Search for missing Marine wife "like finding a needle in a thousand haystacks”

When a young military wife at the Marine Combat Base at Twentynine Palms, Calif. vanishes in the desert, NCIS agents discover she has a secret -- did it lead to murder?

Produced by Paul LaRosa

Erin Corwin was just 19 years old when she kissed her husband goodbye and said she was heading to Joshua Tree National Park to scout out hiking trails. The morning of June 28, 2014, was the last time her husband Marine Corporal Jon Corwin saw her alive.

The investigation into what happened to Erin Corwin after she left home would expose a secret affair between two neighbors in the Marine Combat Base in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Nearly two months after her disappearance, her body was found dumped in one of the more than 1,000 abandoned mines in the unforgiving desert. How did she get there, and who would kill Erin Corwin? And could NCIS agents track down the killer?


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Erin Corwin Lore Heavilin

NCIS Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: Joshua Tree National Park is a very large and desolate area …There is not a lot of water in these areas and it gets very hot during the day and very cold at night.

Beth Ford Roth | Public Radio Reporter: It's a beautiful area. The Joshua Trees are like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Beth Ford Roth: Erin Corwin was a 19-year-old pregnant Marine wife. …On June 28th, 2014, Erin Corwin woke up her husband, Jon Corwin, about 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: The initial story we received was Erin had gone to Joshua Tree National Park to look for nice hiking routes for her and her mother.

Lore Heavilin | Erin's mother: Jon called, and he said -- "Erin's missing." And I'm like, "What do you mean, Erin's missing?" …And my first thought is, she's gotten lost. Erin has no sense of direction.

Bill Heavilin | Erin's father: I actually got a call from the base commander saying that he had sent out troops to help look for her, and they had found nothing … it becomes very drastic at that point … she's not very large and … she's not gonna last long out there.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: There was a massive search and rescue to locate Erin Corwin.

Beth Ford Roth: They searched … in temperatures that climbed as high as 110°, 115°. The dogs were getting heatstroke. They even encountered … killer bees. It was a really grueling, tough search.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: You don't know what the monster is in the dark in the closet out there.

Beth Ford Roth: I think a lot of people first became familiar with Joshua Tree National Park … through the album Joshua Tree by the Irish band U2 that came out in the 1980s. And there's a song on that album called "Mothers of the Disappeared."

Beth Ford Roth: But the words really spoke with what I felt like Lore must have gone through, not knowing where her daughter was. And out in the desert where … the Joshua Trees were, she was out there somewhere.

NCIS Agent Ashley DeChelfin | Intelligence Specialist: It was big news for such a small area. Everybody was talking about it … People were looking for her. There was buzz on base.

NEWS REPORT: Sheriff's captain: We know that she is out there. It's just a matter of us trying to figure out exactly where.

Lore Heavilin: Jon did tell me that he thought she'd taken a Gatorade … which is nothing in those situations. …He sounded concerned. There wasn't a lot of emotion in his voice, but Jon -- that's Jon.

Beth Ford Roth: There seemed to be evidence that he liked to keep an eye on Erin and make sure that he knew where she was.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: You're not pointing fingers. You want to find where Erin is. …You're questioning him, of course … "When was the last time you saw her? Where did she say she was gonna go? Does she have any friends?"

Beth Ford Roth: Erin was not the type of person who would just leave and not tell anyone. …her husband was calling her, her mother was calling her, her friends were calling her, and it went straight to voicemail. That was a sign that something was wrong.

Lore Heavilin: When they handed me that card that said, "Special Investigative Homicide Team," it just makes your heart sink.

THE SEARCH FOR ERIN CORWIN

NCIS Director Andrew Traver: I think agents become so attached to these cases because … it's such a huge investment. ...It's not a 9:00 to 5:00 job … It takes so much focus, so much energy to stay on some of these cases, to follow them through to the end.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: This is a person. This isn't a case. This is not a number. …This is a human being.  …You can't forget that this person -- has a family, has a husband, has a mother … they wanted to know where Erin was. And you can't forget that.

