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Family of Fort Hood sergeant questions Army’s effort to find him before he died

Sgt. Elder Fernandes

U.S. ARMY

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 5, 2021

AUSTIN, Texas — Police have concluded Fort Hood Sgt. Elder Fernandes was alive for up to three days between the time that he went missing and when he died by suicide, leaving the soldier’s family to question the Army’s efforts to find him.

“What we do know is that had they put out the proper alerts, there was a real good opportunity to get him on [Aug. 19],” said Lenny Kesten, an attorney hired by Fernandes’ family to uncover answers about the soldier’s final days.

The 23-year-old Fernandes was released from Fort Hood’s Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center on Aug. 17, a week after he had admitted himself to the hospital for suicidal ideations. Fernandes’ supervisor, a staff sergeant, drove him from the hospital to a residence in Killeen. The soldier, who served as a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist, was not heard from again, according to the Temple Police Department’s death investigation report released last week.

On Aug. 25, a railroad employee found the soldier’s body near a stretch of tracks in Temple. Police determined Fernandes died by suicide.

“They dumped him on the side of the road. Then he went missing and they didn’t do anything,” Kesten said. “It’s such a disservice to a soldier, to any human being.”

However, officials from Fernandes’ unit, the 1st Cavalry Division, have said they began looking for the soldier “within hours” -- on and off the base.

The family wants to know exactly what the Army did and when, Kesten said. He believes those details are in files that the Fort Hood detachment of the Criminal Investigation Command, known as CID, has yet to release.

Chris Grey, the spokesman for CID, said the case file is being finalized and redacted. When complete, “copies of the investigation will be made available to authorized recipients,” he said.

Congress also sent a request for the CID file as part of an ongoing congressional investigation into the deaths of several soldiers this year who were assigned to Fort Hood. Subpanels of the House committees on oversight and armed services are leading the investigation and have received some documents and communications related to Fernandes “on a rolling basis,” said a senior Democratic committee aide speaking on the condition of anonymity.

But they have not received the CID report or the investigation that will determine any misconduct or negligence and could impact the family’s benefits, the aide said.

“The subcommittee is focused on conducting as thorough of an investigation as possible in order to do right by the victims’ families and to ensure the investigation’s findings and recommendations help to improve the future command climate at Fort Hood and other installations throughout the Army. The investigation will certainly continue in the 117th Congress,” the aide said.

While Fernandes’ family awaits information from Fort Hood, the investigation report from Temple police provides a glimpse into how the soldier spent his final days by reviewing phone data and interviewing a local resident who encountered the soldier.

From Aug. 17 to Aug. 20, Fernandes continued to turn his cellphone on and off multiple times to check his messages, according to Temple police. Meanwhile, he traveled about 30 miles east, on foot or possibly by hopping onto a train car, until he reached an area of railroad tracks in Temple tucked between a golf course and a butcher shop, according to police.

Along the way, he purchased a barbecue lunch in Harker Heights and a witness saw him resting near Interstate 14 in Nolanville, according to police. On Aug. 20, police determined Fernandes either turned off his phone for the final time or its battery ran out.

Temple police found the phone Aug. 25 alongside his body, which was hanging from a tree branch at least seven feet above the ground near the railroad tracks. The last voicemail was from his mother on Aug. 17. She was concerned he hadn’t called her after he was released from the hospital.

Police also found more than $450 in cash, extra clothing, sunscreen, potato chips and two bottles of water with Fernandes’ body. An autopsy found his system clear of drugs or alcohol.

Allegations of sexual assault

Fernandes’ case gained national media attention and followed the disappearance and death in April of Fort Hood Spc. Vanessa Guillen, which also gained national attention. In both cases, the soldiers said they faced unwanted sexual attention, according to reports from Fort Hood officials and the families of the soldiers.

Guillen’s family said she was sexually harassed, but was too afraid to report to her chain of command. She died April 22 when another soldier, Spc. Aaron Robinson, hit her with a hammer in an arms room on the base. The family said Robinson was Guillen’s harasser, but Fort Hood investigators said they have not found any evidence to support that allegation.

Fort Hood officials first announced Guillen was missing on April 24. After more than two months, her remains were found near a river miles from Fort Hood. Robinson died by suicide the following day when approached by local law enforcement in Killeen.

Fernandes, however, did report a sexual assault in May. He was moved into a new unit and the allegations were found unsubstantiated by a polygraph test, Kesten said. The investigation took a week.

Throughout the spring and summer, Fernandes, who is from Brockton, Mass., began to exhibit concerning behavior, according to Kesten, Temple police and officials from the 1st Cavalry Division, which held a news conference Aug. 26 about the soldier.

Fernandes married his friend’s sister in April to allow him to move out of the barracks. The marriage was one of convenience and the couple didn’t have a real relationship, Kesten said.

