Police found the body of Sgt. Elder Fernandes hanging from a tree more than a week after he vanished

By Steve Helling
August 27, 2020 01:56 PM
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Sgt. Elder Fernandes
Fort Hood

A Fort Hood soldier who was missing for a week and later found hanging from a tree was the alleged victim in an ongoing sexual abuse investigation, but the Army says his claims were "unsubstantiated."

Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, was last seen by his staff sergeant on August 17, when a sergeant dropped him off at his residence.  His family reported him missing two days later when they were unable to get in contact with him. After a nearly weeklong search, a body believed to be Fernandes was found hanging from a tree near a railroad.

The Killeen Police Department says that there is no evidence of foul play.

Shortly after Fernandes disappeared, Lt. Col. Chris Brautigam, a 1st Cavalry Division public affairs officer, said in a statement to CNN that there was an "open investigation of abusive sexual contact" involving Fernandes, who was classified as a victim in the inquest.

Through their attorney, Fernandes' family allege that an assault did happen -- and it impacted Fernandes' mental well-being.

“He didn’t have any mental health issues when he joined the Army,” attorney Natalie Khawam said in a press conference, according to the Austin American-Statesman. “He reenlisted this year. He told his mom how happy he was to serve. Everything was great until he was sexually assaulted by his staff sergeant. He was upset and humiliated.”

"That information was then shared with his new unit, unfortunately, then the hazing and bullying continued," Khawam continued.

But in an interview with KCEN-TV, CID agent Damon Phelps said that the allegations were unfounded.

"I can tell you that Sgt. Fernandes did report that he was sexually assaulted when somebody allegedly grabbed his buttocks," Phelps said. "CID special agents fully investigated these allegations. Our investigation has been completed and is with the command and their legal team for further action if warranted."

"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' allegations," Phelps continued. "There was a thorough legal review and the allegations were unsubstantiated."

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Fernandes' death was the latest in several incidents tied to the base this year.

Earlier this month, Brandon Michael Olivares, 28, was accused of killing 27-year-old Pfc. Brandon Scott Rosecrans. Police said Olivares and Rosecrans were traveling together in Rosecrans’ Jeep Renegade before he was shot. His Jeep was later found engulfed in flames.

Olivares is being held on a $1 million bond and has pleaded not guilty.

In late June, the partial remains of missing 20-year-old Fort Hood soldier Pfc. Vanessa Guillen were discovered in a shallow grave near the Leon River in rural Bell County. Guillen’s suspected killer, Spc. Aaron David Robinson, 20, died by suicide as police closed in on him.

Robinson's girlfriend, Cecily Anne Aguilar, 22, is accused of helping Robinson dismember Guillen and dispose of her remains. She is charged with one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence and two substantive counts of tampering with evidence and has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Earlier in June, the remains of Pvt. 2nd Class Gregory Wedel-Morales, who had been missing for 10 months, were discovered in a field in Killeen. Police suspect foul play.