North Carolina

A wanted man remained free. A girl was murdered. How the system failed Hania Aguilar.

As the sun came up on a warm November day, Hania Aguilar stood by an idling SUV outside her family’s Lumberton mobile home, wearing blue jeans and a flowered shirt, waiting for a ride to junior high.

Not far away, her neighbors spotted a man in black clothing walking past their trailers. One woman on her way to work felt frightened as the man passed, and she pretended to talk on her phone. Two other neighbors in the mobile home park reported the stranger wearing a mask, coming onto their porch and trying to break in.

At around 7 a.m., Hania’s cousin Kimberly looked out the window of her trailer and saw a man in dark clothing and a yellow bandanna grab 13-year-old Hania from the yard, stuff her into her family’s idling Ford Expedition and drive away as she screamed.

Read this story in Spanish. Lee esto en español.

Twenty-two days later, investigators found the eighth-grader’s body in a Robeson County swamp 11 miles away. She had been raped and most likely asphyxiated.

The crimes launched a massive manhunt led by the FBI, sending hundreds of investigators after a killer dressed in black. On Dec. 8, they charged Michael McLellan, a 34-year-old ex-convict from nearby Fairmont.

But as she mourns her daughter’s killing, Hania’s mother Celsa Hernandez is forced to consider a harsher truth: It might have been prevented.

“If this man did crimes before, I don’t see the reason why he’s free,” Celsa Hernandez told a News & Observer reporter in Spanish. “I don’t understand.”

On the evening of Nov. 27, 2018, investigators found Hania Aguilar’s body submerged in water under a plastic table in a swampy area off of Wire Grass Road in Orrum, NC, about 11 miles from Rosewood Mobile Home Park where she lived. Julia Wall

Three separate law enforcement agencies had the power to arrest and detain McLellan for crimes committed weeks before Hania’s abduction. Had they followed up, he could have been behind bars on Nov. 5 rather than walking to Hania’s yard in the Rosewood Mobile Home Park.

In September 2017, more than a year before Hania’s abduction, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office received evidence from the state crime lab connecting McLellan’s DNA to a 2016 rape case. No one acted on that evidence until December 2018, after Hania had been found dead.

On Oct. 16, three weeks before Hania’s kidnapping, police in the neighboring town of Fairmont put out a warrant for McLellan’s arrest, accusing him of attempted robbery and second-degree kidnapping in a carjacking gone wrong. That warrant went unserved until Nov. 13, eight days after Hania disappeared.

And on Oct. 17, the state’s Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission issued a second warrant for McLellan’s arrest, noting he had violated the terms of his recent release from prison. Nothing happened until Nov. 13, while pleas from Hania’s mother grew increasingly desperate.

The failure to arrest McLellan prior to the slaying of a 13-year-old represents a breakdown in the criminal justice system that few working within it are willing to explain or discuss.

Former Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said Hania “might be alive” had deputies acted on the DNA evidence. Sheriff Burnis Wilkins, who moved into his job days after Hania’s body was found, said “it angers me, and I’ve got to deal with it.”

But Wilkins has declined interviews with The News & Observer, referring questions to his head of major crimes, who promised a statement but has not yet produced any information.

Fairmont Police Chief Jon Edwards did not return multiple calls from The N&O since December, when he described the details of the attempted carjacking but not McLellan’s outstanding warrant.

When The N&O asked about the pair of unserved warrants, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety said parole officers were “cooperating with the local police department,” citing a statute that keeps parolee information confidential. The state expected Fairmont police to serve their warrant and believed they were actively searching for him.

A spokesman for N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said in an email to The N&O, “This is a tragic case and it’s in the best interest of public safety for all law enforcement agencies involved to review it carefully and apply any lessons that can be learned from it.”

A spokeswoman for N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein said, “Hania Aguilar’s death was a tragedy. We should all be doing everything we can to make sure this never happens again.”

Wayne Horne, city manager in Lumberton, said Hania’s death strikes deep. It is frightening for parents, he said, because the girl was taken in such random fashion.

Hania’s case also may illustrate what happens in a rural town where law enforcement is overwhelmed with violence. Horne said each police detective can work on 300 cases a year.

“One of the biggest things is there’s so much on Robeson County’s books,” said Lumberton Mayor Bruce Davis. “It’s a hard thing to put blame anywhere.”

