The missing soldier from Fort Hood who was found dead this week claimed he was sexually abused by a male superior and was hazed and ‘humiliated’ at the Army base afterwards.
Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, had not been seen since August 17 and was reported missing on August 19.
He was found dead hanging from a tree in Temple, Texas, about 28 miles from the base, on Tuesday.
Temple Police are investigating his death and said foul play is not suspected.
Attorney Natalie Khawam says Fernandes reported in May that he was inappropriately touched by a male superior and was transferred to another unit, but word of his report spread and he was harassed, belittled, bullied and hazed.
‘They don’t know what happened – whether it was suicide or whether murder. But I’m gonna tell you, what they did to him, the blood on their hands, it’s a form of murder,’ Khawam said.
Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, who was found dead hanging from a tree on Tuesday, had been hazed and ‘humiliated’ by peers after he reported he was sexually assaulted by a male superior, his family’s lawyer says
‘They don’t know what happened – whether it was suicide or whether murder. But I’m gonna tell you, what they did to him, the blood on their hands, it’s a form of murder,’ his family’s lawyer Natalie Khawam said during a press conference Wednesday
‘He was humiliated, he was embarrassed, he couldn’t even tell his mom. He didn’t want to tell anyone. He was afraid. He was ashamed by this,’ Khawam said Wednesday.
Elder is the latest death in a disturbing string of at least 15 fatalities and disappearances at the embattled Fort Hood base in Killeen, Texas.
The base came under scrutiny following the April disappearance of 20-year-old soldier Vanessa Guillen, who vanished after telling her family she was being sexually harassed. Her dismembered body was discovered in July.
Army Criminal Investigations Division special agent Damon Phelps confirmed Wednesday Fernandes reported that someone had ‘reached out and touched his buttocks.’
Fort Hood public affairs officer Lt. Col. Chris Brautigam later confirmed Fernandes had reported sexual abuse before his disappearance and was transferred to another unit, ‘to ensure he received the proper care and ensure there were no opportunities for reprisals.’
In May he reported that a male superior inappropriately touched his buttocks. After the report he was transferred to another unit where he was hazed and bullied for his report, his family says
Fernandes was discharged from a hospital on August 17 and was dropped off at this address in Killeen, Texas, where family said he previously lived
Timeline of Fort Hood disappearances/deaths
February 1, 2020: PVT Eric Christopher Hogan and PFC Anthony Nevelle Peak Jr. die in a car crash
March 1, 2020: SPC Shelby Tyler Jones is shot dead at a convenience store in Killeen
March 5, 2020: Spc. Christopher Wayne Sawyer found dead at his home. Foul play is not suspected.
March 14, 2020: SPC Freddy Beningo Delacruz Jr. is killed in a triple murder
March 23, 2020: Fort Hood soldier Spc. Jovino Jamel Roy, 22, was charged with murder after allegedly shooting former Fort Hood soldier Michael Steven Wardrobe, 22
April 22, 2020: Vanessa Guillen goes missing and is last seen in the parking lot of the base. She disappeared after telling her family she was being sexually harassed by a sergeant on the base.
May 18, 2020: Body of Army Pfc. Brandon S. Rosecrans, 27, was discovered with gunshot wounds and his Jeep was found three miles away engulfed in flames.
June 19, 2020: Search teams discover the corpse of missing soldier Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales following a tip to Army base investigators. Remains were found in a field in Killeen, just over 10 miles from Stillhouse Hollow Lake, five miles from Fort Hood.
July 1, 2020: First parts of Giullen’s remains found about 20 miles east of Fort Hood.
Spc. Aaron Robinson, 20, kills himself. Officials say he killed and dismembered Guillén and had the remains disposed of.
July 17, 2020: Pvt. Mejhor Morta, 26, of Pensacola, Florida was found dead July 17 in the vicinity of Stillhouse Hollow Lake, around 15 miles from the Fort Hood base.
August 2, 2020: The body of Spc. Francisco Gilberto Hernandezvargas, 24, is recovered from Stillhouse Hollow Lake following boating incident not far from where Morta was found.
August 12, 2020: Spc. Cole Jakob Aton, 22, of Kentucky died after he was hit by a car as he was assisting a minor accident scene
August 13, 2020: National Guard soldier, Sgt Bradley Moore dies during a training exercise at the base
August 19, 2020: Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, is reported missing after he was last seen on August 17.
August 26, 2020: The body of Fernandes is believed to have been found about 30 miles from Fort Hood
The Army Criminal Investigation Command launched a probe into Fernandes’ claims and couldn’t corroborate Fernandes’ allegations.
Fernandes was made aware of the outcome, officials say.
‘The subject of the investigation took and passed a polygraph investigation, and we found no witnesses that could corroborate Sgt. Fernandes’ allegations,’ Special Agent Damon Phelps of the Army Criminal Investigation Command said.
‘There was a thorough legal review, and the allegations were unsubstantiated,’ he added.
Lt. Col Justin Redfern, the commander of the 553rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion said the command staff noticed behavioral changes in Fernandes in mid-March, before he brought forward allegations of unwanted touching. He didn’t elaborate on those changes.
Fernandes aunt Isabel told The Beaumont Enterprise Tuesday that her nephew was harassed in his new unit.
‘According to his friends, since that happened, they kept harassing him. The person he accused was following. They were hazing him, torturing him, making his life impossible,’ she said.
A survey of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine personnel in 2018 found about 20,500 instances of unwanted sexual contact, a 38 percent increase from 2016.
Among that group six percent of women in the military were subjected to sexual assault and one percent of the men were victimized.
Fernandes’ leaders at the base shared their ‘heartfelt sympathy’ for his family, friends and fellow soldiers on Wednesday.
‘The chain of command was very much invested in this trooper. It was a person that we felt was exemplary,’ Lt. Col. Justin Redfern said.
Fort Hood said it takes reports of sexual assault seriously.
‘We’re concerned about every soldier. That’s the bottom line. We are a team … We, as an organization, strive our best each and every day to make sure that we’re taking care of and being the best leaders that we possibly can for our soldiers,’ 1st Cavalry Division Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater said.
Fernandes was last seen on August 17 when Fort Hood leaders said Fernandes was dropped off at a residence of his former roommate in Killeen, Texas after a weeklong stay at the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center.
Isabel Fernandes said her nephew was hospitalized because he felt suicidal and he promised to call his mother when he was released.
Fernandes enlisted in the Army in 2016 and was deployed for three years in Germany. He returned in December and was sent to Fort Hood, originally for six months, but that stay was extended due to the pandemic.
Isabel says her nephew was happy in the Army and had just renewed his contract through 2024.
But she says his behavior changed culminating in his sexual assault report.
Fort Hood soldier, Pfc. Gregory Morales (left), was reported missing from the base a year ago on August 20, 2019. The 24-year-old’s remains were found on June 21 in a field in Killeen. Then on July 1, Army officials found human remains that were later identified as those of 20-year-old Pfc. Vanessa Guillén (right) – a Fort Hood soldier who had been missing since April
All soldiers were stationed at the Fort Hood Army base in Killeen, Texas
The base was thrust into the national spotlight with the disappearance of Vanessa Guillen. Her body was found days after the body of missing soldier Pfc. Gregory Morales, who went missing last August, was found in a field near the base in June.
In June Army Secretary Ryan McCarty announced announced an independent investigation will take place into the base.
Five civilian experts have already been sworn in for the investigation to assess command culture to ‘root out’ why there’s been such high cases of violence, deaths, and disappearances.
Those review results will be released in October.