AUSTIN, Texas – Military investigators searching for the body of U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen overlooked evidence that could have led to the discovery of her remains a week sooner – and brought resolution to her heartbroken family, the leader of a team of civilian searchers said Friday.
The 20-year-old soldier disappeared from Fort Hood in Texas on April 22, sparking international attention.
Tim Miller, founder of the civilian group EquuSearch, said his crew discovered a pile of burned debris June 21 at a rural highway intersection about 20 miles away from Fort Hood and steps from the Leon River.
Miller said he pleaded with Army officials to search the site more thoroughly that day. Military investigators, he said, instead focused their search on the nearby river. More than a week later, construction workers came upon Guillen’s remains in the very spot Miller said military investigators overlooked.
Investigation under scrutiny
Guillen’s family has criticized Army officials’ investigation since she disappeared from Fort Hood, alleging they failed to thoroughly search on and off post. Army officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding Miller’s account of the search.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy ordered an independent review of the command climate at Fort Hood after Guillen’s death raised questions about the treatment of women and Hispanic service members.
If the review finds wrongdoing, action will be taken against officials at “any echelon,” McCarthy said.
Among the items Miller said his crew found in the burn pile was the charred remains of a Pelican case, a hard-sided, watertight storage container commonly used in the military.
Army investigators suspect that Spc. Aaron David Robinson of Fort Hood used a Pelican case to carry Guillen’s body off post after he killed her with a hammer in an armory room April 22. Robinson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound July 1 after Killeen police confronted him in their investigation into Guillen’s disappearance.
“If we had used ground penetration, we would have likely seen anomalies and stuff in the ground and found her one week prior to when she was found,” Miller said. “It would have been one week less of decomposition.”
Miller said his team pleaded with officials from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, an organization more commonly known as CID, on June 21 to take a closer look at what his searchers found.
“Army CID said the (burned) case is not the kind they use and that it doesn’t have anything to do with anything,” Miller said. Officials called in the Texas Rangers after the civilian searchers showed them photos of a Pelican case on Google, Miller said.
Authorities dug directly under the burn pile but did not find Guillen’s body, Miller said. They did not search areas around the pile of burned evidence.
Miller said CID officials were uninterested in continuing to search near the pile because a dog trained to help find body parts, tissue, blood and bone walked right over it and did not alert handlers of any signs of human remains.
The dog walked to the Leon River bank and alerted its handlers that it smelled something, he said.
“They relied on that one dog, and instead of searching the area a little more, they were sure (Robinson) threw (Guillen) into the river,” Miller said.
‘I just really hope they are doing their job’
Army officials defended their search efforts, saying that by May 21, more than 500 soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Division searched daily while the 1st Cavalry Division provided more than 100 hours of flight time to search on and off the installation.
A criminal complaint filed July 2 against Cecily Aguilar – the estranged wife of a former Fort Hood soldier and Robinson’s girlfriend who is charged with conspiracy to tamper with evidence in Guillen’s case – says she and Robinson attempted to dispose of Guillen’s body in multiple ways, including burning it and covering it in cement. She told authorities they used a machete-type knife to dismember the body, then buried it in several holes.
Miller said the ground did not appear to be disturbed, nor did he smell any odor. The EquuSearch leader said the smell was probably contained by concrete and other substances Robinson and Aguilar used to cover up the remains.
More than a week after the burn pile was discovered, odor led civilians who were building a fence on a property near the pile to Guillen’s remains.
Miller said the fence workers smelled the decomposing remains after animals dug up three shallow graves less than 15 feet from the burn pile.
Authorities confirmed last week the remains were those of Guillen.
The soldier’s family has for months complained that the military bungled the investigation.
The family said that Guillen was the victim of sexual harassment on base and that the Army was not transparent about its search.
“I just really hope they are doing their job because, from my point of view, it looks like they are not,” Mayra Guillen said during a news conference in mid-June.
Attorney Natalie Khawam, who represents the Guillen family, announced the proposal of a bill named #IAMVANESSAGUILLEN, which would help protect military victims of sexual harassment and assault. Khawam, who worked on similar legislation in the past, will introduce a draft of the bill during a congressional news conference July 30 in Washington, which will be followed by a protest from the Capitol to the White House.
Military officials said their investigation has not produced any evidence of sexual harassment against Guillen in relation to her death.
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This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Vanessa Guillen: Civilian search group says Army overlooked evidence