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Wayland teen held in death of ex-girlfriend

Nathaniel Fujita at his arraignment. Nathaniel Fujita at his arraignment. (Art Illman/ Metrowest Daily/ AP)
By Peter Schworm and Laura J. Nelson
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / July 6, 2011

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FRAMINGHAM - For most of their high school years, Lauren Astley and Nathaniel Fujita seemed the perfect couple. They had dated for three years, a lifetime by high school standards, and had a deep rapport.

Astley sat in the stands to watch Fujita, a gifted and graceful athlete, play football and run track. Fujita came to hear Astley sing in her vocal group.

But the relationship had recently faltered, and authorities say that on Sunday, Fujita slashed her throat, strangled her with a bungee cord, and dumped her body in a marsh. Fujita pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges of first-degree murder.

“We do believe this to be a case of teen dating violence,’’ said Gerard T. Leone Jr., Middlesex district attorney. “It’s a classic fatal paradigm that we see around teen dating relationships.

“We are very confident it was about power and control.’’

Fujita’s arrest came just a day after Astley, a college-bound 18-year-old who dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, was found dead, horrifying this small, well-to-do suburb that hadn’t seen a homicide since 1985.

In Framingham District Court yesterday, prosecutor Lisa McGovern said investigators found Fujita’s blood-soaked clothing in a plastic bag stashed in an attic crawl space above his bedroom, and traces of blood spattered across his family’s Wayland home, a few miles from where Astley’s body was discovered Monday morning.

“This was a strong case of premeditated murder,’’ McGovern said. Evidence showed that Fujita, 18, had tried “to cover up what he had done,’’ she said.

Also hidden behind a ceiling panel were a pair of sneakers specked with blood and a sweatshirt filled with water and dirt “consistent with having been in marshland,’’ according to a police report.

Astley sustained a “horrific’’ wound to her neck from a sharp object, authorities said. They would not say whether a weapon had been found, and said it was not clear what prompted the attack.

“We’ve identified no particular trigger at this time,’’ Leone said.

After obtaining a search warrant for Fujita’s parents’ home, investigators found blood in the garage near some bungee cords, in the kitchen, on a bathroom sink, and on an exterior door handle.

Fujita - the son of Tomohisa Fujita, known as Tomo, an assistant professor of guitar at Berklee College of Music - appeared in court in an orange Wayland football T-shirt. He remained expressionless throughout yesterday’s hearing. He was ordered held without bail until a court hearing next month.

He has no prior criminal record and had lived in Wayland since the fourth grade, his lawyer said. Fujita had graduated from Wayland High School, where he was an accomplished athlete; his name appeared in the Globe as a Dual County League All-Star in track in March 2010. He was planning to attend Trinity College in Connecticut this fall.

Fujita and Astley had broken up in April, and since then Fujita had withdrawn from friends and had seemed angry in recent weeks, authorities said. Still, Fujita and Astley continued to see one another periodically, and police said they made plans to meet Sunday evening after Astley got off work at a nearby shopping center.

Sometime that evening, Astley was killed, authorities said. An autopsy showed she died both from the neck wound and strangulation.

Astley’s father, Malcolm - a Wayland School Committee member - said yesterday that his daughter and Fujita began dating as 14-year-olds, and grew close over time.

“There seemed to be a comfort and a mellowness to the way they interacted,’’ he said. In typical teenage fashion, the couple occasionally broke up, he said.

“They were together so many years - I think they were just feeling like the lobster in its shell, when it gets too small you have to break out,’’ he said. “I feel my daughter felt that way.’’

The girl’s father said he had spent “a fair amount of time’’ with Fujita, although she probably had spent more time with Fujita’s family. He said he would have acted if he believed Lauren was at all afraid of Fujita.

He reported his daughter missing Sunday night after she did not call to check in after work. He began reaching out to her friends in hopes they had seen her, and around 11 p.m. he notified police. He said friends had seen her car left unattended at the town beach that evening.

According to a police report filed with the court, authorities soon came to question Fujita, who said Astley had come by his house but did not get out of her car and stayed only a few minutes.

Police said Fujita told them that he and Astley discussed why he had not been “socializing with their peers anymore.’’

The next morning, a cyclist saw a body partially submerged in the water, about 7 miles from where her car was found, and called police. She was wearing the same clothes she had worn to work, police said. Investigators also found footprints leading away from the edge of the water where she was found.

Around 11 a.m. Monday, police spoke to Tomohisa Fujita, who said the family had gone to a cookout in Framingham on Sunday and that his son left around 6 p.m. alone in his mother’s car to go shopping, according to court records. When the parents returned home at 8:30, their son was already home.

Authorities said phone records show calls between the younger Fujita and Astley at 6:13, 6:51, and 7:05 p.m. Sunday. Her phone was active around 7:20 p.m., and the tower that received the signal was halfway between the beach and where her body was found.

Fujita was arrested at his aunt’s house in Framingham early yesterday.

William Sullivan, a lawyer who represented Fujita in court yesterday, said Fujita knew he was likely to be taken into custody but made no attempt to flee the area. He said the family went to his aunt’s house to escape news media attention and that police were well aware he was there.

In Wayland yesterday, residents were stunned by Fujita’s arrest.

Fujita had always “seemed like a good kid,’’ said Joan Bolivar, 75, the grandmother of one of Fujita’s friends from school.

“It’s surreal,’’ she said. “They don’t know what’s happening.’’

Mark Arsenault of the Globe staff and correspondent Vivian Yee contributed to this article. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.