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Could Hania’s murder have been prevented? 2016 evidence ‘fell through the cracks.’

Robeson County DA discusses charges against suspect in death of 13-year-old Hania Aguilar

Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt discusses first court appearance, arrest of Michael Ray McLellan, accused in death of Hania Aguilar.
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Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt discusses first court appearance, arrest of Michael Ray McLellan, accused in death of Hania Aguilar.

Investigators had DNA evidence linking Michael Ray McLellan to a 2016 rape a year before charging him in the murder of 13-year-old Hania Aguilar, but the sheriff’s office did not follow up, the county district attorney said Tuesday.

McLellan, 34, is charged with raping and murdering Hania, who went missing in November when a man forced her into an idling vehicle outside her Lumberton home as she waited to go to school.

Using a federal database in 2017, the North Carolina state crime lab discovered that a 2016 rape kit sent from Robeson County matched McLellan’s DNA, which was already in the system due to an earlier felony conviction, Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said.

Those results were sent to the district attorney’s office, then forwarded on a disc to the sheriff’s office, according to Britt. Normally, he said, that “hit” would prompt investigators to locate McLellan and take a new DNA sample to confirm the test.

“At some point, it obviously fell through the cracks,” Britt said. “You hate it. You punch yourself.”

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This Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, photo provided by FBI shows Hania Noelia Aguilar, the day before she went missing in Lumberton, N.C. AP

Newly elected Sheriff Burnis Wilkins could not be reached at his office Tuesday evening. Sheriff Kenneth Sealey, who served six decades in Robeson County law enforcement before retiring this fall, could not be reached at home.

Investigators in Robeson County on Monday cited DNA as essential in leading to an arrest in Hania’s death. They quickly discovered the abandoned SUV the kidnapper used to take the teen, and the FBI linked forensic samples to McLellan.

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Celsa Maribel Hernandez Velasquez , mother of Hania Aguilar, stares at Michael Ray McLellan, 34, during his first appearance for the kidnapping and murder of Hania Aguilar on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, in Lumberton, N.C. Andrew Craft AP

The discovery of evidence in the Aguilar case led to the earlier DNA match in the database, triggering charges in the 2016 rape, Britt said.

In the 2016 rape, Britt said, a man removed an air-conditioner and crawled through a window, assaulting a woman at knifepoint after she tried to defend herself with a gun that did not fire.

Robeson County has a long history with crimes that draw national attention, from the 1993 murder of NBA star Michael Jordan’s father to the 1988 hostage standoff at the Robesonian newspaper, in which a pair of men tried to highlight what they believed to be public corruption.

In 2006, 16 deputies there were charged on drug, kidnapping and other felony charges as part of Operation Tarnished Badge. In a recent interview in the Robesonian, Sealey said that probe hurt him and his family though he was never personally investigated.

In 2013, Robesonian editor Donnie Douglas told The News & Observer violent crime remains extremely high: “There are a lot of poor, uneducated people here,” he said. “A lot of guns, a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol and a culture that says, ‘This is how we solve problems.’”

Britt, who is also leaving office after a long career as a Robeson prosecutor, said his office has talked with incoming Sheriff Wilkins about how to plug similar investigative holes. He said the staffer who handled the evidence in his office is “very detail-oriented” as a retired police investigator, but he doesn’t know what happened on the sheriff’s office end.

Whether more action on the 2016 rape case might have prevented Aguilar’s death, Britt said, “That is something we have talked about.”

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.

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