29 Palms Murder Cases – Corwin & Roudebush – Conclude With Guilty Verdicts

By Mark Gutglueck
TWENTYNINE PALMS—Within the last three weeks, two spectacular murder cases involving three former Twentynine Palms residents who relocated themselves 2,500 miles or more away from the scenes of their crimes resolved themselves.
In both cases – the 2002 murder of Robert Roudeboush in Monroe County, Pennsylvania and the 2014 murder of Erin Corwin in Joshua Tree – the perpetrators in October and November acknowledged their involvement, or were convicted of murder, in the deaths after years of denials.
In the most conspicuous of the cases, Christopher Brandon Lee was charged with having murdered 19-year-old Erin Corwin, the wife of his Marine Corps colleague Jonathan Corwin, on June 28, 2014.
Erin Corwin’s death occurred during what was a trip to an abandoned mine, the bottom of which might have remained her eternal resting place had not an energetic search effort been carried out in the days, weeks and months after her disappearance. A tortuous set of circumstances and events led Christopher Lee and Erin Corwin to a remote section of the Joshua Tree National monument that early summer day, where she would meet her fate.
Jonathan Corwin, a corporal from Tennessee, and Christopher Lee, a corporal from Alaska, were both stationed at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. Christopher Lee lived on the base in family housing with his wife, Nichole, and their daughter. After Erin, then 18, married Jonathan in 2013, she came from Tennessee to live with her husband. They moved into a home very close to the Lees’ residence.
The two families became close. Erin occasionally babysat Liberty, the Lees’ daughter, something that would ultimately, according to Christopher Lee, have a fateful, and fatal, effect on the situation. The families would recreate together, taking trips to other locations in Southern California when Christopher and Jonathan had simultaneous leave. The couples, in particular the wives and Christopher, shared an affinity for horseback riding, and they would ride horses at the White Rock Horse Rescue Ranch in Yucca Valley, 30 miles west of Twentynine Palms on Highway 62.
At some point Nichole Lee and Jonathan Corwin became aware that Christopher and Erin were having an affair. Jonathan Corwin would later testify his wife told him she and Lee had broken off their relationship, and he and Erin had committed to salvaging their marriage.
Erin was less than sincere in her representation to her husband, however. Erin confided to a few of her friends that she was still seeing Lee and very much in love with him and that she was looking forward to making a life with him. After her disappearance, investigators searched her personal effects and computer to find some possible clue as to her whereabouts. At that point, sheriff’s detective Daniel Helmick came across a sticky note on Corwin’s computer suggesting she was looking at the possibility of relocating to Anchorage, Alaska, where Lee was from and to where he was about to return permanently following his discharge from the Marines. “Providence, Trailside Heights Apartments,” was written on that note. That complex is located in Anchorage.
In June 2014, it now appears, Erin Corwin was on the brink of ending her marriage with Jonathan Corwin and taking up with Christopher Lee. Lee, however, did not share those plans.
Erin Corwin’s mother, was scheduled to visit her daughter in Twentynine Palms in early July of that year. Erin had not yet informed her that she was pregant, but told friends she intended to surprise her mother with the news after she arrived. On June 27, Erin told her husband that she intended to go to Joshua Tree National Park to scout out places to visit with her mother. She did not tell her husband that Christopher Lee had actually invited her to go with him on a trip into that remote section of the Mojave Desert. The destination Lee had in mind was an abandoned mine beyond the far end of Joshua Tree National Park, well off the beaten track of even those drawn to the area by its remoteness. On the way there, Erin Corwin yet entertained visions of a life with Lee, texting a confidant that she thought Lee might be on the verge of proposing to her. To the contrary, it appears Lee wanted her out of his life completely.
At the mineshaft, Corwin told him she wanted to be a part of his life. Those were among some of the last words Erin Cowin would ever utter. Lee took out a garrot he had fashioned from some rebar and climbing rope, put it around her neck and choked her with it. With the garrot yet around her neck, he then flung her lifeless body into the 140 feet deep abandoned mine shaft. Lee then lowered a propane tank to the bottom of the shaft but was unable ignite an explosion that would obliterate Corwin’s remains.
