FORT HOOD, Texas — A missing Fort Hood soldier found buried in a shallow grave this week was bludgeoned to death with a hammer and hacked to pieces by a fellow soldier, according to a lawyer for the victim’s family.
Attorney Natalie Khawam told Army Times that SPC Vanessa Guillen, 20, was slain with a hammer April 22 inside the armory where she worked, and where her car keys, barracks room key, identification card and wallet were later found abandoned. Khawam said her information came from officials with the Army Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, who briefed the family on the evidence in the case.
Guillen, who was a private first class at the time of her disappearance, was promoted to specialist Wednesday due to her time in the military, Fort Hood officials said.
The remains found along the Leon River in Belton, about 30 miles from Fort Hood, had not yet been positively identified as of Thursday, authorities said. According to Tim Miller, head of search and rescue group Texas Equusearch, they were found encased in concrete.
Partial remains were found Monday. KHOU in Houston reported that additional remains were discovered Wednesday.
Miller said Wednesday that the body and other evidence found by the river had been partially burned. The spot, which was first searched June 22, showed no sign of the shallow grave at that time but searchers found other items, including the lid of a plastic Pelican case that was possibly used to move the remains.
A witness reportedly spotted a man trying to load a similar case into a vehicle on Fort Hood the day of Guillen’s disappearance. A photo obtained by the news station shows the spot where the container lid, the only part of the case that didn’t burn, was found.
The victim’s remains were discovered by a man who called authorities Monday after he detected a foul smell in the area, Miller said.
“We knew immediately, yep, we’re in the right spot,” Miller told KHOU.
See KHOU’s report below.
The scene at the river is still active, Fort Hood authorities said Thursday. The Texas Rangers are leading that portion of the homicide investigation.
Special Agent Damon Phelps, one of the lead Army CID agents on the case, declined during a Thursday afternoon news conference to confirm any details of how and where Guillen was slain. He and Major Gen. Scott Efflandt, III Corps deputy commanding general, did say, however, that the investigation has failed to provide a link between Guillen’s disappearance and presumed death and allegations that she had been sexually harassed at Fort Hood.
“The criminal investigation has not found any connection between sexual harassment and Vanessa’s disappearance,” Efflandt said.
Guillen’s alleged killer, SPC Aaron David Robinson, shot and killed himself early Wednesday as U.S. marshals and Killeen, Texas, police officers approached him to talk about Guillen’s disappearance. Army CID officials had identified Robinson, 20, as a person of interest and notified outside law enforcement officials after he reportedly fled the base.
Army officials confirmed Robinson’s identity during Thursday’s news conference.
The motive for Guillen’s abduction and killing remained unclear.
“We are still investigating their interactions but at this time, there is no credible information or reports that SPC Robinson sexually harassed SPC Guillen,” Phelps said. “If anyone does have credible information to corroborated these allegations, we strongly urge them to come forward and report to us or report to their chain of command.”
Robinson, who was a native of Calumet City, Illinois, had been in the Army since October 2017. Like Guillen, he was part of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
The estranged wife of a former Fort Hood soldier has also been jailed in connection with Guillen’s death. Army Times identified the woman as Cecily Anne Aguilar, 22, of Killeen, who is being held in the Bell County Jail on unspecified charges.
Khawam identified Aguilar as Robinson’s girlfriend, who Robinson allegedly contacted to “help him bury (Guillen’s) bloody body,” the attorney said.
“At first, they tried to set her on fire, but she wouldn’t burn,” Khawam said. “Then they dismembered this beautiful US soldier’s body with a machete.”
Phelps and Efflandt offered scant detail Thursday of what happened to Guillen. Both men cited the ongoing investigation and the fact that Aguilar, who they did not identify by name, is expected to face criminal prosecution in the case.
Despite both he and Efflandt repeatedly touting the “transparency” of the investigation, Phelps told reporters he did not have the authority to identify the female suspect, who is a civilian in the custody of another jurisdiction.
“We’re trying to be transparent here and we can’t get the name of a suspect?” one reporter asked incredulously.
Multiple reporters named Aguilar as the mystery suspect and asked Phelps to confirm her identity, but he refused. He also declined to confirm any of the information Khawam and the Guillen family had told the Army Times.
“I can’t comment on the validity or the accuracy of that report,” Phelps said.
Phelps did refute rumors that there are other suspects in the case. As Guillen’s disappearance garnered national headlines, multiple other soldiers were named on social media as potentially being involved.
“It is very troubling and irresponsible that other soldiers’ names have been placed on social media sites and implicated in this investigation when there was absolutely no credible information or evidence that those individuals have anything at all to do with this investigation,” Phelps said.
Like Efflandt, Phelps told reporters that CID agents had investigated the Guillen family’s claim that Vanessa Guillen had been sexually harassed. Though her sisters said she told family and friends about the alleged abuse, Guillen never formally reported it.
“She was afraid to (report it) because the sexual harassment was coming from her superiors, so her concern was the retaliation, being blackballed,” Khawam said Wednesday during a news conference she and the Guillen family held in Washington, D.C., where they demanded a congressional probe into Fort Hood. “We believe the person that killed her is that person that sexually harassed her.”
Watch Thursday’s news conference at Fort Hood below, courtesy of News 4 in San Antonio.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-HI, attended Wednesday’s news conference and, alongside the Guillen family, called for Congress to probe the sexual harassment allegations.
“I’ve served as a soldier in the Army for over 17 years. My first four years in the Army were as a young, junior enlisted soldier — just like Vanessa,” Gabbard said. “I know, personally, the strength of and the importance of the chain of command. I also know and understand that fear that Vanessa must have felt.
“I know and understand how critical it is for our young troops, our young soldiers to have trust in and faith in their chain of command which is why these acts of abuse and harassment — coming from within that chain of command — are so destructive and have such a devastating impact on a young soldier and on the integrity and cohesiveness of that unit.”
Investigators, who Phelps said conducted more than 300 interviews over more than 10,000 investigative hours, found no credible evidence to support those claims, both he and Efflandt said Thursday.
Watch Wednesday’s news conference with the Guillen family below, courtesy of CBS Dallas-Fort Worth.
Phelps said Robinson, who was not one of Guillen’s superior officers, was not a suspect in the sexual harassment probe, which included a claim that a superior had walked in on Guillen as she showered. The agent said investigators found no credible evidence of the shower incident.
Phelps said Robinson was a co-worker of Guillen’s who worked in the building next to the Regimental Engineer Squadron Headquarters, where she was assigned to the armory as a small arms and artillery repairer.
A separate investigation into sexual harassment at Fort Hood is ongoing, Efflandt said. The probe involves a look at the implementation of the base’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, or SHARP, and an assessment of “whether the command climate is supportive of soldiers reporting incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault” and to identify any systemic issues with the SHARP program.
Efflandt appeared to address criticism of the Army’s handling of Guillen’s case, saying that Guillen’s fellow soldiers, along with multiple law enforcement agencies, worked “tirelessly” to find the missing soldier. He said he and other officials have also kept in constant contact with her family throughout more than two months of searches.
“Vanessa Guillen is a loss to all of us,” Efflandt said. “Certainly, obviously, to her family, but also likewise a loss to us here in the Army and here at Fort Hood. She’s part of our family as well.”
The commander apologized that he could not offer her loved ones more details of the case prior to the location of her presumed remains.
“I am really sorry that I was not able to provide them information sufficient to reduce their suffering,” Efflandt said. “I can’t imagine what they’re going through.”
He pointed out that authorities had to temper the shared information with the need to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation.
“I just wish I could have done a better job balancing those two needs,” he said.
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