The mother of Hania Aguilar learned Wednesday that “her daughter might be alive” if the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office had properly handled DNA evidence a year ago, the district attorney said.
Thirteen-year-old Hania was abducted from the front yard of her family’s Lumberton home Nov. 5 while waiting for a ride to school. About three weeks later, after an exhaustive search led by the FBI, investigators found her body in a swampy area roughly 10 miles away.
Michael Ray McLellan, 34, of nearby Fairmont has been charged with her rape and murder.
For at least a year, the sheriff’s office had DNA evidence connecting McLellan to a rape in 2016 but didn’t pursue the case further, said Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt. On Wednesday he explained the gap in the investigation to Hania’s mother, who speaks Spanish.
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“She was very tearful,” Britt said at a news conference in Lumberton. “Obviously there’s a language barrier. ... One of the things she asked about, have we closed the gap? Have we fixed what the problem is? We assured her that we are working on that.
“It was a difficult conversation to have — maybe the most difficult conversation I’ve had with a victim’s family,” Britt continued. “Had it been followed up on, her daughter might be alive.”
Sheriff Burnis Wilkins, elected in November and sworn in earlier this month, said his office will conduct an internal investigation. He noted that fingerprint evidence was sent to his office along with information about the DNA match.
“We’re not covering anything up,” Wilkins said. “If we find it, we’re going to fix it.”
Normally, he said, a package comes in with information on a disc. The disc related to the 2016 rape is now missing.
Wilkins said his office has already adjusted its procedure by having the chief of detectives deliver information to detectives and having it signed and documented.
“There’s definitely a breakdown,” Wilkins said.
State records paint a picture of McLellan’s criminal history in Robeson County, dating back to when he was a teen.
Once a student at Fairmont High School, 110 miles south of Raleigh, McLellan described himself as a landscaper on his Facebook page.
He first ran afoul of the law in 2000 at age 16, when he was convicted of misdemeanor assault on a child.
He caught his first serious charge in 2005: attempted murder stemming from a New Year’s Eve home invasion, The Robesonian newspaper reported at the time.
In that case, the newspaper said, McLellan wore a ski mask and burst into a 22-year-old woman’s home, shooting her twice in the torso. He served nine years in prison on felony assault charges and was released in February 2016.
Eight months later in October 2016, while Robeson County contended with the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, police believe McLellan removed an air conditioner and crawled through a window, sexually assaulting a woman at knifepoint after she fired a gun that did not go off.
He was not charged with the crime until this month after the DNA evidence from Hania’s case was processed. But the 2016 rape kit with the DNA link came in October 2017, Britt said.
McLellan was behind bars from February to June of this year on charges of felony breaking and entering and larceny from a motor vehicle, records show. At the time of his arrest in Hania’s rape and murder, he was already in custody on unrelated robbery and kidnapping charges stemming from an incident in Fairmont.
But McLellan remained on the streets for months after the 2016 rape.
Britt said there is no question the sheriff’s office received information his office sent about the DNA match, but “it just vanished.”
Normally, he said, the forensics match would prompt investigators to locate McLellan and take a new DNA sample to confirm the test.
Still, Britt made a public atonement for the law enforcement agency’s errors and said both he and his successor Matt Scott have worked to prevent a repeat.
“This hurts,” he said. “This is like taking a punch to the gut.”