Bill Heavilin: Erin was one of our adopted children. She came to the house when she was 17 days old.

Lore Heavilin:  It's a lot to take in, especially from probably your least adventurous child … a child that you would probably never expect something like that to happen to.

NEWS REPORT: A helicopter took off Friday morning, giving teams another resource on day five of the search for 19-year-old Erin Corwin … last seen driving away from the base for a trip to Joshua Tree National Park.

The San Bernardino Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team paired up with NCIS agents for the massive job of finding Erin Corwin. They had to comb through more than 300 rugged acres of desert pitted with more than a thousand abandoned mines.

Lore Heavilin: So I flew out the next day. …I was thinking, "When they find her, she's gonna be really in bad shape, and she's gonna want her mom." Erin was petite, 5'2", small girl, blue eyes, dirty blonde hair … Very pretty. 'Course I'm her mom.

Beth Ford Roth: At first, it seemed like sort of a small story out in Twentynine Palms … but for me, it had a lot to do with the photographs … of her.

Beth Ford Roth was a journalist with National Public Radio in San Diego when she first heard about Erin Corwin. The story struck a chord.

Beth Ford Roth:  You could see Erin was a shy, bashful, sweet kind girl. And I had a soft spot for her because of her love for animals. It was hard to find a photo of Erin where she wasn't holding a cat or with her horse.

Lore Heavilin: We are at East Tennessee Riding Club in Oak Ridge. This is where Erin first really experienced horses. …When she first started, I assured her we would never get a horse. And we ended up with two. …this place was actually Erin's second home. And I believe if she could, she would have slept here.

Lore Heavilin: Erin and Jon -- met at the barn … she was like in fifth grade at that time … she was 15 … then they kinda reconnected and then they started dating on her 16th birthday.

Bill Heavilin: Jon was great for Erin, for us … he was a good kid.

Lore Heavilin: He already knew he was gonna be a Marine. …Erin was 18 when she married Jon. They got married in November of 2012.

Soon after, Erin and Jon moved to the Marine Combat base in Twentynine Palms, California. Jon took part in artillery drills that sometimes kept him out in the desert for as long as a month at a time while Erin was left to adjust to living on a military base.

Jon and Erin Corwin
Jon and Erin Corwin Lore Heavilin

Agent Ashley DeChelfin: Twentynine Palms itself is very unique because it's in a desert community which is very remote. And there's not a whole lot there.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: A base like this is very close-knit. …You're gonna go to the same grocery store. You're gonna go to the same movie theatre. …You're gonna run into each other … You're gonna see everybody there all the time.

No one on the base reported seeing Erin leave, so NCIS agents naturally began their investigation with her husband.

Beth Ford Roth: He waited 24 hours to call to say that she was missing, which seemed sort of suspicious at first.

But Jon had passed a polygraph test. Authorities also said digital evidence led them to conclude that Jon had been at the base nearly the entire day Erin had gone missing.

NEWS REPORT: Shortly after Erin Corwin disappeared, investigators found her car abandoned just outside their Twentynine Palms home.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: Erin Corwin's car was located … significantly far from Joshua Tree National Park's entrance.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: She was not with the vehicle… it was a mystery to us why that car was parked in that location and not closer to the park.

Erin's mother, Lore Heavilin, sounded the alarm to Erin's friends, warning them: "This is not the time to be loyal. …if you've heard from her, you need to let somebody know."

Agent Ashley DeChelfin: I searched through a bunch of individuals' Facebook friends, including Erin's, and I was trying to find common links between who was friends with who and how those people knew each other.

Agent Ashley DeChelfin: And I slowly grew to know Erin from my research … Erin loved horses so … she started volunteering at the White Rock Horse Rescue Ranch. And that's where she started meeting some people and slowly gathering her social circle.