He then drove back to Twentynine Palms and carried on as normal.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Corwin repeatedly tried to call his wife, but when he was unable to reach her chalked that up to there being no cell service at the park. That evening, when she had not returned he began calling around to her friends and the next day he notified authorities that he thought she was missing.
In short order, a search for Erin Corwin was underway, involving the sheriff’s department, the Border Patrol and hundreds of volunteers, who with the assistance of helicopters and other aircraft, scoured more than 200 square miles of desert in and around Joshua Tree National Park. Very soon, foul play was suspected and the sheriff’s department, FBI, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service began a probe.
Sheriff’s department officers found her blue 2013 Toyota Corolla abandoned about two miles from the military base at Ranch Road and Valle Vista in Twentynine Palms. Sheriff’s department investigators looking into the disappearance including detective Corey Emom, covered considerable ground, learning that the Corwins and the Lees were close, or had been so.
When questioned by detectives, Christopher Lee, the Corwin’s next door neighbor, said he did not know Erin Corwin very well. The wife of one of the Marines at the base, however, told investigators that the two were much closer than he had let on, and in fact, she believed the two were having an affair. When the investigators again contacted him, Lee said he had kissed Corwin but that they never had sex. When Emom spoke with Erin Corwin’s close female friends and contacts, they told him something different. Emom then reviewed text messages sent by Corwin which seemed to confirm a romantic, indeed sexual, relationship between her and Lee. For a time, Emom had suspicions about Jonathan Corwin, who had said nothing about his wife’s relationship with Lee. A more exhaustive examination of text messages and at least some of Lee’s communications and interviews with other Marines and their family members who knew both the Lees and Corwins clued Emom into the fact that Lee had told others that he was collecting tires that he was going to dispose of them out in the desert and that he was going on a “hunting” trip out in Joshua Tree National Park on June 28, which upon consideration was revealed as a cover story for his trip with Erin Corwin to that remote area.
Lee, while yet maintaining he was not with Corwin on the day she disappeared, confirmed he went hunting in Joshua Tree National Park when he again spoke with investigators.
Ultimately, Emom would find text messages from Erin Corwin to Jessica Trenthan, one of her friends from Tennessee, confirming the she and Lee were on a day trip together into the desert on the day she disappeared. Investigators would learn from Trenthan that Erin Corwin had told Christopher Lee that she was pregnant and that Lee was concerned that if his wife, Nichole, learned that he was the father she would divorce Lee and prevent him from seeing Liberty, their daughter.
Conor Malakie was one of the Lees’ and Corwins’ neighbors. He mentioned to investigators that he had seen a propane tank in Lee’s Jeep on either June 27 or June 28 and that when he asked Lee what he was going to do with it, Lee casually said he was going to use it to “blow up a mine shaft.” Later, when Malakie asked about it, Lee said he had been unable to detonate the tank.
Armed with information to indicate that Lee and Corwin had both gone out to Joshua Tree National Park on the day Corwin disappeared, that they were at that time still engaged in a clandestine affair, that Lee had told investigators that he did not see Corwin on the day she disappeared and that Lee was scheduled to be honorably discharged from the Marine Corps on July 7 and was going to return to his native Alaska, sheriff’s investigators decided to act. At that point, however, the investigation took a misguided turn. They assumed, inaccurately, that Lee had used a firearm to kill Corwin. This is demonstrated by a search warrant affidavit filed at that time.
“It is highly likely that Erin could have been harmed by an unknown firearm,” that affidavit states.
