A Texas woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison on Monday for her role in trying to cover up the killing of Vanessa Guillén, a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, now called Fort Cavazos, whose murder in 2020 drew widespread attention to sexual assault in the military and inspired changes in federal law.
The woman, Cecily Aguilar, was the only person charged in the death of Ms. Guillén. In November, Ms. Aguilar pleaded guilty to one count of accessory to murder after the fact and three counts of making a false statement at a federal court in Waco, Texas, where her sentencing hearing was held on Monday.
Specialist Guillén, 20, disappeared on April 22, 2020, at Fort Hood, the third-largest U.S. Army base, after telling friends that she had been sexually harassed, though officials said she had not made any formal complaints. Months later, on June 30, her remains were found dismembered and burned.
Specialist Guillén’s family has alleged that she was sexually harassed before she was killed, drawing outrage from many and calls from activists for systematic changes in how the military handles reports of sexual harassment and assault.
In December 2020, the Army disciplined more than a dozen officials after an investigation found “major flaws” in the climate and the culture of Fort Hood. A federal law named for Specialist Guillén took effect on Jan. 1, 2022, requiring that sexual harassment complaints involving service members be sent to an independent investigator. The decision to prosecute sexual assault and sexual harassment will be made outside of the commanders of service members, who will be offered protection against retaliation.
Investigators who searched Specialist Guillén’s phone found that the last person she texted was another soldier, Specialist Aaron Robinson. Prosecutors said in court documents that she was killed by Specialist Robinson, who struck her head with a hammer and hid her body in a large box.
In charging documents, Justice Department officials said that Specialist Robinson’s girlfriend, Ms. Aguilar, a civilian, had been told about the killing and that the couple had tried to conceal it.
“According to court documents, Cecily Aguilar, 25, assisted Army Specialist Aaron Robinson in corruptly altering, destroying, mutilating and concealing evidence — that is, the body of Vanessa Guillén — in order to prevent Robinson from being charged with and prosecuted for any crime,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas said in a statement on Monday.
During the investigation into the disappearance of Specialist Guillén, Ms. Aguilar made four false statements to federal investigators, the attorney’s office said, and she altered and destroyed information contained in a Google account belonging to Specialist Robinson.
Ms. Aguilar later confessed to playing a role in the disposal of Specialist Guillén’s body, prosecutors said in court documents, including that she helped Specialist Robinson dismember the body with an ax or a hatchet and a machete-style knife before they buried the remains near the Leon River.
Natalie Khawam, the Guilléns’ lawyer, said that “gruesome” and “troubling” details of how Ms. Aguilar had disposed of Specialist Guillén’s body were revealed at the hearing on Monday.
Ms. Khawam said that forensic experts testified that it was rare “that somebody crushes bones the way that they did” and that “the amount of work that went into destroying her body and the evidence” was not something they had seen before.
“Our hope is that today’s sentence brings a sense of relief and justice to the Guillén family, who have endured such pain throughout these past few years,” Jaime Esparza, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said in the statement. “Ms. Aguilar’s actions were indefensible, and she will now face the maximum penalty for the choices she made.”
Mayra Guillén, Specialist Guillén’s older sister, marked Ms. Aguilar’s sentencing on social media, writing to her sister: “You received justice today.”
“Now there’s closure to the criminal aspect of this case,” Ms. Khawam said.