The man charged with the rape and murder of 13-year-old Hania Aguilar in Lumberton, North Carolina, could face the death penalty, prosecutors said Monday. They also charged Michael Ray McLellan in a separate rape case dating back to 2016, Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said in a press conference broadcast live on Facebook.
McLellan, 34, was already in law enforcement custody when prosecutors charged him in the Nov. 5 abduction, Britt said. Aguilar went missing when, police say, a man forced her into an idling vehicle as she waited for a ride to her school bus stop.
The FBI said Sunday that McLellan will face numerous charges in connection with the Aguilar case, including first-degree murder, first-degree forcible rape and first-degree kidnapping.
Britt said that in the course of investigating the Aguilar case, they also connected McLellan with a 2016 rape case. He faces additional charges of first-degree rape and first-degree burglary in that case.
Britt is in his last two weeks as Robeson County DA. He said it won’t be up to him as the new DA takes office, but, he added, “I would seek the death penalty in this case.”
District Attorney-elect Matthew Scott, who is currently an assistant district attorney and will take office next month, said he has not decided on whether or not he should ask for the death penalty in the Aguilar case.
Officials said Monday that McLellan would be appointed public defenders, including attorneys who specialized in defending suspects in death penalty cases.
A long criminal history
McLellan was released from prison in June and was still under post-release supervision, prison officials say. State records show he was convicted on felony breaking and entering and larceny of a motor vehicle charges in February and sentenced to serve 9 to 20 months in prison.
McLellan was given credit for time served and released in June and was supposed to report to a probation officer until March.
He was convicted in 2007 on assault with a deadly weapon charge and first-degree burglary. Records show McLellan was sentenced to prison for at least 10 years, up to 12 years and 9 months.
The Robeson County district attorney said McLellan will be transferred to Raleigh from the county jail in Lumberton “for safe keeping.”
Britt said McLellan will be held without bail on the charges of rape and murder in the Aguilar case. A judge set a $5 million bond on the 2016 rape and burglary charges.
New details on investigation
When prosecutors gave an update on the Aguilar case Monday, they revealed new details about how the case unfolded and defended the decision to not tell the public when the suspect was in custody.
The DA said DNA was essential in identifying McLellan as the suspect. Police found the SUV that Aguilar was taken in within a few days and, Britt said, “When the car was found and the car was processed, Mr. McLellan became a suspect.”
He said McLellan’s DNA was already in a registration system that requires anyone convicted of a felony to give a sample. The FBI was able to use evidence from the vehicle to connect McLellan to the crime, officials said.
Talk had simmered around Lumberton that the police had a suspect in custody, and law enforcement criticized people for sharing what they called “rumors.” But police did have McLellan in jail on unrelated charges and defended their decision not to name McLellan in the case until recent days.
Prosecutors charged McLellan and publicly named him on Saturday, the same day as the funeral for Aguilar.
Britt said his office had sufficient evidence to charge McLellan with the evidence from the car. “As time went on it became very apparent that she was dead,” Britt said, so it was important to find her body and collect more evidence of what happened.
He said the state DNA lab dropped everything they were working on to process evidence from the scene after law enforcement found Aguilar’s body Nov. 28.