A father who said his 4-year-old daughter stumbled and fell 130 feet to her death on the Palos Verdes Peninsula three years ago was charged Monday with pushing her to avoid paying child support.
Authorities said that they had long suspected Cameron John Brown, 42, of Ventura of killing Lauren Key on Nov. 8, 2000, but there were no eyewitnesses. Investigators had to rely on expert witnesses who could debunk Brown's claim that his daughter strayed from a trail along Inspiration Point, one of the highest spots on the peninsula's cliffs. Authorities had said it was astonishing that a parent would bring a young child there and let her roam.
The girl's mother, Sarah Key-Marer, said she was "obviously relieved that there'll be some sort of glimmer of justice, hopefully
"I miss her so terribly. I cannot understand any of this. It's tragic. Nothing is going to bring her back."
Brown was arrested at home Sunday night on suspicion of murder, and is being held at the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles. His arraignment is scheduled today in Torrance Superior Court.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Hum said Brown and the girl had no contact until she was about 3, when her mother filed a claim for child support. Brown then asked for DNA tests to establish paternity. Those tests showed that he was the father. Brown and Key-Marer were never married, and separated before the girl was born.
Brown was granted visitation with the girl after being ordered to pay about $1,000 a month in child support, according to the prosecutor.
"Basically, as soon as he was paying child support, he wanted visitation," Hum said.
Brown filed for joint custody a month before Lauren's death, and a hearing on the request had been scheduled for the week before she died. Hum said the custody application may have been a ploy.
"Our position is that at least one of his motives [for the alleged murder] was to get rid of child support," Hum said.
Brown was living in the South Bay and working as an airline baggage handler when his daughter died, and was facing a series of small property tax liens.
"We looked at all of that," Hum said, "because it would have impact on how much the child support issue would affect him."
Brown has been accused of the special circumstance of lying in wait, which if proved could bring the death penalty. The special circumstance stems from his alleged "concealment of purpose," Hum said. "You don't have to be hiding. You have to be waiting and watching for an opportune moment to act, to take the other person by surprise."
Prosecutors will decide whether to seek the death penalty after preliminary hearings.
"The central issue was whether it was an accident or a homicide," Hum said.
Detective work over three years, he said, culminated in "a lot of aspects of the investigation coming together recently."
Those included information about Brown's background, as well as testimony from expert witnesses who had examined Brown's account of the fall.
Key-Marer, who came to California from England in 1993, met Brown in 1995, when she was 27 and he was 34. About five months after they began dating, she learned that she was pregnant.
"He wasn't really interested in having a child, so we separated," she said. "I raised my daughter as a single mother."
Key-Marer said Brown took no interest in seeing his daughter, and the two fought a bitter, drawn-out battle over child support payments.
During that time, Key-Marer said, she met her current husband, Gregory Marer, with whom she now has a 2-year-old son. They live in Honolulu.
Key-Marer, who lived in Huntington Beach at the time of her daughter's death, said she didn't know that Brown intended to take Lauren on a hike that day, let alone to the dangerous cliffs above Rancho Palos Verdes.
"I had no idea at all," the mother said.
Lauren, she said, would not have wanted to go hiking.
"She was very little girl, prissy, playing with Barbie dolls and all that," Key-Marer said. "She didn't like bugs or mud.
"Lauren was the love of my life. She was just a beautiful spirit, very friendly, very loving. She loved to go to church. Everyone who met her fell in love with her, and so many people miss her and her spirit."
A memorial to the girl stands near the site where she plunged off the cliff.