Agent DeChelfin discovered that Erin had become close friends with her next door neighbors, Marine Corporal Chris Lee, his wife Nichole and the couple's 5-year-old daughter Liberty. They all loved horses and spent a lot of time at a rescue ranch.

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Erin Corwin Lore Heavilin

Isabel Megli | Owner, White Rock Horse Rescue: She came to the White Horse Rescue to find a horse for her own personal use … and Nichole would come with her 'cause Nichole had a horse, so they rode together.

Erin also loved children and became a babysitter to the Lee's daughter.

Beth Ford Roth: And Erin really took her in. And Liberty was very, very fond of Erin … And she really bonded with that little girl.

Lore Heavilin: I think Erin was enjoying some aspects of being a Marine wife. In other aspects I think it was harder than what she anticipated.

Harder -- and full of heartache --when after posting news of her pregnancy on Facebook, early in 2014, Erin suffered a miscarriage.

Lore Heavilin: I don't think either one of them knew how to handle that grief process.

Beth Ford Roth:  Erin was devastated and really didn't have anyone to talk to. And Christopher Lee saw that as his in to Erin. … He knew the right way to approach her because she was hurting so badly … and as he even said … "we were two broken pieces that fit together."

Lore Heavilin: He took advantage of her being so naïve, and he manipulated her. …I actually called Jessie and asked her about it.

Jessica Trentham, also known as Jessie, was Erin's best friend who was still back in their hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. 

Lore Heavilin: Erin definitely confided … to Jessie in a different way than she confided with me.  

Lore Heavilin: On June 29th, after Jesse and I had talked on the phone … she texted me … And said that, "Erin … was going out to the desert with someone by the name of Chris Lee."

Erin confided to Trentham that she and Chris Lee had become close, developing feelings for each other.

Beth Ford Roth: Christopher Lee … was not happy with the direction his life was going in. And Erin was a next-door neighbor who was beautiful and innocent and sweet. …Christopher Lee preyed on the part of Erin that loved to take care of things that were hurting. And he used that to get her to fall in love with him.

SECRETS REVEALED

NCIS Director Andrew Traver: We have this responsibility to help protect the war fighter and by extension, the war fighter's dependents, and we take that very seriously.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: I remember being on an airplane. Every other passenger had that People Magazine cover with Jon Corwin and Erin Corwin's picture. … I was, like, overwhelmed … this is so big and I'm a part of this. …That just also reminds you, you have a job to do.

NCIS Agent Clifton Randolph had learned that a friend of Erin's possessed important information about the 19-year-old's disappearance. So he quickly dispatched Agent Shawn Nash to the home of Jessica Trentham back in Tennessee.

NCIS Special Agent Shawn Nash: I first met Jessica at her residence. …we did a manual search of her phone. And … we identified several text messages that were important to the investigation.

Special Agent Shawn Nash: It appeared that Erin and Christopher Lee had a romantic relationship.

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Chris Lee Isabel Megli

Jessica Trentham confirmed the information in those texts, telling Agent Nash that Erin Corwin and Chris Lee had been having a torrid love affair for months -- ever since Chris learned of Erin's miscarriage.

Beth Ford Roth: … he made her feel important by saying, "I'm going through a really tough time now, too … I don't connect with my family anymore. I play Russian roulette every morning. You know, that decides whether I'm gonna have another day or not." …And Erin had a purpose now. It was to keep Chris alive.

Beth Ford Roth: Jessie was the only person who knew … that relationship was ongoing.

Lore Heavilin: And to this day, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around that. Because that's not who Erin was.

That wasn't the only secret Erin had been keeping from her mother.

Lore Heavilin: I did not know that Erin was pregnant. I found out when I got to the apartment. Jon told me she was pregnant.

This new pregnancy came only months after Erin's miscarriage and Jon was overjoyed. He believed he was the father and had no idea that Erin had secretly confided to Chris that the baby was his, according to Jessica Trentham.

