Sol­dier may have been ha­rassed be­fore her death, Army in­ves­ti­ga­tors say

The Washington Post - - THE CORONAVIRU­S PANDEMIC - BY ALEX HOR­TON alex.hor­ton@wash­post.com

Army in­ves­ti­ga­tors said Fri­day that Army Spec. Vanessa Guil­lén, a sol­dier who was miss­ing for more than two months be­fore her re­mains were dis­cov­ered in late June, could have faced some ha­rass­ment some time be­fore she was killed.

Guil­lén’s fam­ily say she con­fided in them that she faced sex­ual ha­rass­ment be­fore her dis­ap­pear­ance on April 22 from Fort Hood in Texas, an al­le­ga­tion the Army said it has not sub­stan­ti­ated. But in­ves­ti­ga­tors said on a call with reporters that she faced “po­ten­tially some ha­rass­ment, not of a sex­ual na­ture.”

That po­ten­tial ha­rass­ment did not come from peo­ple of in­ter­est in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, they said, or from Spec. Aaron Robin­son, the sol­dier in­ves­ti­ga­tors say killed Guil­lén be­fore fa­tally shoot­ing him­self on July 1 in a con­fronta­tion with po­lice. Of­fi­cials did not say whether that po­ten­tial ha­rass­ment was sex­ual or racial in na­ture.

Robin­son be­came a “party of con­cern” April 28, six days af­ter Guil­lén’s dis­ap­pear­ance, ac­cord­ing to in­ves­ti­ga­tors, and they were fi­nal­iz­ing ev­i­dence of prob­a­ble cause be­fore Robin­son left Fort Hood. “We don’t know the cir­cum­stances of his de­par­ture,” Un­der­sec­re­tary of the Army James E. Mcpher­son told reporters on Fri­day.

Don Chris­tensen, a for­mer chief pros­e­cu­tor for the Air Force, said an of­fi­cer in Robin­son’s chain of com­mand could have held Robin­son un­til the process was fi­nal­ized, if they had been alerted.

“They had no sense of ur­gency from the very be­gin­ning. Robin­son early on was the most ob­vi­ous sus­pect,” said Chris­tensen, the pres­i­dent of Pro­tect Our De­fend­ers, an ad­vo­cacy group fo­cused on sex­ual ha­rass­ment and as­sault in the mil­i­tary.

Guil­lén, 20, was blud­geoned to death at Fort Hood, near where she was last seen, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. Guil­lén and Robin­son each worked in arms rooms in nearby build­ings, and in­ves­ti­ga­tors learned early on that Robin­son was among the last peo­ple to see her alive, he said.

Her dis­ap­pear­ance, and her fam­ily’s al­le­ga­tions that she was sex­u­ally ha­rassed, drew at­ten­tion from ac­tivists, law­mak­ers, celebri­ties and other sol­diers. Guil­lén felt she could not sur­face her al­le­ga­tions within her chain of com­mand, her fam­ily said.

Army Sec­re­tary Ryan Mccarthy said Fri­day he has di­rected an in­de­pen­dent re­view of the com­mand cli­mate at Fort Hood in re­sponse to the killing.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors de­fended what they de­scribed as a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Guil­lén’s dis­ap­pear­ance and death amid ques­tions from the fam­ily on whether the Army moved with enough ur­gency through more than two months of leads, when de­vel­op­ments some­times took weeks to un­fold.

More than 50 law en­force­ment agents con­ducted hun­dreds of in­ter­views and searched dozens of cars and phones, ac­cord­ing to an Army of­fi­cial.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors said they used cell­phone data to track Robin­son’s phone to a point near the Leon River east of Fort Hood. On June 21, a burned-out sec­tion of ground and scorched trees were dis­cov­ered, along with a smell of de­com­po­si­tion, an FBI agent wrote in a crim­i­nal com­plaint.

Agents and ca­daver dogs did not find a body un­til nine days later, when fence-builders nearby looked around af­ter smelling the odor, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. Her re­mains were dis­cov­ered three feet from the burn site, said Tim Miller, di­rec­tor and founder of Texas Equ­usearch, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that as­sists in searches and helped on the Guil­lén case.

Agents un­wit­tingly stood on top of her re­mains in their ear­lier search, Miller said.

Wit­nesses told in­ves­ti­ga­tors in May that they saw Robin­son strug­gle with a large plas­tic box on the day of Guil­lén’s dis­ap­pear­ance. Burned re­mains of a plas­tic box were found at the site, an in­ves­ti­ga­tor said, but he said it seemed of no value at the time.

Robin­son’s al­leged ac­com­plice, Ce­cily Aguilar, the es­tranged wife of a for­mer Fort Hood sol­dier, told in­ves­ti­ga­tors she ar­rived at the spot near the river to find Guil­lén’s body in the box be­fore they dis­mem­bered, at­tempted to burn and buried her re­mains en­cased in con­crete. Aguilar was ar­rested and charged with ev­i­dence tam­per­ing, au­thor­i­ties said.

Af­ter Guil­lén’s re­mains were dis­cov­ered, Robin­son “ab­sconded” from his Fort Hood bar­racks, where he was on lock­down, the FBI said. An of­fi­cial said non­com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers in the unit had “over­sight” of Robin­son but de­clined to ad­dress how or why Robin­son was able to leave or the na­ture of the lock­down.

Typ­i­cally, sol­diers are posted at all times at bar­racks en­trances to mon­i­tor who comes and goes. Fam­ily at­tor­ney Natalie Khawam said she was told by in­ves­ti­ga­tors the lock­down was re­lated to coro­n­avirus re­stric­tions.

It is not clear how many se­nior lead­ers were present.

Robin­son fa­tally shot him­self in Killeen out­side Fort Hood af­ter he was con­fronted by po­lice in the early hours of July 1, the Army has said.

The Guil­lén fam­ily crit­i­cized the in­ves­ti­ga­tion’s progress, point­ing to weeks of gaps be­fore break­throughs and per­ceived de­lays. They have called for con­gres­sional in­quiries into Guil­lén’s chain of com­mand and the han­dling of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Guil­lén’s death also sparked calls by law­mak­ers to hold in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tions and make changes in sex­ual ha­rass­ment and as­sault poli­cies in the mil­i­tary. Khawam said she will re­veal pro­posed leg­is­la­tion on July 30 on Capi­tol Hill in Wash­ing­ton, timed ahead of a protest.

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