WOBURN — An hour before, prosecutors say, he killed his former high-school sweetheart, Nathaniel Fujita chatted happily with his uncle about football at a family barbecue in Framingham, according to court testimony Thursday.
“I said, ‘Gee, you look good; you’re putting on some weight,’” Philip Saba testified in Middlesex Superior Court, where his nephew is facing first-degree murder and other charges.
“‘Listen, Nathaniel,’ I says, ‘I want you to let me know what your schedule is like, because I want to go to some of your games, if you’re playing any games nearby,’ ” Saba recalled. “And he goes, ‘Sure, Uncle Phil, I’ll let you know.’ ”
Fujita left the party about 6 p.m. on July 3, 2011, his uncle said. Just after 7 p.m., according to prosecutors, Fujita beat, strangled, and slashed Lauren Astley to death in his parents’ Wayland garage, then dumped her body in a marsh.
Both were 18 at the time, and had dated in high school, until Astley broke up with Fujita in the spring of their senior year.
Fujita’s lawyer, William Sullivan, asserted in his opening statement that Fujita had fallen into a deep depression after the breakup and was suffering a brief psychotic episode when he killed Astley. Prosecutors say Fujita was simply angry that she broke up with him.
Saba, who has not yet been cross-examined by Sullivan, is the first of Fujita’s relatives to testify at his trial. Saba said he had met Astley before and called her a “beautiful girl, charming, nice.”
As his uncle identified him from the witness stand, Fujita lowered his head and began crying, wiping his eyes and nose with a tissue.
Saba described his nephew as a shy young man who became more social in his senior year of high school. Fujita had become “very depressed” in spring 2011, said Saba, but the last few times the two saw each other in June and July, Saba testified, he did not notice anything unusual about the way his nephew was acting.
Fujita was at his uncle’s home in the early morning hours of July 5, 2011, when he was arrested and charged with murder. Wayland police Detective Sergeant Jamie Berger testified Thursday that Fujita was asleep in an upstairs bedroom when officers showed up around 2 a.m. When they turned on the lights, Fujita woke up.
“I said: ‘Nathaniel, my name is Jamie Berger. I’m a detective with the Wayland Police Department. You’re under arrest,’ ” said Berger. “I asked him to put his hands behind his back.”
Fujita did not say anything, said Berger, but was compliant and appeared to understand what the officer was saying.
Berger testified that he had gone to the Fujitas’s home in Wayland on July 4, several hours after Astley’s body had been found, but Nathaniel was not there. His father, Tomohisa, was at home, but declined to help police look for his son, Berger testified. Tomohisa Fujita did go back to the station to talk to officers, the detective said, but was picked up after about an hour by Philip Saba and his wife.
Berger served as one of the lead detectives on the Astley case, and was present during several searches, including of the Fujita home in Wayland, the Water Row marsh where Astley’s body was found, and the storm drains near where Astley’s car was found at the town beach.
On July 8, in a search of the Water Row area, police discovered a locket near where Astley’s body had been found, Berger testified. In early August, as police searched the storm drains, they found Astley’s keys, he said, with her Elon University lanyard still attached.
“Lauren was going to be going to Elon,” Berger said. As he mentioned the lanyard, Astley’s mother quietly shook with sobs in the front row.
Wayland police Detective Christopher Cohen also testified Thursday morning. Cohen secured the Fujita home while police were working to obtain a search warrant on July 4, 2011, after Astley’s body was found, making sure no one was inside and that no one went inside. He also canvassed homes near the Fujita house to see if anyone saw or heard anything unusual.
Sullivan’s cross-examination of both officers was tense, with Sullivan questioning several aspects of the police investigation of the crime. In particular, Sullivan asked repeatedly about what authority officers had to close down the Fujita home on July 4 before the search warrant had been issued, and why Cohen went into the garage before the search warrant was obtained.
“The reason you went in there was to see if you can see anything before the warrant was issued,” Sullivan said to Cohen. Cohen maintained that he was simply checking to make sure no one was there.
Fujita faces one charge of first-degree murder, two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and one count of assault and battery. If convicted, he faces life in prison without parole.
His uncle’s testimony will continue on Friday. Several other members of Fujita’s family, including a cousin and both of his parents, are on the joint proposed witness list; not everyone listed testifies.
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.