Beth Ford Roth: Erin texted her friend Jessie in Tennessee that Chris was very excited about it, that he wanted to tell everyone.

At least that's what Chris apparently told Erin. In the meantime, he was making plans to move his family back to Alaska. In late June 2014, Chris was under pressure from all sides when he texted Erin and invited her out to the desert for a "surprise."

Special Agent Ashley DeChelfin:  …supposedly he had a special surprise for her in response to her pregnancy.

Special Agent Shawn Nash: Erin texted Jessica, "And he said he's honestly not sure how I'm going to react." …Jessica had texted back to Erin some emojis with a ring and a diamond and then kiss symbols. …I would assume that would be an engagement ring.

The strong bond between Erin and Chris did not surprise Isabel Megli, the owner of the horse ranch where the couples spent so many hours.

Isabel Megli: Chris Lee loved to make people laugh. And … Erin was somebody that gave him pleasure. Whereas, Nichole was very strict. Told him what to do … And that's what the problem was, was that Chris and Nichole didn't have that relationship. But he found that in the relationship with Erin.

Upon hearing about these tangled relationships, investigators—with the help of NCIS—went to question Chris Lee.

Special Agent Ashley DeChelfin: He said that he knew Erin but they were just acquaintances. And he knew her from the horse ranch.

Detectives were also questioning Isabel Megli and she told them about a memorable conversation she'd had with Chris the weekend before Erin went missing.

Isabel Megli: Chris was saying -- he went on an excursion in the desert with his friend. And I said, "Oh, that must have been fun." …He said, "Oh, wait 'til you see my pictures. … I found the perfect mine. I found this mine that nobody will ever find."

Isabel Megli: And I just said, "Wow." …And then when she went missing, I knew she was in a mine. So I told the detectives.

QUESTIONING CHRIS LEE

As NCIS agents and deputies from the San Bernardino Sheriff's Office continued their joint investigation into Erin Corwin's disappearance, they discovered that Chris Lee had been looking at mines the weekend before Erin disappeared -- but which mines?

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: Joshua Tree National Park and the surrounding area, they have thousands of mines.

But investigators needed an expert to help them comb through all those mines. Search and rescue members pointed to one man: Doug Billings, an expert in caves and mines.

Supervising Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty | San Bernardino County: He actually grew up in the area of Joshua Tree. And as a child spent his summers there with his grandparents.

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Mine expert Doug Billings "knows about every single that is out in the Mohave Desert … and he's the only human being on the planet who does," says reporter Beth Ford Roth. CBS News

Beth Ford Roth | Public Radio Reporter: Doug Billings is the cave man … he's also been called the cave whisperer … the mine whisperer. He knows about every single that is out in the Mohave Desert … and he's the only human being on the planet who does.

Doug Billings | Mine expert: I didn't even know Erin's name at the-- the beginning … And then I shortly got a call back saying, as they found more information, that there was some information about abandoned mines possibly being involved in the search.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: There are so many mine shafts out there. …And so much vast territory … words don't do it justice. …It's just a whole lot of nothing out there.

But Doug Billings and the sheriff's search and rescue team pushed on. And then, on July 1 -- three days after Erin told her friend that she was heading into the desert to meet Chris Lee -- investigators brought the Marine in for a formal interview. He was cooperative, did not request a lawyer, and honest enough to admit that he and Erin had been having an emotional affair:

CHRIS LEE: She was someone I could tell stuff I didn't want to tell anyone because she was a secret so I could tell her my secrets.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: Christopher Lee had the advantage over Erin Corwin in a sense that he was older, he had seen combat, he had more experience than her, that he could manipulate the situation with Erin Corwin.

CHRIS LEE: It never went past kissing.

COP: You never had any type of intercourse with her?

CHRIS LEE: No.

CHRIS LEE: Furthest we went was making out and hands moving across each other's bodies.

CHRIS LEE: I thought I was in love with her but it was just that make-believe life that I was in love with.

COP: You told her that you loved her. Did she tell you that she loved you?