When investigators found Erin Corwin’s abandoned Toyota Corolla, it had shoe prints believed to have been Erin’s starting at the driver’s door which then led a short way and then disappeared next to a set of tire tracks. Those tire tracks matched the tires on Lees’s Jeep and the Jeep had a similar wheel base and width as the vehicle that had been parked near Erin Corwin’s Toyota. When investigators processed Lee’s Jeep Cherokee for evidence, they found ten .40 caliber cartridge casings in his vehicle. Investigators also interested themselves in a .22 caliber rifle that Lee owned and which his wife said he customarily kept in a closet at their home. Based upon the affidavits for search warrants the investigators obtained during this phase of their investigation which the Sentinel has read and examined, it appears that at this stage of the case investigators believed Lee had used a firearm to kill Corwin on June 28. When they searched the Lee home, they did not find the .22 caliber rifle in the closet where Nicole Lee said it was normally kept and they did not find the .40 caliber handgun Lee was believed to have either. Their search broadened, including the premises of the White Rock Horse Rescue Mission where Nicole Lee and Erwin Corwin would often ride and where Christopher Lee worked as a volunteer caring for wild horses. During the searches carried out at the Rescue Mission, located in the 700 block of Geronimo Trail in Yucca Valley, investigators came across a white Ford truck thought to belong to Christopher Lee. In it they found and seized a pair of tan boots, a black Pelican case containing several .223 rounds, one Springfield .45 caliber magazine with rounds, a Gerber utility knife and one blue latex glove. Also found in a parked car was what was initially described as “an explosive device.” This was later identified as a “potato gun.” In addition, the investigators retrieved a rifle said to belong to Lee which was found in a closet in the back of the residence of Isabel Megli, the proprietor of the Rescue Mission.
Acting somewhat prematurely, the sheriff’s department arrested Lee on July 4, 2014. In effectuating the arrest, which was no doubt driven by the Corwin disappearance, Lee was charged with “possession of an explosive device,” i.e., what turned out to be the potato gun.
A potato gun is a pipe-based cannon which uses air pressure, pneumatic, or combustion of a flammable gas such as aerosol or propane, to launch projectiles such as potatoes at high speeds.
If investigators were gambling that the arrest would panic Lee into a confession or that he might perhaps unburden himself of his horrific secret to one of his fellow inmates while he was in custody, it did not pay off. Lee was booked into the Morongo Basin Jail, and then released upon posting bail on July 6, 2014.
Lee was discharged from the Marines the following day and over the next two weeks, he and his wife prepared to make their departure with their daughter back to Alaska. They departed and the search and investigation dragged on into the dog days of summer, the end of July and into August, having seemingly bogged down, with search parties fruitlessly combing Twentynine Palms and other parts of the desert, the corridor along Highway 62 and Joshua Tree National Park.
On August 16, 2014 a search team, which had already been employing cameras to explore more than 100 mine shafts, crooks, crannies and bodies of water in the remote desert, spotted Corwin’s crumpled body at the bottom of a mine shaft outside of the Joshua Tree National Park. The rope and rebar garrote was yet affixed around her neck. Firefighters working in tandem with an urban search and rescue team recovered the body on Sunday, August 17, 2014. At the bottom of the shaft was a propane tank. There were tires strewn around the mineshaft as well.
Investigators had been half right; Lee, who had been rifleman with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division and was considered a marksman, had attempted to use a gun to blast the propane tank and cause it to explode, quite possibly making the recovery and identification of Erin Corwin’s corpse extremely difficult if not impossible. He was unable to achieve that goal, however.
Within an hour, a forensic dental examination identified the remains as those of Erin Corwin. Authorities in Anchorage were contacted and Lee was taken into custody.
For more than two years, Lee maintained his innocence, including throughout most of his trial, which began in October. Then, 15 days ago, on October 27, he confessed to the crime he had been consistently denying.
Things were going badly for Lee at trial. The jury had been provided with overwhelming evidence that Lee had met Corwin at Ranch Road and Valle Vista in Twentynine Palms on the morning of June 28, 2014 and they had driven together in his Jeep Cherokee to the remote area of Joshua Tree National Park, where her body was found some seven weeks later. From the grave, Corwin’s naive and carefree text messages to Jessica Trenthan, her friend back in Tennessee, illustrated that she was on the way to the mine with Lee and that she thought Lee was going to propose to her there. Those text messages established she was with Lee just before she disappeared, in an area very close to the mineshaft in which her body had been dumped. Christopher Lee’s statements to investigators two days later that he had not seen her at all on June 28 was a discrepancy that jurors were not likely to resolve in his favor.
On October 27, Lee, the first, only and last witness called by his defense attorney, David Kaloyanides, got on the stand and gave a stunning confession to the murder. “I’m no longer scared to tell the truth,” Lee said. “People have to know what I did. I couldn’t live with myself if I kept this a secret anymore. It eats away at me a little more each day.”
He gave a description of strangling Corwin at the edge of the abandoned mine on June 28, 2014. It came after Corwin said she was pregnant and indicated she wanted to share her life with him and his daughter, Liberty, by his wife, Nichole.
