Mother searches for answers in Okinawa Marine's death

Lance Cpl. Manuel Carnero with his mother Angela Carnero. Manuel Carnero was found dead in an alleyway in November on Okinawa.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 11, 2014

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Angela Carnero never wanted to return to Okinawa this way.

Last fall, the 52-year-old New Jersey woman came to the island to visit her only son, Lance Cpl. Manuel B. Carnero. She arrived at an Okinawa police station on Monday to press authorities for answers in his unsolved death.

The 23-year-old Marine was found lying in a narrow Naha city alley just after dawn on Nov. 14, 2013, his body shattered and bleeding profusely. He was still wearing the dress shirt and shoes from a date the evening before.

Investigation of the off-base incident has fallen to Japanese police who say he died of blood loss — his pelvis was broken — after a high fall. But many details remain unknown, and the case appears to have gone cold over the past three months, according to the family and the Okinawa prefecture police.

“It is very difficult for me to come back to the place where my son died … but I need the reason,” Angela Carnero said.

She hopes her visit will help revive the investigation that she worries will go cold and be forgotten about.

Another meeting with Japanese police and talks with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service are planned.

Prefecture police said this month they are still uncertain why Carnero was in the Tomari neighborhood of Naha — about 12 miles from Camp Foster — where he died and from where he fell. He was discovered between two multi-story buildings and near a utility pole.

There are no witnesses to indicate foul play in the case, but police said they have not ruled it out.

With little more to go on, the family has spent the past three months piecing together letters, text messages and conversations hoping to find some hidden clues or meanings to shed light on Carnero’s death. They shared the documents and accounts with Stars and Stripes.

Manuel Carnero, who was serving with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 36, had been effusive about his first experiences on Okinawa when writing to his family in 2011. But by last year, the letters home had a somber and sometimes defeated tone. Unhappy with military life on Okinawa, Carnero wrote that he was looking forward to leaving the service and seeing his family back in New Jersey.

Last spring, the situation grew worse when Carnero broke Marine Corps curfew and crashed his vehicle while texting. A close friend told the family he was drinking alcohol at the time.

The service demoted him two ranks, and Manuel Carnero was forced to cancel an upcoming visit from his mother.

There were pep talks from his father, Manuel Carnero Sr., who told him to keep his head up and make the best of his time in the Marines. Carnero and his mother rescheduled for a September visit to Okinawa. But the young Marine fell into trouble again just before his mother arrived. This time, he had been sleeping in the passenger seat of his vehicle when a friend wrecked it while driving drunk.

Drunk and irresponsible driving is a cardinal offense among the military on Okinawa. Such misconduct often makes embarrassing international news and is deeply discouraged. It was clear to Carnero’s family said that he was under immense pressure from the Marines after the incidents and that some in his command were making an example of him.

He was given counseling, the family said, but the unit was still being very hard on him. He told them he was put on restrictive movement, berated in front of his fellow Marines and given extra duties.

When reached for comment, the Corps said the unit “remains saddened by the loss of one of its Marines” and is in contact with the family.

“At this point in time there is no new information that can be released due to the ongoing investigation,” read the statement from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. “The Okinawa Prefectural Police has the lead in the investigation.”

The day before he died, Carnero went on leave, according to his family.

He was taking leave — supposedly an on-island vacation — to escape the scrutiny at work. He said he gave the service the address of a Japanese friend; an address nowhere near where his body was found. He never stayed there, the family said.

On Nov. 13, Manuel Carnero had a date at a steak restaurant with a local Japanese woman he had recently met. The two split up after and he met with a fellow Marine to drink at a couple of bars along the Kokusai Street tourist and nightlife area in central Naha.

Carnero spent the hours before dawn walking the city streets alone and speaking on his cellphone to a friend in New Jersey. The friend told his family that Carnero was drunk but coherent, and the conversation raised no red flags.

Just after 7 a.m., Carnero’s body was found in a narrow concrete alley between an apartment building and a vocational school in a quiet neighborhood of the city. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital about two hours later.

The apartment building is accessible only to residents with a pass code, and the vocational school was locked with no obvious outside access to the roof. The walls on either side of the alley appear smooth except for some drainage pipes.

Investigators did not find any paint from the buildings under Carnero’s fingernails or on his shoes, according to his mother.

For the family, there are still too many unanswered questions. They do not understand why he was in that neighborhood or why he would have been on those buildings — questions police have also been unable to answer.

There is a nagging worry that Carnero may have been murdered or somebody might have played a part in the death.

“To us, it doesn’t seem like it could just be an accident. It seems like foul play must be involved,” his sister, Aida, said.

Carnero’s mother just hopes a full investigation will put the mystery of her son’s death to rest and give her family needed closure.

Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

Angela Carnero holds a family photo with her son, Lance Cpl. Manuel Carnero, whose November 2013 death on Okinawa remains under investigation.