to Alaska, where he was arrested.

As of Monday morning, Lee was held at the Anchorage Correctional Complex. San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos said Monday that prosecutors will take about 48 hours to determine what crimes to charge Lee with.

Extradition was a certainty, Ramos said.

“We will make sure we have this person in our county through the legal means necessary,” Ramos said. He added later: “All indicators are (the investigation) will be filed as a murder case.”

On the day Corwin was found, search teams were focused on the areas of the Rose of Peru Mining District, Brooklyn Mining District and Los Angeles Mining District. Authorities said the area was remote, rough terrain — difficult for even a four-wheel vehicle to traverse — speckled with dangerous mine shafts.

One firefighter was injured while searching the mines, said Mark Hardwig, San Bernardino County fire chief. The firefighter’s arm was struck by a rock as he descended into a mine.

“In a typical fashion, he didn’t want to be recognized,” Hartwig said. “He then indicated that he was happy he could play some small role in bringing to justice the perpetrator in the homicide of Ms. Corwin.”

The sheriff’s department said it could not yet release information about Corwin’s cause of death because her autopsy was not complete. It is also undetermined if Corwin’s killing was pre-meditated.

Anchorage police said Lee was arrested without incident during a traffic stop.

Lee’s arrest comes about a month after he was first identified as a focal point in the investigation.

On July 21, The Desert Sun obtained court documents revealing that detectives believed Lee and Corwin were having an affair, and that Lee may have been the father of her unborn child.

According to these court documents, Corwin was scheduled to join Lee on a hunting trip on the day she disappeared.

Corwin had told a friend that the trip was a “special day together,” planned to celebrate the fact that she was pregnant. However, detectives believed that Lee was afraid his wife would discover the affair.

“It is highly likely that Erin could have been harmed by an unknown firearm,” the court documents state. “Sometime after Erin left with Lee, her phone was deactivated (turned off). Detectives believe if Erin was injured and left at an undisclosed location, she would not (be) able to call for help.”

In the weeks following Corwin’s disappearance, investigators served search warrants for Lee’s home and his Jeep. Authorities also searched a Yucca Valley horse farm, White Rock Horse Rescue Ranch, where the Lee couple stayed briefly in early July. The Lees and the Corwins volunteered at the ranch.

When questioned by detectives, Lee said he had kissed Corwin but that they never had sex. Lee also said he had gone hunting on the day Corwin disappeared, but that the Marine wife wasn’t with him.

Other statements threw suspicion back on the Lees, however.

According to the court documents, Isabel Megli, owner of the horse ranch, told authorities that Nichole Lee had said detectives did not have a case “without a body,” and that they would “never find the body.”

While staying at the horse ranch in early July, Nichole Lee, supposedly told Megli that authorities “missed something” while searching Lee’s apartment, and that she was worried her husband did not have an alibi and would “not be able to keep his lies straight.”

Megli later told The Desert Sun that police had twisted her words in the court documents, taking her statements out of context in order to shift suspicion onto the Lee couple.

“They put a spin on it,” Megli told The Desert Sun. “I’m not going to say I didn’t say it, but it definitely wasn’t the whole of what I said.”

Although the sheriff’s department has been investigating Lee for months, they have repeatedly refused to confirm he was a suspect. The department also criticized a news story that discussed how they were examining Lee, insisting this coverage could hamper the investigation.

In recent weeks, few updates have been provided about the Corwin search. Although volunteers continued to comb the desert, clues seemed few and far between, and it appeared progress had stalled.

It was unclear Monday if Chris Lee has a lawyer. Nichole Lee could not be reached despite calls to her cell phone. Efforts to reach Lee relatives at their house in Anchorage were unsuccessful. The Desert Sun partnered with the Alaska Dispatch News in an effort to reach the family.

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