LOS ANGELES (AP) — She would be a young woman now, but instead Lauren Sarene Key is forever the 4-year-old child who never returned from a visit to the coast with her father.
Nearly 15 years after the girl plunged to her death from a 120-foot seaside cliff, her father was sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole for her murder.
Jurors found Cameron Brown, 53, a former airline baggage handler, guilty of hurling her from Inspiration Point in Rancho Palos Verdes in November 2000 amid an ugly custody battle with her mother.
Sarah Key-Marer told the court that the bitter dispute had begun to steal the joy from her daughter.
"We watched her sparkle fade in the last months of her life," Key-Marer said as Brown stared stoically straight ahead. "Her smiles diminished more quickly every time she witnessed the conflict. ... The funny, happy girl we all knew was fading."
Brown's first-degree murder conviction in May came about a dozen years after he was arrested and followed two previous trials when jurors decided the death was a crime, but they couldn't agree if it was murder or manslaughter.
Brown told police the girl tripped and fell as she ran toward the cliff.
Defense lawyer Aron Laub said Brown was a bad father but not a murderer. Laub disputed testimony by a prosecution expert that showed a girl her age wouldn't have been able to run fast enough to land where she did in the rocky ocean below. He asked jurors to convict Brown of manslaughter.
Brown and Key-Marer had a short-lived romance that soured when she got pregnant.
Brown wanted Key-Marer to get an abortion, and he even tried to get her deported to her British homeland, Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum said.
Hatred toward his ex-girlfriend was the key motive, though there was evidence that Brown was also trying to get out of costly child support payments, Hum said.
Hum said a witness came forward at the third trial who testified that Brown said it would be "nice to get rid of Lauren" to avoid $1,000-a-month payments.
The girl was reluctant to leave school to join her father for his scheduled visit the day of her death, a teacher testified.
Her step-brother, Josh Marer, said he has a vivid recollection of playing Lauren's favorite board game the night before her death. She became upset, kicked the pieces and ran into her room crying.
He asked what was wrong.
"She told me, 'I think I'm going to die tomorrow,'" he said.
He was 10 at the time and said the death derailed his life. He became addicted to drugs and tried to take his life several times before finally finding a path to recovery.
"Lauren had become my guardian angel," he said. "I know she watches and protects me and for that I'm truly grateful."
Outside court, Brown's wife, Patricia, said her husband loved Lauren, that the death was an accident, and that he missed the girl more than anyone.
As Patricia Brown spoke with reporters, Key-Marer approached and asked if she had anything to say to her.
"You know as well as anybody that it wasn't a homicide," Brown said.
The prosecutor then approached and blurted, "You don't have to listen to this crap."
As Brown and her brother continued to speak, Hum raised his voice and told him, "Step away, sir. ... It's time for you to go."