Christopher Lee appears at his sentencing Tuesday in San Bernardino County Superior Court. He was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted this month of killing Erin Corwin.(Photo: Colin Atagi/The Desert Sun)Buy Photo
A San Bernardino County Superior Court judge sentenced a former Twentynine Palms Marine to life in prison without parolefor killing another Marine's wife, who disappeared in 2014 and was found weeks later at the bottom of a 100-foot mine shaft near Joshua Tree.
Christopher Lee was sentenced Tuesday after friends and family spent an hour reading statements and explaining their suffering following the death of Erin Corwin.
Lee was convicted Nov. 3 for killing her. Jurors found him guilty of murder and lying in wait - a sentencing enhancement based on prosecutors' argumentthat Lee planned Corwin's death and lured her into a trap.
In his own statement to the court Tuesday,Lee denied the killing was premeditated and he said he never wanted to kill Corwin. But he maintained responsibility and said he was "truly sorry" about the murder.
Following the hearing, prosecutor Sean Daugherty said Lee's statement and details of events were"nonsense."
"He had to form a story to mitigate the damage," Daugherty said.
Last month,Lee admitted on the stand that he strangled Corwinduring a fit of anger outside the remote mine. Jurors reached their verdict after just three hours of deliberation that mostly focused on Lee's intent, said San Bernardino resident Angela Gioia, who was among the jurors who attended Lee's sentencing.
He sat silently in the jury boxbeside his attorney as Corwin's family members addressed the murder, with various photos of her appearing on the courtroom screen.Lee stared straight and rarely turned his head toward the speakers to his right or the photos to his left.
Corwin's husband, Jonathan, spoke briefly and thanked the prosecutor, jurors and investigators for their efforts. Other family members talked of fond memories with Corwin and the pain they felt when she disappeared and was later found.
"I feel I should've been able to protect Erin, somehow," said her older sister, Kristy Bauerlein.
Family members added they would never get to enjoy holidays with her and their children would never get to know their aunt. The trial became a burden because it forced them to save money and adjust schedules in case they had to fly in from various parts of the country.
Corwin's mother, Lore Heavlin, said her daughter was supposed to be safe living at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, but unbeknownst to everyone, she lived near a "predator."
"The one thing that haunted me through all this was, what was going through Erin's mind when she was attacked from behind by someone she trusted?" Heavlin said.
Corwin, the wife ofanother Marine from the Twentynine Palms base,was reported missing June 29, 2014 just days before her 20th birthday. Law enforcement officials and community members spent several weeks searching more than 300 square miles, including portions ofJoshua Tree National Park, Corwin'slast known destination.
On Aug. 16, 2014, investigators found Corwin's body in an abandoned mine shaft. They had searchedmore than 100 others in an area riddled with abandoned minesa few miles southeast of Twentynine Palms, outside of Joshua Tree National Park.
At the mine where Corwin's body was discovered, investigators also found shell casings, pieces of rebar and a propane tank similar to ones that Lee owned.
They arrested him the next day inAlaska, where he and his family moved after Corwin went missing.Court documents showed Lee admitted to searching the internet for information on disposing of bodies.
Officials said Corwin was pregnant with Lee's child and he was focused on hiding the affair. Heavlin said the affair did not justify her daughter's murder.
"All Chris had to do was move to Alaska and change his phone number," she said Tuesday.
Lee testified in court that the killing was a spur-of-the-moment decision.
Lee and Corwin met for what she thought would bea romantic evening that may have included a marriage proposal. Instead, Lee testified, they arguedbecause he'dbeen suicidal for a month andwanted to kill himselfoutside the mine.
He said he'dbeen distraught, in part, because he was denied deployment. This bothered jurorGioia, a U.S. Army veteran who said members of the military are tasked with protecting others.
"He did none of that to Erin; he took her life," she said.
Lee also became angry becausehe said he suspected Corwin molested his daughter. Heavlin said there was no evidence of that and she criticized Lee for using his daughter as a defense tool.
"I cannot imagine putting your daughter's name into the public record to save yourself," she said.
Lee said he approached Corwinfrom behind and strangled her for at least five minutes with a garrote made up of two pieces of rebar and a cord. He released his hold, and her body fell to the ground. He spent 30 seconds checking if she was alivebut found no signs of life.
Lee testified he then dragged the body to the mineshaft and pushed Corwinin head-first.
Following Tuesday's statements, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge J. David Mazurek said he learned a lot about Corwin during the trial and he empathized with family members.
"I'm sorry I can't give you true justice in this case, which is returning Erin to you," he said. "I'm sorry I can't return that vibrant person to you."
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