“I decided I refuse to be bitter and angry. He’s already taken enough from me. If I’m bitter and angry, he’s taking my mind, my soul and my heart. And I’m not giving him that.”
-Lore Heavilin, Erin's Mother
It was the 28th of June 2014. A Saturday. Nineteen year old Erin Corwin told her husband, Jonathan Jon Corwin, that she was going to the Joshua Tree National Park to check out some trails. Her mother, Lore Heavilin, was due to visit the following week and she said that she wanted to pick out some walks that they could do together.
Erin and Jon were married for over a year and had known each other since the fifth grade. They met at school in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. When Erin turned sixteen, Jon asked her parents, Lore and Bill, if he could date her. They gave him their blessing. Jon seemed like a great match for their daughter and he was a gentleman. Erin and Jon married in November 2012 and moved to California in September 2013. They lived at the Twentynine Palms Marine base in California, United States. Jon was a Marine.
Jon and Erin lived beside two other young couples. Conor and Aisling Malakie lived downstairs from the Corwins with their son Brian and Chris and Nichole Lee lived next door with their daughter Liberty.
Jon and Erin Corwin
Erin and Jon had a difficult start to 2014. Erin suffered a miscarriage. She found solace at the White Rock Horse Rescue Ranch where she volunteered and looked after the horses. She made friends there too. In April 2014, Erin discovered she was pregnant again and Jon was excited.
When Erin left early that morning, the morning of the 28th of June, Jon expected her home later that day but when she didn't return, he reached out to her best friend to see if she knew where she was. She didn't. The next morning, the morning of the 29th of June, there was still no sign of Erin and she had not been in touch with Jon so Jon reported her missing to the police and told them that Erin left the morning of the 28th of June at around 6am or 7am and he had not heard from her since then. He said that he saw her leave, she told him she was going to check out some trails and that she loved him and then he went back to sleep.
Jon told Erin's parents that she was missing. Their immediate concern was that she had gotten lost in the desert and wouldn't survive being out there alone with no food or water. The troops helped to search for her. A huge search took place but the area was vast. The San Bernardino Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team paired up with NCIS agents to search for Erin over the 300 rugged acres of desert. There were more than a thousand abandoned mines.
Police wondered why Jon had waited 24 hours to report his wife missing. He was asked to take a polygraph test, which he passed, and they ruled him out as a suspect. Police found Erin's car 20 to 30 miles east of the military base. It was parked a good distance from the Joshua Tree National Park's entrance and police wondered why she had not parked closer to the entrance if she was checking out the trails there. Police found shoe prints leading from the driver's side of Erin's car to a spot where police believed another car had been parked. Did Erin get into another car? As far as they knew from what Jon told them, Erin was going there alone that day and did not tell him that she was meeting anyone else.
Lore, Erin's mother, called one of Erin's best friends Jessica. Jessica told her that Erin told her that on the 28th of June, she was going to Joshua Tree National Park for a "special date." Unbeknown to Lore, Erin was having an affair. It was news that stunned her. It didn't sound like something Erin would do at all. She seemed devoted to Jon and even wrote him love letters and poems.
Jessica told Lore that Erin told her she planned to meet Chris Lee.
Chris Lee was one of the Marines who lived beside Jon and Erin. He lived with his wife Nichole and six year old daughter. Police went to his apartment to ask him if he knew where Erin was. But when they got there, Chris said that he didn't know her and they had only ever said a brief hello to each other. He said that the day Erin went missing, he went coyote hunting near Gold Crown Road and had not seen Erin at all that day.
Police brought him to the station to question him further and after a number of questions, he admitted he knew Erin well. They were in a relationship but according to Chris, while they had expressed their love for each other, the physical side of the relationship involved kissing only. Chris said that there had been no sexual intercourse whatsoever. He maintained that he did not know where Erin was. Police released Chris without charge.
The search for Erin continued. As there are thousands of mines in the Joshua Tree National Park and the surrounding area, hope began to fade that Erin would be found as the days went by. But on the 16th of August, almost two months after Erin went missing, her remains were located. A strong gasoline smell alerted a caver to search one of the mines and Erin's body was inside that mine. Police also found a tire, a homemade torch and a bottle of Sprite beside Erin's body.
The Autopsy revealed that Erin's death was a homicide and the cause of death was strangulation. Erin had been choked to death with a homemade garrote, then dropped 250 feet down the Rose of Peru mine shaft. The garrote was still around her neck. Police found a propane tank inside the mine and they believed that an attempt had been made to burn her body. It could not be established that Erin was pregnant due to how badly decomposed her body was.
The garrote around Erin's neck was made out of two rebar handles and paracord. The Autopsy revealed she had several skull fractures, one of which had occurred either just before or at the time of death. The fracture to her left collarbone and left rib also occurred just before or at the time of her death. All of the other skull fractures were inflicted postmortem, either from being dragged to the mine or thrown into the mine or both.
When police carried out DNA testing on the items found beside Erin's body inside the shaft, they found a match. The shirt that was tied around the torch had Chris's DNA on it and the Sprite bottle, which had the lid on it, had both Chris's DNA and Erin's DNA on it.
Chris was arrested and charged with first degree murder with a special circumstance of “lying in wait.” Chris pleaded not guilty.
