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Missing Fort Hood soldier found dead hanging from tree

Sgt. Elder Fernandes. (Fort Hood, U.S. Army photo/Released)
August 26, 2020

The body of Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, a U.S. Army soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, who went missing last week, was found on Tuesday night.

UPDATE: Fort Hood officials gave a press conference Wednesday afternoon, confirming Fernandes had raised complaints about a sexual assault. Army Criminal Investigation Command Special Agent Damon Phelps said Fernandes reported someone had grabbed his buttocks, but that an investigation of the incident saw the subject of the accusation pass a polygraph test and found no witnesses that could corroborate Fernandes’ claim.

Lt. Col Justin Redfern, the battalion commander for Fernandes’ unit, said Fernandes was “exemplary” prior to the sexual assault incident but had shown a change of behavior dating back to mid-March, around the time of the reported sexual assault incident. Redfern said Fernandes could not be reached to report for duty on Aug. 10, but that he was later able to return for duty. Redfern said from Aug. 10 onward, base officials had been in regular contact with Fernandes’ family, up until he went missing.

Natalia Kwaham, the attorney for Fernandes’ family, confirmed the news of his death a statement on Twitter at around midnight. Fernandes’ family told The Boston Globe that Fernandes was found hanging from a tree. Police told CBS they do not suspect foul play in Fernandes’ death, but that an investigation is underway and an autopsy has been ordered.

Kwaham tweeted, “Our worst nightmare has happened. One of our own, Sergeant Elder Fernandes has been found dead today. We are sickened by this tragedy that has happened one too many times. We are heartbroken for Elder Fernandes’s family.”

Fernandes’ death comes amid a number of high-profile deaths and disappearances around the Fort Hood Army base. At least ten other Fort Hood soldiers have died at or near the base in 2020 and Fernandes’ case marks the eleventh 2020 death.

The Globe reported police received a call at around 5:40 p.m. Tuesday about a person walking around near a set of train tracks around 25 miles from Fort Hood. Responding police found Fernandes’ body hanging from a tree near the tracks.

Fernandes was a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Specialist assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade. The Globe reported Fernandes had raised concerns about sexual assault by a superior officer and had been reassigned to a new unit within his brigade for his safety. This information was news to Fernandes’ family members, who were not aware he had become suicidal.

The soldier’s mother, Ailina Fernandes, told the Globe that her son had been hospitalized since Aug. 11, but she didn’t know why. She said he had been cryptic leading up to his disappearance.

Kwaham also represented the family of another Fort Hood soldier, Spc. Vanessa Guillen, 20, who went missing from the base in April and whose remains were found in July. Her family said Guillen also suffered from sexual harassment on the base prior to her disappearance. Guillen’s family and Kwaham said Fort Hood officials officials lied to them about their handling of the disappearance case.

The Army recently began an independent panel to review the command climate and culture at Fort Hood and in the surrounding area around the base. The panel of five civilian investigators are reviewing whether that climate reflects the Army’s standards on safety, respect, inclusiveness, diversity, and freedom from sexual harassment. The review will also look at the base’s historical data on sexual assault prevention, sexual harassment and incidents involving missing soldiers.

Spc. Aaron David Robinson, 20, who was a suspect in Guillen’s disappearance killed himself as investigators came searching for him.

CNN reported Spc. Shelby Tyler Jones, 20, was shot and killed at a club in south Killeen, Texas on March 1 and Spc. Freddy Delacruz Jr., 23, was also shot and killed in an apparent triple homicide shooting on March 14.

CNN also reported Spc. Christopher Wayne Sawyer, 29, was found in his residence on March 5.

Another Fort Hood soldier, Pfc. Brandon Scott Rosecrans, 27, was found shot to death and his vehicle set on fire in May.

In June, authorities also found the body of Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales, 23, who had been missing since August of 2019.

Pvt. Mejhor Morta, 26, drowned at Stillhouse Hollow Lake in July and Spc. Francisco Gilberto Hernandezvargas also died in an accident at the same lake, near Fort Hood, in August.

National Guard Sgt. Bradley Moore, 36, died in a training accident on Aug. 11.