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Family: Soldier believed dead was happy until recently

Police in Texas say a body found near Fort Hood is likely that of a soldier missing since last week
Posted at 5:50 PM, Aug 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-26 23:40:22-04

AUSTIN, Texas (AP/WFTS) -- An aunt of a soldier whose body is believed to have been found about 30 miles from the Texas base where he was stationed says her nephew had been happy in the Army up until a few months ago, when he reported being sexually assaulted by a superior.

A body that authorities believe is that of Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, was found late Tuesday in Temple, according to local police. Fernandes was reported missing on Aug. 19 by Killeen and Army police. His identification was found with the body. Forensic confirmation of the identification is pending and an autopsy has been ordered.

Foul play is not suspected, police said, but the investigation is ongoing.

Fernandes' mother, Ailiana Fernandes, and aunt Isabel Fernandes spoke to the Associated Press late Monday, less than a day before the police announcement. His mother said she last heard from her son on August 16, the evening before he was set to be released from Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, where he was getting psychiatric care. He told her he would call the next day, but she never heard from him again, she said.

Fernandes is the third soldier from Fort Hood to go missing in the past year. The two others were found dead earlier this summer.

Isabel Fernandes, the soldier’s aunt, said the family has not been told the reason for his stay in the psychiatric wing at the Army medical facility or whether it was voluntary. She said the family has not seen his medical records due to privacy protections.

Natalie Khawam, who is representing the Fernandes family, said Army police told family members about the discovery late Tuesday night. She said the body was found hanging in a tree.

“I am saddened that another soldier who served the country has been destroyed by sexual assault and sexual harassment and this toxic culture in the military that exists,” said Khawam, who is also representing the family of Vanessa Guillen, another Fort Hood soldier who went missing and who was found dead.

Fort Hood officials had a news conference Tuesday evening.

"From about mid-March, we noticed a change in his behavior. And the change in behavior preceded the unwanted touching. Proceeded some of the other indicators that we saw," said Lt. Col Justin Redfern.

"We take every sexual assault seriously. They are not investigated by us they are investigated by an outside organization CID in order to do that and then once those facts are brought out then we deal with each and every one of those that occurred accordingly so that justice is served," said Major General Jeffery Broadwater.

"I can also share that the subject of the investigation took and passed a polygraph examination and we found no witnesses that could corroborate Sgt. Fernandes' allegation. There was a thorough legal review and the allegations were unsubstantiated," said Special Agent Damon Phelps.

Elder Fernandes enlisted in the Army in 2016, according to his mom, who lives in Massachusetts. After a three-year deployment in Germany, he returned in December and was sent to Fort Hood, originally for six months. But when the coronavirus pandemic stalled travel across the globe, his stay became extended, she said.

Isabel Fernandes said her nephew was happy in the Army and had just renewed his contract until 2024. But she said things changed when, according to the accounts they have gathered from multiple people close to Elder Fernandes, he filed a sexual-assault claim against a superior on May 11. She said the family has also learned he was bullied, harassed and hazed when he was moved to a new unit following the assault.

U.S. Army officials confirmed in a statement that Elder Fernandes reported an incident of “abusive sexual contact” and that investigation is ongoing. He was transferred to a different unit within the brigade and officials said they are unaware of reports of bullying or hazing.

According to Isabel Fernandes, the family was told by Army officials that a different superior signed her nephew's hospital release. The superior dropped him off outside of a house belonging to a former roommate of Elder Fernandes.

But Fernandes never made it to the friend's door.

Ailiana Fernandes remembered her son, one of five kids, as a joyful person who preferred playing with his siblings to going out with friends.

“He would lay on the floor with my 8-month-old son teaching him how to do push-ups and teaching them Army skills,” she said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Khawam gathered with Guillen's sisters in downtown Tampa.

"Fernandes is an example that this not only happens to women but to men. He’s an example that if you speak up. If you report it. Look what happens to you," said Guillen's sister, Lupe Guillen.

"Enough is enough. It’s time for accountability. It’s time for changes. It’s time for reform and we ask everybody to be part of this movement," she said.

They demanded a Congressional investigation and the #IAmVanessGuillenBill.

"It will provide the victim a right to be heard an independent investigation, not conflicted, not biased," Khawam said.

Khawam said she's been in touch with Senators about the bill.