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 beautiful 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 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.
Initially, Brown wasn't involved in Lauren's life, but he eventually sought custody that would help trim hefty child support.
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, Hum said.
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 in court Friday for the first time that he vividly recalls playing Lauren's favorite board game the night before her death. She became upset, kicked the pieces and ran into her room crying.
"'I think I'm going to die tomorrow,'" she said when he asked what was wrong.
Brown told police that Lauren ran ahead of him and tripped and fell off the scenic bluff 30 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
Defense lawyer Aron Laub said Brown was a bad dad 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'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 couldn't agree if it was murder or manslaughter.
Brown, whose hair was grayer and his beard bushier than previous appearances, said nothing during sentencing. His lawyer filed a notice of appeal.
In addition to the time that has transpired, the emotional toll of the girl's death was undeniable. Her mother couldn't count all her sleepless nights or the tears she shed. She battled cancer during the first trial.
Josh Marer, who was 10 at the time, 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."
Hum, who prosecuted each trial, became choked up reading a letter from one of Key-Marer's relatives. He said he felt fortunate not to have known such a loss in his life and he praised Key-Marer's family for their strength, dignity and faith.
Then he addressed Brown, who was handcuffed and wearing orange jail garb.
"She was 4 years old," Hum shouted, noting Lauren would now be 19. "Justice will never bring back this little 4-year-old girl, this 19-year-old woman. But justice is all we have in this courtroom. Now after 15 long years it's time for justice to be served."
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, hoping for an apology.
"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."
Patricia Brown said she still has hope her husband will be freed.
"I've never stopped believing in a divine reversal," she said.