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Texts to ex-beau preceded slaying

18-year-old pleads not guilty to murder, assault

By Martine Powers
Globe Correspondent / August 24, 2011

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WOBURN - In the final hours of her life, Lauren Astley exchanged a flurry of text messages and phone calls with her former boyfriend, Nathaniel Fujita.

She wanted to talk. They decided to meet after she finished work.

“Call me when you get out,’’ Fujita wrote.

Astley drove to his house. She parked near the fence so his mother wouldn’t see.

Then she texted him one word: “Here.’’

It was the last message that she ever sent.

Fujita, the 18-year-old accused of murdering his former girlfriend and then dumping her body in a marsh, pleaded not guilty yesterday to a charge of first-degree murder in Middlesex Superior Court. The haunting exchange of text messages between the onetime teen sweethearts emerged at the court hearing.

Astley’s body was found July 4 off Route 27 in Wayland. Astley, 18, was strangled, her neck slashed, according to authorities.

Fujita, who graduated from Wayland High School in June, was ordered held without bail until a Sept. 22 pretrial conference, when his defense attorney plans to push for his release on bail.

Fujita, who has been in custody since his arrest in July, also pleaded not guilty to two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and a single count of assault and battery.

In a statement to the court that lasted more than 20 minutes, prosecutor Lisa McGovern portrayed a distressed teen who murdered his former girlfriend after agreeing to meet and talk - and then tried to make plans with family members to create an alibi.

“The circumstances of the alleged charges, your honor, are, in a word, chilling,’’ McGovern said.

McGovern offered details about the extent of the trauma to Astley’s body, which included blunt-impact injuries to the head, bruises to the arms and legs, a slash wound across the neck, and additional gaping neck wounds.

A strangulation mark almost a half-inch wide stretched across her neck. It matched a bungee cord found tangled in her hair, authorities said.

The prosecutor presented a timeline of events that occurred in the days before and after Astley’s death. Before she died, she sent a string of text messages and made phone calls to Fujita. She wanted to talk.

“In an act of friendship, Lauren Astley reached out to the defendant,’’ McGovern said. “The defendant reciprocated this act of friendship by killing her.’’

Fujita, a former football and track star, arrived in court clean-shaven, wearing a light blue shirt and khakis. He barely glanced at his parents, who were sitting in the row behind him, and kept his gaze downward for most of the proceedings. His voice was barely a whisper when he stated his plea.

McGovern said Fujita is a flight risk because he may face life in prison without parole if convicted.

Defense attorney William Sullivan said his client should be released while awaiting trial because Fujita has no previous criminal record.

Sullivan declined to comment on the details presented by prosecutors during the arraignment. He refused to answer questions about Fujita’s psychological state, saying only that the case has taken its toll on the 18-year-old.

“It’s obvious he’s struggling,’’ Sullivan said. “I think the enormity of what happened is what’s hitting him.’’

Fujita’s parents, Sullivan said, asked that their sympathy be expressed to Astley’s parents.

“They wanted me to voice that their thoughts and prayers have been with Lauren Astley’s parents, really from the beginning,’’ Sullivan said.

Malcolm Astley, Lauren’s father, read a short statement after the arraignment, saying that “our hearts are with the many who continue to feel the shock and pain of the tragedy, and to understand it as best we can.’’

McGovern’s presentation during the arraignment, and a statement filed in court, gave new details about events surrounding Astley’s death.

After their April breakup, Fujita wrote a letter to Astley: “I truly think there’s a part of you that still loves me, you just have to let me find it.’’

In June, Fujita’s mother visited Astley at the Natick Mall, where the teen worked, without telling her son. She told Astley she was worried about her son, and wanted to know if he would be OK when he left for college in the fall. The mother cried.

In the week before her death, Astley sent multiple text messages to Fujita, trying to set up a time to talk. On July 3, the date of her death, Fujita responded. They decided to meet after she finished work at 7 p.m.

She sent her last text message at 7:05 p.m.

At 7:45 p.m., Fujita was seen driving southbound on Route 27, the same road where Astley’s body was found. He was shirtless, the windows were rolled down, and music was blasting.

Minutes later, he called his mother and asked that the family watch movies together that night, the prosecution’s statement said.

He then called his cousin and asked if she wanted to hang out that night.

“After killing Lauren Astley, this defendant set out to cover up what he had done, to hide evidence, to get rid of evidence, and to create an alibi,’’ McGovern said.

Around 9 p.m., Astley’s family and friends noticed her absence.

A friend called Fujita and asked if Astley was at his house. He responded gruffly that “it would be the last place [Lauren] would ever go,’’ according to the prosecution’s statement.

Astley’s family called police at 11 p.m. In the next eight hours, officers interviewed Fujita at his house three times.

The 18-year-old told officers that Astley had stopped by his house that night, but only for three or four minutes. She wanted to know why he wasn’t coming out and socializing more often.

“It was awkward,’’ he recalled to police.

Fujita’s mother said the family had been watching movies together all night.

In the next 24 hours, Fujita’s alibi unraveled, McGovern said: A bicyclist spotted Astley’s body.

Police searched Fujita’s house and found a trash bag of bloody, wet clothes in a crawl space above the ceiling panel in Fujita’s room. Traces of blood were found in the kitchen, the bathroom, and in Fujita’s Honda.

That night, as police searched Fujita’s house, he visited his cousin in Framingham, the same cousin he called just after Astley’s alleged murder.

The cousin asked Fujita if the police searching his home would find anything.

“They’re never going to find the weapon there, if that’s what you mean,’’ Fujita allegedly responded.

Then, she asked him, “How could you call me and ask me to hang out after you do that?’’

“I needed to hang out with someone,’’ Fujita responded, according to the prosecution’s statement.

“I just wanted to get my mind off of it.’’

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.