Jon and Erin Corwin
It was the Prosecution's case that Erin and Chris were having an affair. When Erin discovered she was pregnant, she told Chris. The police believed that Chris did not want his relationship with his wife to end and thought the easiest thing to do would be to kill Erin so that the issue would go away.
It was their case that for weeks he looked into how he could successfully get rid of a body and when he had a plan in place, he lured Erin to the desert and murdered her by choking her with a garrote he brought with him. They argued that the murder was premeditated. The Jury heard that when Chris was arrested, there was a garrote, two spools of paracord, and blue climbing rope in his car. The paracord matched the cord found around Erin's neck.
Erin told her friend Jessica that Chris was the father of the baby and she loved him more than Jon and wanted to move to Alaska, where he was from, to be with him. The Court heard that their affair had been exposed in April 2014. Their neighbor Aisling saw them kissing and she told Nichole and they told Jon. Jon confronted Chris and told him that he did not want to see him near Erin again.
Aisling testified on behalf of the Prosecution. She testified that Chris frequently spoke about murder "more than I can count." She recalled that he even discussed hiding a body in the desert. Aisling's husband Conor testified that Chris spoke about murder with him too and just a few weeks before Erin went missing, Chris told him that "if you put a body in a fire with tires it will disintegrate" and "they wouldn't be able to find anything."
Another Marine, Andrew Johnson, testified in relation to a conversation he had with Chris in June 2014. Chris asked him about chloride plants that were nearby and in particular how a body might be destroyed by chemicals there. Chris also queried as to whether there were any security cameras there.
When asked if he found that conversation unusual, Andrew testified that he did not find it unusual at the time as he had been desensitized by his experience in Afghanistan and knew Chris was the same.
The Court heard that the police found a propane tank and a tire inside the mine shaft beside Erin's body. The Prosecution told the Court that Chris borrowed a propane tank from a horse ranch and a Marine saw one in Chris'a car the morning of the 28th of June. He asked him about it and Chris told him he was going to blow up a mine shaft.
The Sprite Bottle inside the Mine Shaft
The Jury heard evidence in relation to the DNA that was found on the shirt and Sprite bottle and google searches which included "how to dispose of a body." The Prosecution asked them to find Chris guilty based on their belief that the evidence clearly showed that the only person who could have been responsible for Erin's death was Chris and they asked the Jury to look at his actions, from the conversations he had prior to that day and research he carried out and weapons he brought with him, to determine whether or not he preplanned the murder.
Chris may have also believed the evidence was clear in relation to him being responsible for Erin's death as even though he initially entered a not guilty plea, he recanted that during the Trial and admitted he killed Erin but said that he had acted on impulse.
It was the Defense's case that Chris was responsible for Erin's death. The Court heard that despite his earlier denials that he had a sexual relationship with Erin, he now admitted that there had been one. The Defense told the Jury that Chris wanted to save his marriage but did not want to lose Erin either, so he arranged to meet Erin on the 28th of June so that they could discuss things. He said the plan was to go on a hunting trip with Erin and others but the others could not make it.
The Court heard that he planned to blow up a mine shaft using tires that day. He brought a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel with him to the desert along with the propane tank. He threw them all into the mine but forgot to put gasoline on the torch and as he had used all of the gasoline, he realized that he would not be able to blow it up so threw the torch down too. He claimed that was why the items were inside the mine shaft.
There was only one witness called by the Defense and that was Chris himself. He testified that Erin babysat his daughter at times. He said that when he was in the desert with Erin, she spoke about looking forward to being a family and looking after his daughter and he recalled one occasion where his wife Nichole told him that their daughter's vagina was swollen and she feared Erin was molesting her. He decided to ask Erin about it when they were in the desert together:
"Did you touch Liberty?”
“Did you molest my daughter?”
He testified that Erin said:
The Jury heard that that was the last thing he heard her say and according to his testimony, when she said yes, that was what caused him to choke her. He said that it felt like someone had "driven a red hot knife through his heart."
Chris testified that he picked up a garrote that had been in his car and he:
"felt so much hate, so much rage. And I grabbed it and I stood up, and she had turned around at some point. I couldn't think straight. I just felt so much hatred. And I came up behind her, and I put it around her neck and my training took over then. I turned around, and I started pulling and I was pulling and I couldn't pull tight enough because I was just so angry."
He told the Court that:
"I just kept choking her. I don't know how long it was. Might've been five minutes, ten minutes. It felt like forever. And I just kept choking her."
When Erin stopped moving, Chris used the garrote to drag her body to the edge of the mine shaft and pushed her inside.
The Defense urged the Jury to find him not guilty of first degree murder based on his case that he had not planned to kill Erin and had only killed her in the heat of the moment.
The Prosecution told the Court that they believed his Defense was a lie. They highlighted that nobody had expressed concerns about Erin before, the alleged abuse had not been reported to the police and their daughter was not taken to a Doctor in relation to the alleged abuse. They believed that he made up that story during the Trial as an attempt to be considered for a charge of involuntary manslaughter as the evidence against him was so strong and compelling that he knew he would be found guilty. A charge of involuntary manslaughter would have resulted in a short prison sentence. The Prosecution reminded the Jury that Chris did not admit his involvement until he was in front of them. The Prosecutor told Chris:
"You chose to do it in front of the jury. It's about you; you wanted attention."
The Jurors did not believe Chris. They found him guilty of first degree murder with special circumstance. It took them just 15 minutes to reach their verdict. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
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"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
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