The family of a Fort Hood soldier found hanging from a tree demanded Congress investigate the base Wednesday, saying he had accused a superior of sexual assault before he went missing almost 10 days ago.
The death of the soldier, Sgt. Elder N. Fernandes, 23, which the First Cavalry Division confirmed on Wednesday afternoon, has brought renewed scrutiny of Fort Hood, a sprawling Army complex in Central Texas and the home base of several soldiers, including Specialist Vanessa Guillen, who have died this year. The police said that results of an autopsy were pending and that they had not officially ruled Fernandes’ death a suicide.
The body was found Tuesday about 30 miles from Fort Hood in a brush area near railroad tracks in Temple, Texas, on Tuesday. There was no sign of foul play, said Cody Weems, a spokesman for the Police Department, and the police said they believed the body belonged to the sergeant.
Fernandes was last seen Aug. 17 at a residence in Killeen, Texas, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command said in a statement. He did not report to work the next day.
Fernandes’ mother, Ailina Fernandes, said her son had recently been admitted to the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center for about a week and had been sending her regular updates. She last heard from him Aug. 16, when he promised to call the next day.
The family said they did not know why Fernandes was admitted to the medical center but believed it had to do with psychiatric reasons. They said that Fernandes had reported sexual assault by a superior and that he was retaliated against after having spoken out.
“We are both heartbroken and sickened by this tragedy,” Natalie Khawam, a lawyer for the family who also represented Guillen’s family, said in a statement. “Elder signed up to serve our country; he did not sign up to be sexually assaulted by his sergeant, and then bullied and hazed for reporting it.”
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Damon Phelps, a special agent with the U.S. Army CID, confirmed that Fernandes had reported that he had been sexually assaulted, but that an investigation had concluded that the allegation was “unsubstantiated.”
Fernandes reported that he had been grabbed by the buttocks, Agent Phelps said. But he said that the subject of the investigation had passed a polygraph test, and that no witnesses had been found who could corroborate Fernandes’ allegation.
Fernandes had been made aware of the investigation’s outcome, Agent Phelps said.
Fernandes moved to the United States from Cape Verde, an archipelago about 300 miles off the coast of West Africa, with his mother and siblings when he was 10, Khawam said. He grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, about 25 miles south of Boston, she said.
A chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist, Fernandes was transferred to a different unit within his brigade “to ensure he received the proper care and ensure there were no opportunities for reprisals,” Lt. Col. Christopher Brautigam, a spokesman for the First Cavalry Division, said Saturday.
The search for Fernandes gradually expanded over the past week, and officials said they scoured “the entire division area, to include motor pools, parking lots and headquarters.”
Investigators said Friday that they believed the sergeant “left Fort Hood on his own accord,” and two days later said that soldiers had visited hotels and hospitals in Central Texas as the search widened.