The circumstances under, and fashion with, which Lee offered the confession seemed calculated to blunt the assertion by prosecutor Sean Daugherty that the murder was premeditated. Lee’s statement, and the questions to him by Kaloyanides, were aimed at illustrating Lee’s stated belief that he acted spontaneously upon learning that Erin Corwin had molested his daughter.
Lee said that while Nichole was bathing their daughter, she saw that the child’s pubic area was red and irritated. Lee said his wife accused Corwin of molesting her. Lee, who said he was yet hiding the secret of his affair with Corwin from his wife, was thrown into a deep depression over the event, and that he became suicidal, engaging in Russian Roulette, occasionally even when he was with Corwin.
His feeling of rage culminated on June 28, 2014, the day he killed Corwin, Lee said. They drove to the mineshaft and Corwin said she wanted them to be together and that she loved his daughter, Liberty.
At the reference to his daughter, Lee said, “Something clicked.” He testified that at that point he confronted Corwin, asking her “Did you touch Liberty?” When Corwin did not respond, Lee said he demanded to know, “Did you molest my daughter?” He said Corwin responded “Yes, but….” at which time Lee said the entire circumstance “set me off. Every ounce of love I had for her turned into hate. I felt justified in a way because of how angry I was.”
Lee said, “I came up behind her and I put it (the garrote) around her neck. I just kept choking her. I pulled and I pulled. I wasn’t going to let anyone hurt my daughter again,” he said. ”I freaked out. I just felt so much hate. I looked, I didn’t see any rise and fall of her chest. I didn’t care.”
Lee said, “I killed her. Then, I dragged her to the edge of the mineshaft and I pushed her in.”
Kaloyanides in his questioning pushed Lee toward showing how the rage spontaneously manifested. At one point, Lee said, “I didn’t consider the repercussions of my actions.”
In an effort to soften the pointed cross examination from deputy district attorney Daugherty that was inevitably going to follow, Kaloyanides asked his client about his misrepresentations to investigators in the immediate aftermath of his having killed Corwin, while her husband, family and others were hopeful her disappearance was a temporary one and that she might be found. Lee at first told detectives he hardly knew Corwin, then said his wife was concerned that they were becoming too close, then later admitted to an affair but said it was over. He falsely claimed he had not seen Corwin on the day of her disappearance. “Were you trying to hide the facts so you wouldn’t get caught?” Kaloyanides asked.
“Yes,” Lee acknowledged. “I was trying to hide what I did. I was wrong in what I did and I knew it,” he said.
Lee said he had not told his wife, whom the sheriff’s department had long considered a “person of interest” in the case, of his action.
Daugherty, like many courtroom observers, perceived Lee’s confession as a self-serving maneuver to undo the impression that the murder of his former lover was calculated and premeditated. In a curious display that seemed to indicate Daugherty knew ahead of time Lee’s confession was going to take place, the prosecutor had at the ready a life-sized doll and a makeshift garrote with which he invited Lee to give a reenactment of his mayhem. Before the jury, Lee placed the garrote around the neck of the shorter doll and then, back to back with it, hoisted it so it was suspended with its legs well off the ground. He replicated the act of strangling Corwin in this fashion, which took about 90 seconds. Lee appeared caught up in the reenactment, saying to the open court, “Nothing could have stopped me at this point.”
Daugherty questioned Lee, getting him to admit that he continued his sexual relationship with Erin Corwin even after his wife Nichole had voiced her suspicion that Corwin had molested their daughter.
In his closing arguments, Daugherty suggested Lee’s insinuation in his confession that Corwin had molested his daughter and that he had acted spontaneously to that when he killed her was as false as his denials to investigators early on. The prosecutor reminded jurors that Lee had invited Corwin on a trip into the desert. “This was a ruse; he was setting it [the murder] up,” Daugherty said.
First degree murder – a premeditated killing – is more serious than second degree murder – one done in the heat of passion or anger – under the law. Daugherty’s suggestion was that Lee fabricated elements of his confession to make it appear that his strangling of Corwin was spontaneous.
Indeed, the jury agreed with Daugherty, returning a verdict of guilty on a first degree count on November 3, one week after Lee made his confession. The jury deliberated for a little more than a total of three hours late Wednesday, November 2 and early the following morning before returning the verdict, which included a finding that the special allegation of lying in wait was true. Lee faces life in prison without the possibility of parole; his sentencing hearing was set for November 29.
