Army investigators detained a fellow soldier in the killing of Specialist Vanessa Guillén just hours after her remains were found, but a series of missteps allowed the soldier to flee, then fatally shoot himself, according to an Army report released Friday that examined what went wrong in the high-profile murder investigation.
The revelation is part of a detailed report into the response to the murder, which has rocked the Army and sparked called for increased accountability. Among the findings are conclusions that Specialist Guillen was sexually harassed, but not by the soldier who the Army believes killed her, and that the suspected killer had also been accused of unrelated sexual harassment.
In both cases, the report concludes, leaders did not respond appropriately. In response, the Army announced on Friday, it has punished 21 soldiers and officers who failed to act.
“It was devastating to all of us,” Maj. Gen. Gene LeBoeuf said in a phone call with reporters. “We as an Army failed to protect Vanessa Guillén.”
Specialist Guillén, 20, was working at an armory at Fort Hood on April 22, 2020, when, according to a federal complaint, Specialist Aaron Robinson, 20, bludgeoned her with a hammer, removed her body from the post in a large cargo box, then dismembered and burned her remains. On Friday, Army leaders declined to discuss possible motives.
The family of Specialist Guillén said she had previously voiced concerns about sexual harassment at work, but never formally reported them. Army investigators said they found no evidence of sexual harassment.
Specialist Guillén was reported missing the next day. Thousands of soldiers searched for her in buildings, barracks, fields and training areas at Fort Hood. On June 30, her remains were found near the Leon River in Bell County, Texas.
Specialist Robinson was detained by the Army a short time later but escaped and a few hours later shot himself when confronted by the police. Authorities have charged his former girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, with helping to hide the body and impeding the investigation.
The Army report released Friday lays out for the first time the last hours of Specialist Robinson’s life and the missteps that allowed him to escape.
At about 5 p.m. on June 30, hours after workers discovered Specialist Guillén’s remains in a shallow grave capped by cement, an agent from Army Criminal Investigation Command called Specialist Robinson’s unit and told them to put the soldier under strict observation.
The soldier’s commander said he was being detained for violating Covid-19 quarantine rules, and placed him in a conference room with an unarmed soldier guarding the door. He appeared relaxed, the report said, but while he was upset that he was being detained, he spent much of his time playing video games.
Authorities let Specialist Robinson keep his cellphone, which they were monitoring.
After a few hours, commanders learned new information that made them concerned Specialist Robinson would try to flee, the report said. One officer said in a text chain that if he tried to escape, the guards needed to “tackle his ass and call the MPs.” The soldier guarding Specialist Robinson did not get the message, the report said.
Just after 10 p.m. Specialist Robinson received a phone call that appeared to be from his mother. “Don’t believe what you hear about me,” a guard heard him say. A few minutes after the call, Specialist Robinson fled out the door.
Three hours later, Army and civilian police found Specialist Robinson in the city of Killeen, just outside the gates of Fort Hood. When confronted, the soldier pulled out a gun and killed himself.
In the phone call Friday, Maj. Gen. LeBoeuf said he could not comment on Specialist Robinson’s escape, saying it was part of an ongoing criminal investigation. The Army report found that a breakdown in communication between the soldier’s unit and criminal investigation agents allowed him to escape.
The death of Specialist Guillén sparked an outpouring of anger and frustration that echoed the protests over the death of George Floyd and the #MeToo movement. Soldiers angry at what they say is a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment and assault in the military began posting their stories with the hashtag “#IAmVanessaGuillen.” Celebrities and politicians soon joined the cause.
The questions surrounding the soldier’s death have forced a reckoning in the Army over how the force responds to reports of harassment and violence.
In December, a sweeping investigation into the climate and culture at Fort Hood, where scores of soldiers have died by homicide and suicide in the past five years, found “major flaws” that left women “vulnerable and preyed upon, but fearful to report and be ostracized and re-victimized.”
The killing and the problems laid bare have prompted Congress to introduce sweeping reform bills aimed at the military justice system. One bill, named after Specialist Guillén, would make sexual harassment a crime in the military; another would remove commanders from the role of prosecuting sexual assault cases, instead putting them in the hands of independent military lawyers.
Congress is also mulling proposals that would overhaul the Army’s Criminal Investigative Command, giving it an independent civilian leadership and shifting duties from enlisted apprentice agents to more-experienced civilian investigators.