Military investigators searching for the body of U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén overlooked key 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 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 just steps from the Leon River.
Miller 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 Guillén's remains in the very spot military investigators overlooked.
Guillén's family has repeatedly criticized U.S. Army officials' investigation since she disappeared from Fort Hood, alleging officials failed to thoroughly search on and off post. U.S. Army officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding Miller's account of the search.
“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.”
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.
U.S. Army investigators believe Spc. Aaron David Robinson of Fort Hood used a Pelican case to tote Guillén's body off post after he killed her with a hammer in an armory room on April 22. Robinson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on July 1 after Killeen police confronted him in their investigation into Guillén's disappearance, authorities have said.
Miller said his team pleaded repeatedly with U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command officials, an organization more commonly known as CID, on June 21 before they would take a closer look at what his searchers had 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, adding that officials finally called in the Texas Rangers after the civilian searchers showed them photos of a Pelican case on Google.
Authorities dug directly under the burn pile, but did not find Guillén's body, Miller said. They did not search areas around the pile of burned evidence.
Miller said Army CID officials were uninterested in continuing to search near the pile because a cadaver dog, a canine 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, Miller said.
Instead, the dog walked to the Leon River bank and alerted its handlers that it smelled something there, he said.
“They relied on that one dog and instead of searching the area a little more, they were sure (Robinson) threw (Guillén) into the river,” Miller said.
Army officials have defended their search efforts, saying 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 Guillén's case — says she and Robinson attempted to dispose of Guillén's body in multiple ways, including burning it and covering it in cement. Eventually, they used a machete-type knife to dismember the body, and then buried it in several holes.
Miller said the ground in his opinion did not appear to be disturbed nor did he smell any odor. The EquuSearch leader said the smell was likely contained by concrete and other substances Robinson and Aguilar used underground to cover up the remains.
More than a week after the burn pile was first discovered, odor led civilians who were building a fence on a property near the burn pile to Guillén's remains.
Miller said the fence workers smelled the decomposing remains after animals had dug up three shallow graves less than 15 feet from the burn pile.
Authorities on Monday confirmed those remains were that of Guillén.
The soldier's family has for months complained that the military has bungled the investigation into Guillén's disappearance and death.
The family says Guillén 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 Guillén said during a press conference in mid-June.
Military officials have said their investigation has not produced any evidence of sexual harassment against Guillén in relation to her death.
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