CHRIS LEE: She did and I kind of think honestly that she meant it.

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On July 1 -- three days after Erin Corwin told her friend that she was heading into the desert to meet Chris Lee -- investigators brought the Marine in for a formal interview.  San Bernardino County D.A.'s Office

Three hours into the interrogation, investigators changed tactics:

COP: OK Chris, here's the deal man. I've been doing this a long time … we're going to find out what happened to Erin. She's not OK. Something happened to her out there and she's not OK and we're not going to stop until the truth is out there.

COP: We know that you met with her on Saturday morning, the day that she went missing, we know that and we also know that you were one of the last people to see her alive.

COP: Are you a cold-blooded killer? Did something happen? Was there an accident?

CHRIS LEE: I didn't see her on Saturday.

COP: OK, we're past that … this moment is the most important moment of your life. We can't change what happened in the past. We can choose our fate from right now. If something happened, whatever it is, we have to be honest.

[Second cop enters the interrogation room]

SECOND COP: You know she was pregnant with your child.

CHRIS LEE: She wasn't pregnant with my child.

SECOND COP : Maybe you don't know. I don't know, but that's what she was telling everybody.

Detectives strongly suspected Chris Lee had killed Erin Corwin but lacked the proof to arrest him. After four hours of questioning, investigators turned him loose.

SECOND COP: We'll get you home right now alright?

By sheer coincidence, Chris Lee finished his tour of service with the Marines that weekend and, with no charges pending against him, he was honorably discharged. But the discharge meant he had to move out of base housing. So Chris, his wife Nichole and their 5-year-old daughter Liberty, temporarily moved into an extra room at Isabel Megli's horse ranch.

Isabel Megli: It turned out to be very stressful. …the police were here. The detectives were here.

Detectives were talking to Megli when she casually mentioned an item she says Chris Lee had left in her car—a potato gun or potato launcher.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: A potato gun is a high-powered destructive device that basically launches potatoes … projectiles of that type.

Isabel Megli: Out of the blue comes a detective. …He said, "That's a felony. We will get him right away 'cause he put it in your car." …So they went and got a warrant based on the potato launcher.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: It actually qualifies in California as an explosive device.

Isabel Megli: That is how they got him arrested. 'Cause they couldn't get him arrested without a reason.

After being arrested for possession of a destructive device, Chris Lee got a lawyer, made bail and was ordered not to leave the area.

With the desert temperatures soaring and no sign of Erin, her mother -- who had held out hope that their 19-year-old daughter would be found alive -- came to accept that Erin was likely dead, murdered by the man who had stolen her heart.

Lore Heavilin | Erin's mother: They found on her … laptop that she had been looking for apartments in Alaska. …I believe he was probably leading her on. I know he was writing her love notes.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: When the relationship was found out and they felt they couldn't see each other anymore, he wrote her a -- poem that was found actually in her materials after she disappeared.

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Chris Lee's poem to Erin Corwin: Like if or not you still hold a piece of my heart -- Ready or not, we were gonna get caught. Don't give up and I won't too -- Hopefully like me, you still think "I love you" San Bernardino County D.A.'s Office

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: Erin bought into it hook, line, and sinker.

But by winning Erin's heart, Chris had backed himself into a corner. How was he going to explain Erin's pregnancy to his wife Nichole? 

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: I believe at some point Chris Lee knew that the gig was up. I think he knew that the only way he was gonna be able … to solve this problem was to kill Erin Corwin. So he began figuring out the best way to do that without getting caught.

Thanks to information provided by Isabel Megli, investigators had located photos of abandoned mines that Chris and a friend had taken the week before Erin went missing. Detectives presented those photos to Doug Billings.

Doug Billings: I looked at 'em and I said, "Yeah, I know exactly where those are" and described the area.

Billings pinpointed a nondescript hole in the ground called the Rose of Peru mine.

