WOBURN — Nathaniel Fujita was humiliated when his high school sweetheart broke up with him in the spring of their senior year. He pleaded with her to come back, and when that did not work, he began harassing her, ranting and raving and nearly knocking over a tent in a fit of rage at her graduation party, prosecutors say.
On July 3, 2011, Fujita allegedly invited 18-year-old Lauren Astley to his parents’ Wayland home, told her to park her car out of sight, and then strangled her with a bungee cord, slashed her throat, and hit her, prosecutor Lisa McGovern told jurors Wednesday at Fujita’s murder trial in Middlesex Superior Court.
He dumped her body in a wooded marsh and drove home shirtless, windows down and music blaring, to begin cleaning up and establishing an alibi, McGovern said in her opening argument.
“Nathaniel Fujita, a man Lauren Astley had known and cared for, a man she had gone out with in high school for three years, coldly, cruelly killed her because she wounded his ego,” McGovern said. “This defendant attacked Lauren to get her back, to hurt her and to nullify her, in a purposeful and deliberate way, calculated not only to inflict pain, but to end her life and cover up what he was doing.”
But defense lawyer William Sullivan argued that Fujita was in the midst of a brief psychotic episode when he killed Astley.
“In most murder cases, the question is who: Who did it? Who done it?” said Sullivan. “That’s not this case. This case, there’s going to be two questions: why and how. Why, why did this horrific thing happen?”
In the weeks leading up to the killing, said Sullivan, Fujita had stopped going out or talking to anyone. He could barely drag himself out of bed and spent most days alone, smoking marijuana or going to the gym. A June 15 visit to a psychiatrist indicated that Fujita was suffering a major depressive episode, Sullivan said. Fujita refused treatment.
On the night of the killing, Sullivan said, Fujita felt he was acting outside of his body.
“He was dissociated,” the lawyer said. “He wasn’t really able to control what he was doing, didn’t even really know what he was doing.”
Sullivan said schizophrenia runs in the Fujita family, and that Fujita has siblings who suffer from psychiatric problems.
Fujita, now 20, showed no emotion during opening statements. Dressed in a black suit and light blue dress shirt, he sat up straight and watched the proceedings without apparent expression.
His parents sat in the front row behind him; Astley’s parents sat on the other side of the aisle. All were silent.
Fujita is charged with first-degree murder, as well as two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and a single count of assault and battery. If convicted, he faces life in prison without parole.
Astley and Fujita had dated since their freshman year at Wayland High School. They were a popular couple and seemed destined for great lives. She was looking ahead to attending Elon University in the fall and had already taken part in orientation and picked roommates, said McGovern. Fujita was going to play football at Trinity College.
But as they grew up, their relationship began to unravel. Astley broke up with Fujita on April 1, 2011, her birthday.
About three weeks later, he wrote her a long e-mail, asking her to reconcile. McGovern quoted the e-mail in court: “Lauren, I know you’re scared to turn back, and with good reason. But please give it another shot, or we’ll both regret it.”
And she did, at first. But she quickly realized it was a mistake, said McGovern, and the two broke up for good in May.
Fujita was grieving while Astley moved on, McGovern said. At a June 4 graduation party in Wayland, he began harassing Astley, the prosecutor said. Astley’s mother told Fujita that he had to accept that it was over, but Fujita could not stop. He kept harassing Astley, and when he was told again to stay away, he threw his body into a tent pole, almost knocking the structure down.
Still, Astley was concerned for him, said McGovern, especially after his mother came to see her, crying, at her job in the Natick Mall. Astley reached out via text; Fujita barely responded.
On the day Astley died, said McGovern, she had brunch with her father and then went to work at the Natick Mall. Fujita texted her around 12:30 p.m. to find out her hours, and again after 6 p.m. to ask her to call him when she got off work. When she called, he told her to come to his house and not to park her car in her regular spot, but instead down the road. At 7:05 p.m., she texted him, “Here,” said McGovern, the last text message she would send.
The killing, said McGovern, was premeditated and extremely cruel. Astley died slowly. “Her death came in minutes, not in seconds,” she said.
A bird-watcher out looking for blue heron discovered Astley’s body on the morning of July 4, partially submerged next to a rotten tree in a marsh off Water Row.
McGovern said that during the search for Astley, Fujita lied to police about Astley’s whereabouts. He called a cousin to hang out, she said; he hid his bloody clothes. He joined a Facebook group dedicated to finding Astley, McGovern said, and he also Googled the question “Does water erase fingerprints?”
“Lauren Astley’s death was immeasurably tragic,” said McGovern, holding up a picture of Astley smiling for the jury. “But the evidence will show that her death was not a tragedy; it was a crime.”
The trial is expected to take about three weeks.
Astley’s mother and father walked out of court Wednesday looking shaken, surrounded by family and friends.
Both are on the list of potential witnesses.
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.