Overlooked evidence in Hania Noelia Aguilar murder case leads to investigator’s firing
D-Keine/iStock(LUMBERTON, N.C.) — The sheriff’s office in North Carolina’s Robeson County fired an investigator following an internal probe into overlooked evidence that might have saved the life of 13-year-old Hania Noelia Aguilar, who was abducted, sexually assaulted and killed in November.
Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins, Jr. announced in a press release Thursday that he had terminated investigator Darryl McPhatter based on findings from the probe. McPhatter had previously been suspended after preliminary findings.
Major Anthony Thompson, who was also suspended, resigned from his post with the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 9. He served in law enforcement for more than 34 years, according to Wilkins.
“The dedicated men and women of the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office are proud public servants. My expectations of them are to serve the public with the utmost respect and to the best of their ability as trained law enforcement professionals,” the sheriff said in a statement Thursday.
Aguilar was kidnapped outside her family’s home in Lumberton just before dawn on Nov. 5. Three weeks later, her body was found in a lake some 10 miles away.
Michael Ray McLellan, 34, was arrested on Dec. 8 and faces 10 felonies relating to Aguilar’s killing: first-degree murder, first-degree forcible rape, statutory rape, first-degree sexual offense, statutory sexual offense, first-degree kidnapping, larceny, restraint, abduction of a child and concealment of death, according to a press release from the FBI.
The following week, Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt revealed that the sheriff’s office had DNA evidence linking McLellan as a possible suspect in a 2016 rape, but investigators never followed up.
An email including that information was sent to the sheriff’s office in 2017, copying the district attorney’s office, according to Britt.
At that point, Britt said that information should have given the sheriff’s office probable cause to seek a search warrant, obtain a DNA sample from McLellan and compare that sample to the 2016 rape kit.
“I don’t know what happened, if it got lost at the sheriff’s department, if it got buried on somebody’s desk, if it got placed in records division there and just vanished,” Britt told reporters on Dec. 12. “In all likelihood, had this gone forward and we established a case against him at that time, Hania would not have died. And for that, I can’t tell you how much that hurts, I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
The Thursday press release did not say McPhatter was fired in connection to Aguilar’s case. But the sheriff confirmed to ABC’s Durham station WTVD that McPhatter was being investigated in relation to overlooked DNA in a 2016 rape case that might have put Aguilar’s killer behind bars before he had a chance to harm her.
“It angers me and I’ve got to deal with it,” Wilkins told WTVD in a recent interview. “To know that that happened, to know the reports didn’t follow the proper channels, that further investigation wasn’t done, interviews weren’t done properly — I have a major issue with that.”
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