Doug Billings: …and it was just like … she has to be in that canyon.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: It was the last mine of the day … the way they conducted the search was to drop, essentially, a video camera down to the bottom of the mine shaft. They were getting ready to end it for the day and at the bottom of this particular mine shaft they saw the body of Erin Corwin.

Doug Billings: And sure enough … she was right there … she was steps away from me.

Lore Heavilin: On August 16th at about midnight our time … the phone rang, and it was one of the detectives telling me that they had found a body down a mine shaft. And they were pretty sure that it was Erin.

Lore Heavilin: I would say it's a major miracle that they found Erin. It's like finding a needle in a thousand haystacks.

Detectives immediately went to the horse ranch to arrest Chris Lee but there was a surprise in store -- Chris and his family had vanished.

ON THE RUN

After Erin Corwin's body was discovered in the Rose of Peru mine shaft, an autopsy revealed that the 19-year-old had been strangled. But Erin's body was too badly decomposed to determine if she was pregnant.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: Christopher Lee -- strangled Erin Corwin with a homemade garrote.

Agent Ashley DeChelfin: It's pretty brutal. It's horrifying. It's a terrible thing to even imagine someone doing to somebody else.

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NCIS Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr. and NCIS Intelligence Specialist Ashley DeChelfin CBS News

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: Let alone somebody that they had a romantic relationship with, somebody they had been intimate with.

Agent Ashley DeChelfin: …makes you wonder if she knew who she was getting involved with. …did he ever really care about her?

Erin's remains were turned over to her husband Jon.

Lore Heavilin: Erin was cremated. Jon has her ashes. A few of us in the family have a few ashes in like a little pendant.

Lore Heavilin: The Marines did grant him leave. He was pretty quiet, and that's typical Jon. It's hard to read him to know what his thoughts are.

Jon was part of the candlelight vigil later held at the Tennessee barn where Erin first learned to ride.

Lore Heavilin: I hugged so many necks of people I didn't know. The support that we got from complete strangers is just unbelievable.

In the days following the discovery of Erin's body, NCIS agents and sheriff deputies had continued the manhunt for Chris Lee, who had fled from the horse ranch along with his wife and daughter.

Agent Ashley DeChelfin: That's when Cliff asked me if I could assist with potentially trying to locate Lee in coordination with San Bernardino.

Agent Ashley DeChelfin: I have access to database checks. And the average person does not have access to those same databases.

NCIS Agent Ashley DeChelfin was able to track Chris Lee to his home state of Alaska and on Aug. 22, 2014, six days after Erin's remains were found, Lee was arrested for her murder. 

Chris Lee arrest photo
On Aug. 22, 2014, six days after Erin Corwin's remains were found, Chris Lee was arrested for her murder.  San Bernardino County D.A.'s Office

Prosecutor Sean Daugherty says evidence found in Lee's car further tied him to Erin's murder. 

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: When Chris Lee was arrested in Alaska, the vehicle he was pulled over in contained a makeshift garrote.

That garrote was similar to one found wrapped around Erin's neck. It was just one of several pieces of evidence discovered with Erin's body. That mine shaft turned out to be filled with evidentiary gold.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: At the bottom of the mine was-- along with Erin -- was a propane tank. That propane tank was seen by a neighbor, a fellow Marine, that morning in the back of Chris Lee's Jeep. …he asked Chris Lee about it and Chris Lee said he was gonna blow up a mine shaft. That propane tank was borrowed from a horse ranch that both Chris Lee and Erin Corwin adopted and took care of horses at.

Isabel Megli: He saw my propane tank and said, "Can I have this?" …and I said … "You can have it if you want it." So he took it. And he never brought it back.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: All of the evidence would point to him being at the mine shaft with Erin Corwin and him committing the murder. There was numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence.

Beth Ford Roth: There was a makeshift torch, which was a stick with a Marine Corps t-shirt wrapped around it. And there was only one person's DNA on the t-shirt. And that was Christopher Lee.