He also rented an apartment, but never moved in and spent many nights sleeping in Killeen motels or on the streets, Kesten said. During a field exercise in early August, he acted out in such a way that his unit took his weapon, but never took him to seek treatment.

While training, Fernandes showed signs of “psychological issues and upon returning to the unit, he broke down and tried to go AWOL from the military,” according to the police report. Police also stated a staff sergeant encouraged Fernandes to admit himself into the hospital.

On Aug. 11, Fernandes followed that advice. He had a friend drive him to the hospital, where he checked in and stated he would kill himself if he had to stay in the Army, Kesten said.

“When he checked in, he reported for the previous three days he had been AWOL living on the street. He couldn’t stay in the Army and if he had to go back he was going to kill himself. He told them he was married and in the process of divorce,” Kesten said. “They had him for six days and when they released him, they didn’t know where he was going.”

Fernandes cleared all protocols and was deemed fit for duty by medical providers, according an Aug. 26 news release from the 1st Cavalry Division.

Upon his release, a staff sergeant, whose name was redacted from the police report, drove Fernandes to his car, but it wouldn’t start. So, at Fernandes’ request, the sergeant drove Fernandes to a friend’s house and left him standing outside.

But Fernandes never made it inside. His friend’s wife was home and expecting Fernandes, but she said she never heard him knock on the door, according to police.

‘Deep concerns’ about the case

A month before Fernandes went missing, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy appointed five civilians to the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee. The committee arrived at Fort Hood five days after Fernandes was found dead.

“We had some deep concerns [about the Fernandes case],” Chris Swecker, lead member of the committee, said Dec. 9 during a congressional hearing about the group’s report. He said he reviewed Fernandes’s CID file and received a briefing on the case.

The handling of the case, including the use of a polygraph to clear the suspect, was an example of how Fort Hood’s criminal investigators were inexperienced and ill-equipped, he said.

The Fort Hood CID has 35 agents investigating cases. But the committee found only three or four had more than two years of experience. Instead, the base was a “training ground” for new agents, Swecker said.

“I just don’t personally have faith in polygraph. We felt like that should not be the sole criteria in exonerating somebody on sexual harassment. But again, we sort of go back to the conundrum of CID in terms of rapid investigations, experienced investigators and that sort of thing,” he said.

Because Fernandes was last seen in Killeen, that city’s police department led the search efforts, though Kesten questions why Fernandes’s unit didn’t contact CID to begin an investigation on Aug. 18 when he missed the morning formation.

“You would think every bell in the world would go off,” he said.

When Fernandes’ family began calling, they were told the Army wouldn’t look for him until he was missing for 30 days.

“The Army released a press release saying they immediately began searching as soon as he didn’t show up for work, which I don’t believe for a minute. They began searching when mom got there [Aug. 19],” Kesten said.

Fort Hood and Killeen police entered Fernandes into the missing persons database on Aug. 19, according to Temple police. It wasn’t until after 9 p.m. the following day that the 1st Cavalry Division released a plea to the public to look for the soldier.

By then, there were already at least two opportunities identified by Temple police where Fernandes was seen by other people.

On Aug. 18, Fernandes had lunch at a restaurant in Harker Heights, the city just east of Killeen. Police did a geographic search for Fernandes’s cellphone at some point in their investigation and this area was where police conducted the last search for him. The Temple report is not clear when Killeen police identified the area or when the search occurred.

The following day, the witness in Nolanville, a small town near Harker Heights, noticed Fernandes on his land near the highway at about 5 p.m. “laying down under a shade tree” and resting his head on a backpack. The man offered Fernandes a ride somewhere, but the soldier declined and said he was “not really headed anywhere.”

Only after news reports that Fernandes’ body was found, did the man realize who he had seen and reported the encounter to police. He was able to describe Fernandes’ clothing and backpack accurately, confirming to police that he had seen the soldier.

On Aug. 25 just after 5:30 p.m., nearly a week after that interaction in Nolanville, a BNSF Railway Company employee stopped while inspecting the tracks in Temple to pick up some golf balls along the rails. He noticed what he thought to be a man standing along the tracks, near a ravine, according to police.

The railroad employee told police that he decided the man might need water, so he approached him. As he got closer, he realized the man was hanging from a rope and dead. Police said evidence showed Fernandes had been dead at least four to five days.

The railroad employee said he was in the same location on Aug. 20 but he had not seen Fernandes.

Based on the Fort Hood review committee’s report, the Army has already announced changes to its missing persons policy and put in place guidelines for units to follow within the first hours of identifying a soldier as missing.

It’s difficult for Fernandes’s parents to be satisfied by these changes because the Army continues to keep secret much of what happened to their son, Kesten said.

“The actions of the Army to me are awful. For CID and the Army not to brief the family on everything they did and instead to actively hide it – it’s awful,” Kesten said, referring to the case file that CID has not released. “It’s no way to treat a service member.”

thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori