Vanessa Guillen’s family has been informed that she is dead after the Army identified human remains discovered last week as the missing soldier, her family lawyer said Sunday. Guillen’s case sparked national attention after she was allegedly murdered by a fellow soldier at Fort Hood in Texas in April, then dismembered and her remains dumped. Guillen’s family said the 20-year-old Army Specialist was killed after threatening to report a soldier for sexual harassment.
Guillen family attorney Natalie Khawam told CNN Sunday that Guillen’s face was so badly mangled that investigators could not identify her by dental records. Instead, her remains were sent to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for identification.
Khawam said Army officials, accompanied by an Army chaplain, met with Guillen’s family on Sunday to inform them that Guillen was dead.
“As we speak, they are in prayer at the house,” she said. “The Army is about to leave the house from this visit they had. It’s just been a very sad, mourning weekend for us.”
Authorities say Army Specialist Aaron Robinson, 20, bludgeoned Guillen to death with a hammer inside an armory room on Fort Hood. Guillen was last seen on April 22. A second suspect, Cecily Aguilar, 22, was charged on July 2 with one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence.
According to a criminal complaint, Aguilar was Robinson’s girlfriend, and on April 22 he called her to say he struck a female soldier in the head with a hammer multiple times, killing her, on Fort Hood.
According to a federal criminal complaint, Aguilar identified Robinson as the man who killed Guillen. Robinson fled Fort Hood on June 30, and the complaint says he killed himself that evening after being confronted by police.
On June 30, Fort Hood officials announced that partial human remains were found close to Leon River in Bell County, Texas. After the discovery, Vanessa Guillen’s sister, Mayra Guillen told TIME, “I feel empty… I feel like they took everything from me.”
Guillen’s disappearance sparked protests and her family said she was sexually harassed before she went missing. An investigation is currently underway to determine whether she was sexually harassed.
There have been calls for Congressional investigations and a social media campaign has been launched encouraging women in the military to share their stories of harassment and assault with the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen. On July 2, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Jackie Speier called for an investigation by the Department of Defense Inspector General.
“I want my daughter back alive. I want her alive because she entered [Fort Hood] alive,” Gloria Guillen, Vanessa Guillen’s mother, said in Spanish at an emotional press conference outside of the base on June 23. “And if, God forbid, by daughter turns up dead, shut down this base…That girl is my life, I adore her, that’s why I am fighting with nails and teeth until they return her and the guilty pay.”
What has the investigation uncovered so far?
Three weeks before her disappearance, Vanessa Guillen told her mother that she was being sexually harassed and followed by an Army sergeant, but was afraid to report him, according to the Guillen family who made a website to coordinate their search. Guillen did not disclose the name of the alleged perpetrator to her mother who suggested she would report the man on her daughter’s behalf.
On July 1, Fort Hood officials announced that the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) and other law enforcement were attempting to locate a junior soldier from Fort Hood who fled the post late on June 30. “While law enforcement agencies, minus Army CID Special Agents, attempted to make contact with the suspect, the suspect reportedly displayed a weapon and took his own life,” Fort Hood said in a public statement. The incident took place in Killeen, Texas, where Fort Hood is located.
On July 2, Robinson was identified as the soldier in question. A criminal complaint notes that both Robinson and Aguilar had previously been questioned by the CID, but at first denied being involved with Guillen’s disappearance.
Guillen’s phone records found that her last outgoing text message was to Robinson’s phone, according to the complaint. She had been working that day to confirm serial numbers for weapons and equipment.
According to the criminal complaint, two witnesses interviewed on May 18 told CID that they saw Robinson on April 22 “pulling a large ‘tough box,’ with wheels, that appeared very heavy in weight, coming out the arms room” where he worked. They saw him load the box into his vehicle and drive away.
Analysis of phone records and location data place Robinson near Leon River, where human remains were found on June 30, for approximately two hours in the early morning of April 23. Aguilar’s cell phone location data was also analyzed and revealed she and Robinson were together near Leon River on April 23 and April 26, the complaint states.
On June 21, CID, the Bell County Sheriff’s Office and Texas Rangers identified a burn site and disturbed earth near Leon River, but did not find remains that day. Later, on June 30, contractors working near the river discovered body parts.
“Aguilar advised the female soldier never made it out of the Army alive,” the complaint states.
Aguilar faces 20 years in federal prison and a maximum $250,000 fine, and a hearing is expected to take place early next week.
Guillen was last seen on April 22 in the parking lot of her Regimental Engineer Squadron Headquarters, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, at the Fort Hood military base wearing a black shirt and purple fitness pants, according to a public statement by Fort Hood. Her ID, car key, room key and wallet were all found in the army barrack where she had been working earlier in the day.
On June 18, 3rd Cavalry Regiment Commander Col. Ralph Overland announced the start of an investigation into claims that Guillen was sexually harassed before she disappeared.
The body of Gregory Morales, another soldier who went missing in 2019, was discovered on June 19 in Killeen. Foul play is also suspected at this point in the investigation of Morales’s death, Fort Hood officials said in a public statement, but there is no credible information linking his death to Guillen’s disappearance. Officials are also offering a $25,000 reward for information on Morales’s case.
Who is Vanessa Guillen?
Vanessa Guillen enlisted shortly after she graduated high school and had expressed interest in joining the military when she was as young as 10, said her mother, Gloria Guillen, at a press conference in June. “I cried a lot because I didn’t want her to enlist,” Gloria Guillen said. “Because in my mother’s heart, I already feared that I would suffer. She enlisted for her country, to defend us, and now that she needs us we need to support her and look for her and catch that miserable person—who knows who he is of all of them.”
Guillen is from Houston, a three-hour drive south east of Fort Hood, where she relocated after first being stationed in Virginia, according to Houston KPRC 2. She is one of six children in her family.
Mayra Guillen, Vanessa’s sister, told KPRC that before her disappearance she had been talking about plans for her life. “She was talking about college. She was talking about getting married. She was talking about my parent’s wedding,” Mayra Guillen said.
Khawam told CNN on July 5 that the Guillen family is devoutly Catholic and that a priest was present when family members were informed that Guillen’s remains had been identified.
Women in the military have shared their stories of sexual harassment and assault while on duty as part of a social media campaign started by Lupe Guillen, Vanessa’s older sister.
“[Vanessa] was supposed to be safe while working and protecting the country we live in,” Lupe Guillen told reporters at a June 23 press conference. “No woman should be seen as a sexual object…they’re just like my sister, they just want to fight for us.”
Now the family is calling on Congress to pass a bill in Vanessa Guillen’s name that would change the way sexual harassment and assault is reported in the military.
What Vanessa experienced “was not an isolated incident,” Khawam, the Guillen family attorney, tells TIME. “They are brave soldiers protecting us, and especially now, we need legislation.”
Sexual assault in the military has long been an issue. A annual report by the Pentagon revealed that in fiscal year 2019 the Army received 5.5 reports of sexual assault per every 1,000 soldiers, a rate that did not change from the previous year, and doesn’t account for those who choose not to report their assaults. The study also notes that the prevalence of sexual assault is high and has increased since 2016. “This increase is very troubling and shows that the Army’s sexual assault prevention strategies have not achieved their intended results,” the report says.
What has long been under scrutiny is the reporting process for service members who experience sexual assault and harassment. At present, the reporting system is designed so that service members report to an internal entity or their superiors — in the case of the Army it’s the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention, known as SHARP, which the family believes is ineffective.
“We need a neutral agency,” to oversee claims of sexual harassment and assault, Khawam says, “one with no stake in the game.”
“I joined the Navy at 19. On my very first deployment, new girl, fresh meat. My entire deployment I was catcalled, and called names,” wrote Crystal De Los Rios in a Facebook post as part of the #IAmVanessaGuillen campaign. “When verbal turned to physical (I won’t get to into it) I reported it to the chaplain…At that moment is when I understood why the victims before me didn’t go through with their report…they were all talked down from it. I went through with mine and they all got a slap on the wrist. One even made chief. I am still fighting this to this day.”
“There are way too many stories like this where abusers are being protected, reports are not being taken seriously and nothing is being done,” De Los Rios adds. “I believe in Vanessa, and know how it feels to not be believed. I will continue spreading her name until she is found and justice is served.”
Nathalie Ocampo Meda, a member of the Marines, shared that she was sexually harassed and threatened on multiple occasions. “I still live with anxiety and depression every day. I hide my feelings partly because I believe that nobody will believe me,” she wrote on Facebook. “It’s devastating to know that I am not alone. Sadly we are all Vanessa Guillen.”
Khawam, is also collecting testimony from women in the military who wish to share their stories of sexual assault and harassment. Khawam plans to present women’s testimony to Congress to encourage legislation while the family visits Washington D.C. this week.
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.