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A Sprite bottle found in the mine shaft had the DNA of Erin Corwin and Chris Lee San Bernardino County D.A.'s Office

Beth Ford Roth: The most damning piece of evidence … was a Sprite bottle with the cap still on it, and it had the DNA of only two people, Erin Corwin and Christopher Lee.

In October 2016, after a change in venue and more than two years after Erin had kissed her husband goodbye, Chris Lee stood trial for first-degree murder in a San Bernardino courtroom. Erin's mother was there, filled, she says, with an eerie calm. 

Lore Heavilin: I felt a peace that couldn't be explained pretty much through the whole trial. I had so many people praying for me, that's the only way I can explain the peace that I felt.

Like everyone else at the trial, Erin's mother was struck by the dramatic change in Chris Lee's appearance. 

Lore Heavilin: Chris lost a ton of weight. I don't know that I would have recognized him if I was just walking down the street.

The prosecutor presented a parade of witnesses. And after eight days of wrenching testimony, the prosecutor ended his case by showing jurors the love poem Chris Lee wrote to Erin Corwin.  The evidence seemed overwhelming. The defense would need something dramatic to counter the state's evidence…and it did not disappoint.

Chris Lee [in court]: I just felt so much hate, so much rage. …I was never gonna let anybody hurt my daughter again.

A NEW ACCUSATION

No one was prepared for what Chris Lee would say when he took the stand in his own defense, but his testimony brought the trial to a standstill.

Agent Ashley DeChelfin: I think that the jury saw exactly what type of person Christopher Lee was.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: I was surprised when I saw his testimony -- what he said he had done to Erin Corwin and the manner in his facial expressions … like he was reading off --

Agent Ashley DeChelfin: -- a script.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph Jr.: Yeah, a script.

The former Marine began by explaining to the jurors that…on June 28, 2014….in the desert surrounding Joshua Tree National Park….he and Erin were two very different people with two very different agendas.

Beth Ford Roth: He claimed that he told Erin, "When I move to Alaska, it's over between us."

Lore Heavilin: I sat there and put my head down and closed my eyes.

But Lore Heavilin says she heard every word.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: Chris Lee in his direct testimony essentially said that … while he was out there -- he had been having a hard time emotionally and struggling.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: And-- at one point, while he was there, he -- grabbed a weapon and was playing Russian roulette. Erin became very disturbed by that, became upset. She told him that she wanted to be part of his daughter's life. That she wanted to be with him and wanted to move to Alaska with him. He became enraged. And told her that his daughter was his and not hers. And she didn't have any right to want to be with her. …And asked Erin if Erin had molested his daughter. And Erin said, "Yes, but …"

That accusation came out of the blue but hit like a lightening bolt. The prosecutor says it was blatantly false because Chris and Nichole had never called police about the alleged abuse and they had never taken Liberty to a doctor to report it.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: His story was ridiculous. Just even from the basic fact of a 19-year-old girl being out in the middle of the desert with someone she loves and, according to him, confessing to a horrible crime, just doesn't pass the smell test at all.

Lore Heavilin: Not only did he throw Erin under the bus, he threw his daughter under the bus.

Lore Heavilin: There's just no way. Absolutely no way Erin would do anything like that.

But Chris Lee did not back away from his story. He doubled down on it, saying he was stunned by Erin's supposed confession:

CHRIS LEE [in court]: I just kept choking her. I don't know how long it was. Might've been five minutes, 10 minutes. It felt like forever. And I just kept choking her.

Lore Heavilin: And one thing that does kinda haunt me is, what was going through her brain? What was she thinking when he was choking her? She was with somebody that she thought loved her, somebody she felt she could trust. And my only saving grace is I choose to believe that she was unconscious very quick, that she didn't have much time to think about it.

SEAN DAUGHERTY (in court): And then you threw her down a mineshaft, didn`t you?

CHRIS LEE (in court): I did.

SEAN DAUGHERTY (in court): Like a piece of trash.