More than 2,500 miles away, in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, as the Christopher Lee trial was ongoing, James Britton and his estranged wife, Stacy Britton, found themselves brought to justice for the 2002 slaying and dismemberment of a man whose charred remains were later found in barrels at a waste disposal site in eastern Pennsylvania.
On November 7, Stacy Britton was convicted of first degree murder in the death of Robert Roudebush. Her former husband, James Britton Jr., pleaded guilty last month to third-degree murder in the case and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years.
It took 13 years for the long arm of the law to catch up with the Brittons. Had the relationship between the now 48-year-old Stacy and 36-year-old James not grown acrimonious, they might still be free.
According to prosecutors, James and Stacy Britton moved to Twentynine Palms soon after they murdered Robert Roudebush in Monroe County, Pennsylvania in 2002.
On July 12, 2002, the owner of a trucking company was at a disposal site his company used to dispose of sewage sludge on a secluded property on North Road in Jackson Township. He spotted two barrels that he had not placed on the property, in one of which the contents were still smoldering. He called authorities, who determined that the barrels contained the corpse of an unknown man who had been decapitated. An autopsy determined that the deceased had been stabbed eight times in the chest and once in the right thigh. The remains had been mutilated so thoroughly that authorities were unable, for 16 months, to ascertain the dead man’s identity. It was not until November 2003, that it was determined that the remains were those of Roudebush, who was 46 at the time of his death. Roudebush, of Luzerne County, was a petty criminal whose disappearance went unremarked for some time.
A little more than a month later, on August 24, 2002, James Arthur Britton, then 22, and Stacy Marie Britton, then 34, destroyed their Wilkes-Barre home by means of arson, and immediately pulled up stakes and moved cross country to California, settling in Twentynine Palms.
The Brittons’ relationship was a rocky one. Three days before Roudebush’s identity was publicly released, James Britton was in jail and requested an interview with his probation officer. He told the probation officer he was in possession of information relating to a man named Bob who was ‘burned in a barrel around July 2002.’ He related to the probation officer the victim was killed for having an affair with another man’s girlfriend. Britton identified the killer, who was convicted of a killing in an unrelated case.
Authorities had determined Stacy Britton’s brother had lived at a residence on the property where the barrels were found.
Focus on the Roudebush killing faded in and out over the years. In 2008, James Britton was brought before a grand jury, to whom he repeated the story about Roudebush having been killed by a jealous boyfriend, the man who was in prison for another killing.
The matter might have gone unsolved but for an argument that broke out between the Brittons, now divorced, in July 2015. From more than three quarters of the distance across the continent, Stacy, still in Twentynne Palms, and James, again residing in Pennsylvania, grew irate with one another and in a series of phone calls and text messages, the contretemps escalated.
At one point Stacy brought up the subject of Roudebush’s murder. James responded with a text message that read: “OK so you brought up the murder lets go there.” He referenced the murder again and gave a description of an injury his ex-wife sustained during Roudebush’s execution. The phone and text exchanges left Stacy Britton seething. In early August 2015 she contacted police and told them she and her ex-husband used knives and hammers to kill Roudebush after he had stolen drugs and money from them. She gave a description of the murder and said they cut and chopped Roudebush’s body using scissors, garden shears and an axe, and put it in the two barrels, which her husband then transferred to the property on North Road before setting it on fire.
The Pennsylvania State Police brought James Britton in for questioning on August 20, 2015, at which point he confirmed, with some deviation in detail, what his wife had confessed to. According to him, it was Stacy who attacked Roudebush after the alleged thefts. He said it was Stacy who bludgeoned and stabbed Roudebush to death and that he had allowed Roudebush to pray before Stacy Britton killed him. He said that Stacy then went through Roudebush’s pockets to find any money or drugs on his person. According to both Brittons, the killing took place at their Wilkes-Barre home.
The two were originally charged with homicide, tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, abuse of a corpse, perjury, false swearing and hindering prosecution by concealing or destroying evidence. With James Britton’s guilty plea, the lesser charges were dropped.
Stacy Britton has yet to be sentenced.

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