Army confirms remains are those of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, soldier’s family says
By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: July 5, 2020
Army investigators have positively identified the remains of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, her family told The Washington Post on Sunday, more than two months after she vanished from Fort Hood, Texas.
Remains discovered Tuesday in a shallow grave east of the Texas installation triggered a manhunt that ended when one suspect — Spc. Aaron Robinson — killed himself as officers closed in, the Army said.
Robinson’s girlfriend was charged with evidence tampering and said she helped dispose of the body, court records show.
Guillen’s disappearance, and her family’s allegations that she was sexually harassed, drew attention from activists, lawmakers, celebrities and other soldiers. The family also has complained that the Army’s search for the 20-year-old soldier lacked urgency and care at the highest levels.
Investigators moved too slowly to piece together evidence and to secure phone data that led to the suspects more than two months after Guillen disappeared, said family attorney Natalie Khawam.
“Her leadership failed her,” Khawam said. “The Army failed her.”
Guillen was bludgeoned to death at Fort Hood on April 22, near where she was last seen, investigators said. The remains found Tuesday were so close to a site searched by investigators nine days earlier that they unknowingly stood on top of them, one search leader said.
Fort Hood and the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, which headed the investigation and is the service’s equivalent to the FBI, did not respond to a request for comment during the holiday weekend.
Guillen believed that she could not approach her chain of command with allegations, her relatives said, and instead confided in family members. “She felt if she spoke, something would happen,” sister Mayra Guillen told The Washington Post. “I now realize everything leads back to them harassing her at work.”
“They broke her spirit,” sister Lupe Guillen added.
The Army said last week that the allegations had not produced viable leads and that it found no connection between Guillen’s death and the accusations.
Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, the deputy commander of Fort Hood, defended the search effort and said officials offered the family tempered information to protect the integrity of the investigation.
“I just wish I could have done a better job balancing those needs,” he said during a news conference Thursday, in reaction to the family’s criticism.
But the sexual harassment allegations spurred many female service members and veterans to share their own stories about assault and harassment on social media with the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in a letter Thursday that they were “gravely concerned with the appearance that the Army was able to marshal significant additional investigative resources after her family began a social media campaign.”
Information provided by earlier interviews with Robinson and his suspected accomplice, Cecily Ann Aguilar, depicts the last moments of Guillen’s life — and the effort to hide her body.
Guillen worked in an armory on the sprawling base outside Killeen, according to a criminal complaint filed by an FBI investigator in U.S. District Court.
On April 22, she left her car keys, barracks room key, Army identification card and wallet at her armory, and walked to the arms room overseen by Robinson.
Robinson beat Guillen in the head with a hammer in the arms room, killing her there, the complaint said.
Soon afterward, witnesses saw Robinson struggle with the heavy weight of a plastic box as he shoved it into his car and drove away. In an interview after her arrest, Aguilar said Robinson picked her up and took her to a site near the Leon River in Belton, east of Fort Hood. The box containing Guillen’s body was already there, she said.
Robinson and Aguilar dismembered Guillén, tried to burn the remains and buried them in separate holes, investigators said, before returning four days later to break up the remains, using concrete to conceal them.
On May 18, the day after witnesses told investigators that Robinson carted off the box, Robinson consented to a search of his phone that showed multiple calls to Aguilar the day of Guillen’s disappearance.
Another month passed before investigators said Aguilar was interviewed about the calls, told agents she was with Robinson at his home the night of the killing, then recanted and said she was with him, according to the complaint.
Agents received location data from Robinson’s and Aguilar’s phones and pinpointed an area near the Leon River where their locations matched. On June 21, investigators searched the area and found a smoldered pit and trees that had fire damage, said Tim Miller, director and founder of Texas EquuSearch, a nonprofit organization that assists in searches and helped on the Guillen case.
Scorched portions of a box were found, and there was an odor of decomposition, the complaint said, but investigators couldn’t find a body.
Guillen’s remains were just a few feet away, Miller said, but they went undiscovered for an additional nine days until men building a fence nearby smelled the odor on Tuesday and looked around. They saw hair and called police, Smith said.
Aguilar was in custody by the evening. Robinson was confined to his barracks room but “absconded” from Fort Hood later in the evening, the complaint said. Police had Aguilar call Robinson, the complaint said. “Baby, they found pieces, they found pieces,” Robinson told Aguilar.
Police confronted Robinson in the early hours of Wednesday in Killeen, near a church and a store. He displayed a firearm and fatally shot himself, investigators said.
It was not clear how Robinson left the base. Soldiers were confined there because of the pandemic, Khawam was told by investigators. Army barracks typically have soldiers posted at entrances at all times, watching who comes and goes.
The documents do not list a motive in the killing. But Khawam said the family was briefed for hours by CID officials and relayed statements made by Aguilar. She told investigators that Robinson told her Guillen saw a photo of Aguilar on his phone, and she knew Aguilar to be an estranged wife of a former Fort Hood soldier.
Adultery is a crime in the military, and Robinson had told Aguilar that Guillen said she would report him, Aguilar recounted.
But the family does not believe that version of events, and said that if Guillen were to report anything about Robinson, it would be harassment, Khawam said.
The family criticized the investigation’s progress, pointing to weeks of gaps before breakthroughs and perceived delays, and have called for congressional inquiries into Guillen’s chain of command and the handling of the investigation.
Guillen, a first-generation American with Mexican roots, told her mother when she was a child that she wanted to enlist. She saw better opportunities in uniform, Mayra Guillen said.
“She wanted to serve and protect the country,” Guillen said.