- In April 2020, US Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén was killed by another soldier.
- Guillén’s family filed a lawsuit against the Army on Friday, August 12, seeking $35 million in damages.
On April 22, 2020, Vanessa Guillén disappeared from the military base at Fort Hood, Texas. More than two months later on June 30, contractors found Guillén’s remains along the Leon River, 24 miles away.
The murder of Guillén, a US Army solder, drew nationwide attention. Guillén’s family alleged she was sexually harassed before she was killed, opening the floodgates for other servicewomen who came forward to share their own stories of sexual assault in the US military.
On Friday, Guillén’s family filed a lawsuit seeking $35 million in damages from the Department of the Army.
From October 2019 to April 2020, Guillén “suffered mental anguish, fear, emotional distress, physical injury, and death as a result of sexual harassment, rape, sodomy, and physical assault,” according to court filings.
When asked for comment, Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Hewitt, U.S. Army spokesperson told Insider, “As a matter of policy, the Army does not comment on ongoing litigation.”
The family’s lawsuit details how Guillén had been sexually harassed by higher-ranking soldiers, and how the Army initially failed to address her reports of sexual harassment.
“It’s the first lawsuit filed under this new 9th Circuit decision that will allow for other victims of sexual assault to not only find hope, but to also hold the DOD accountable for what’s become an epidemic in the military,” Natalie Khawam, the Guillén family’s lawyer, told Insider.
Guillén was allegedly sexually harassed by her superiors
Guillén joined the army in June 2018. A fresh high school graduate, she was eager to start her career with the US Army and “protect our nation and her family,” Guillén’s sister wrote in the claim.
But by January 2020, Guillén’s behavior had changed dramatically. She called her older sister in tears, telling her she wanted to commit suicide, though she didn’t explain why.
“My family couldn’t understand why Vanessa was not the cheerful young woman that we all knew,” her sister wrote.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that Guillén opened up about her life in the military. She told her mother she was being sexually harassed by “multiple higher ups in her chain of command,” according to court filings.
Several months before, a higher-ranking soldier “solicited” Guillén to “participate in a sexual act.”
Then, during a field training exercise in September 2019, when soldiers spent a weekend in various battle simulations, Guillén was harassed again. She was “conducting personal hygiene” when another “higher up” conducting the platoon’s nightly perimeter check allegedly trained the chemlight on her to watch her.
“Those encounters were not accidental whatso ever (sic), he was sexually harassing my sister,” the court filing stated.
Though Guillén was “upset and very disturbed” by the
incidents, she kept silent. She knew that speaking out wouldn’t be received well. But despite her attempts to keep her head down, Guillén suffered “major retaliation” after rumors regarding both incidents began to spread in the unit, the claim alleged.
Guillén pleaded with her mother not to interfere, fearing further retaliation from her superiors.
“Vanessa said she would handle the issues on her own and that she would be ok,” her sister said.
The suspect’s secret girlfriend was charged for Guillén’s murder
After around 10:30 a.m. on April 22, 2020, Guillén’s family could no longer contact her. Her sister called her staff sergeant, who told her he didn’t know where Guillén was. She had disappeared.
The family faced “two months of worry, fury, injustice, protesting, on foot searching, vague investigations on behalf of the army, and tears,” Guillén’s sister wrote in the filing.
On June 30, Guillén’s body was found along the Leon River in Belton, Texas.
“It was in body parts, burned, in cement… in three different graves,” her sister said. “Our biggest fear had become a reality.”
Guillén had been killed by another soldier, Aaron Robinson, according to a federal complaint filed by prosecutors. Robinson killed himself with a pistol when he was confronted by the police, a few days before the charge was announced.
Instead, Cecily Aguilar, Robinson’s girlfriend, was the single person charged for the murder of Guillén. Robinson told Aguilar that he repeatedly struck Guillén on the head with a hammer, killing her, and then hid her body in a large box. The couple tried to dismember and burn the remains, according to the Justice Department.
A now-sealed document filed by Aguilar’s lawyer on May 19 this year revealed the alleged motive behind Guillén’s murder, KCEN first reported.
Aguilar, who was having an affair with Robinson, told authorities that Robinson killed Guillén after she saw a photo of Aguilar on his phone, according to the document.
“Guillén saw Robinson’s cell phone lock screen, which contained a picture of Aguilar,” the document stated. “He told her he was worried about getting in trouble for violating the Army’s fraternization rules since Aguilar was still married to another soldier and he hit Guillén in the head with a hammer.”
It took months for the Army to admit to sexual harassment
Despite the revelations, the Army initially denied that there had been any sexual harassment involved, the Guillén family’s claim alleged.
But her family refused to give up. After two more investigations and months of perseverance, the Army issued a report that found that Guillén had reported that she was sexually harassed on at least two occasions. Her supervisor, however, had failed to escalate the report, leaving Guillén’s claims left in the dark.
Following the report’s release, 14 Army officials at Fort Hood were fired or suspended, including several high-ranking leaders. The investigation had found “major flaws” at Fort Hood and a command climate “that was permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said.
But the emotional and physical toll of Guillén’s murder had already been dealt on her family.
“Vanessa did not deserve to be sexually harassed, to be murdered, to be cut up into pieces, to be burned, to be buried into cement…to be taken away from life, from her family. We have a huge emptiness in our hearts ever since,” her sister wrote.
The lawsuit could pave the way for strengthened protections for service members and other victims of sexual assault, according to Khawam, the Guilléns’ lawyer.
“This is progressing our judicial system. We’re no longer hiding sexual harassment and sexual assault. We’re taking the bulls by the horns and saying enough is enough,” she said.