CHRIS LEE (in court): I threw her down the mineshaft, yes.

SEAN DAUGHERTY (in court): Like a piece of trash. Right?

CHRIS LEE (in court): Is that a question?

SEAN DAUGHERTY (in court): Yes.

CHRIS LEE (in court): Yes.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: It was important for the jurors to hear that. It was important for everyone to hear that. That he … he threw her down like a piece of garbage.

Journalist Beth Ford Roth said the courtroom became extremely quiet as everyone absorbed the horror of Erin's murder. 

Beth Ford Roth: I had to put my head down because I began to cry. It was so horrific to me that this man not only broke this poor girl's heart, he murdered her. …It was so horrific.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: There was no evidence Erin Corwin was molesting his daughter other than from him.

But Prosecutor Daugherty was not done with Chris Lee.

Beth Ford Roth: The prosecutor had sort of -- it looked like giant rag doll, basically a human-sized doll. [Lee] puts the garrote around the doll's neck … And I heard a gasp.

SEAN DAUGHERTY (in court): And you were going to follow through with that decision?

CHRIS LEE (in court): Yes.

SEAN DAUGHERTY: OK. That`s about 10 seconds in. You could've stopped. Right?

CHRIS LEE (in court): No.

SEAN DAUGHERTY (in court): A minute twenty.. Still no, huh?

CHRIS LEE (in court): No.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: Seconds can drag on forever when you're just silent and I think it was powerful and I think it got his point across.

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: At any time during that three minutes when he's strangling her, he could've stopped. Which even further shows premeditation and deliberation.

During closing arguments, the defense strategy became clear when Chris Lee's lawyers argued his client was guilty only of involuntary manslaughter, not first-degree murder. He claimed Chris had not planned to kill Erin.

Lore Heavilin: The day the jury went out, I was so totally drained that I literally was tripping just walking. I could not pick my feet up. It was just a very scary day. 'Cause you just don't know. You know, what are all these people thinking?

Beth Ford Roth: …by the next morning, they had a verdict.

Chris Lee was found guilty of murder in the first degree.

Lore Heavilin: When they read the -- the verdict, I, you know, immediately thought, "We got justice for you, Erin."

Deputy D.A. Sean Daugherty: Chris Lee received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Special Agent Clifton Randolph: It's a case -- I'll never forget it.

Agent Ashley DeChelfin: This is a case I won't forget either because it hits so close to home. …there were times when it was a little emotional because she's 19 and she had her whole life ahead of her.

Lore Heavilin asked if she could accompany us to the mine shaft where Erin's body was discovered. She had never been there but wanted to see it for herself. 

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Lore Heavilin and Doug Billings at the mine shaft where Erin Corwin's remain were found CBS News

Lore Heavilin [reading a letter to her daughter]: "…when you were taken from us, we lost a breath of fresh air….I know without a doubt you are walking the streets of gold with Jesus and I will see you again…

Nearby, Lore also visited Erin's Garden, the makeshift memorial Doug Billings created near Joshua Tree National Park.

Lore Heavilin: I want people to know that Erin was sweet, naïve, an incredible young lady. She was not a perfect teenager, but you couldn't have asked for a better teenager. …when Erin was talking to you, you felt like you were the most important person in the room.

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Erin Corwin Lore Heavilin

Lore Heavilin: We just didn't have enough time with Erin. You know, you're not supposed to bury your babies … she just went too fast.

NCIS Director Andrew Traver: We have to show that if you murder a dependent spouse … we will pursue you relentlessly and at some point, you will be brought to justice.


"48 Hours: NCIS" is a series from the award-winning team behind "48 Hours." Narrated by CBS' "NCIS" actor Rocky Carroll, each episode reveals, step-by-step, how investigators with the real-life NCIS track killers, crack fraud cases, and how they hunt terrorists using street smarts and technology – the cases they can't forget. Watch Tuesdays at 10/9c on CBS.