‘They act like it’s nothing’

Robeson County bears little resemblance to Raleigh, and few outsiders pass through except on Interstate 95, counting the miles to Florida.

With a population of roughly 132,000, the county is home to fewer people than Cary. No other North Carolina county shares its ethnic makeup: 31 percent white, 23 percent black, 41 percent American Indian, most of whom identify as Lumbee, a tribe with no federal recognition.

Nearly a third of the population lives in poverty, triple the number in Wake County.

By every measure, it is poor and dangerous. When Robeson County makes headlines, the topic is usually violent crime. Since 2014, Robeson’s crime rate has ranked highest among North Carolina’s 100 counties: 5,874 crimes per 100,000 people. NBA great Michael Jordan’s father was famously murdered there in 1993.

A purple ballon tied to a stop sign in honor of Hania Aguilar floats in the wind outside the Rosewood Mobile Home Park where she lived on March 29, 2019, eight days after she would have had her 14th birthday. Julia Wall

The Rosewood Mobile Home Park where Hania’s family lived sits off busy Elizabethtown Road, where a rutted dirt road leads back to trailers with their aluminum skirting ripped out and plywood or plastic over the windows.

In McLellan’s hometown of Fairmont, population 2,678, the downtown streets are nearly empty on a weekday morning. The pharmacy sits shuttered along with many other vacant storefronts with padlocked doors and missing windows.

Around downtown Lumberton, residents pause to recall the story of Hania’s abduction, the memory no longer fresh.

Many have more recent horrors to process. Just this week, The Robesonian newspaper published a story about a couple there charged with stabbing their 55-year-old neighbor to death.

Kimberly Norton had trouble recollecting Hania’s case as she smoked a cigarette across from the courthouse. But she quickly noted that her sister Rita Maynor died last year in Pembroke — her decomposed body discovered after several days. An autopsy blamed her death on natural causes, but Norton said her sister’s death drew little interest from investigators.

“It’s sad,” she said. “They act like it’s nothing. Don’t get me wrong. I know people smoke some drugs. My sister smoked drugs. But they act like it’s all right for them to be killed.”

Celsa Hernandez settled into this environment 14 years ago, moving her three children to the Rosewood Mobile Home Park from Alabama and bonding with other Latino families who predominate the neighborhood.

She was protective of Hania. At 13, the eighth-grader wasn’t allowed to have a phone or post on social media, and she wasn’t allowed to hang around with boys.

Hania liked science. She played the viola. Her favorite color was purple. Once, her mother recalled, Hania decided to shave her dog Pedro, watching him run around “ashamed and bald.”

“She was a good little girl,” said Silvia Lujan, former manager at Rosewood. “She was happy. She loved school. She loved her sister. I know she definitely loved her mama.”

In Hania’s eighth-grade class, her iPad goes unused and her chair sits empty. The other students won’t let anyone else touch them.

Trouble with women

Less is known about McLellan, who lived in nearby Fairmont — a smaller and, on average, poorer town than Lumberton with a median household income of just $17,194.

Mitchell Addison ran in the same circles with McLellan, and he described his childhood acquaintance as lacking any positive influence growing up. McLellan left high school after the 11th grade, court records show, and Addison described him as unintelligent.

“It’s a small town,” Addison said. “Everybody knows everybody. Growing up, he didn’t have nobody to look up to, nobody to get your back.”

But Addison believes law enforcement could have kept a closer watch on his childhood acquaintance: “He should have been off the streets.”

By the time McLellan turned 16, court records show, he had already developed a violent record, convicted in 2000 of assaulting a child under 12. Four years later, he picked up the same charge.


Why we published this story in Spanish

The story of Hania Aguilar’s kidnapping and murder resonated in Spanish-speaking communities in North Carolina, around the country and around the world. Hania’s mother does not speak English, and we wanted to ensure that family and friends of the Aguilar family had access to our reporting. We worked with a translation company and with News & Observer reporter Simone Jasper, who is fluent in Spanish, to produce a Spanish-language version of this story. It is hosted on the Miami Herald site for technical reasons. The Miami Herald and The News & Observer are McClatchy-owned news organizations.

This criminal history squares with Addison’s memory, who said McLellan was prone to hang around and pick on younger kids. Lujan recalled him hanging around the Rosewood trailer park, where he showed a disrespect for both women and authority.

“I know from experience he didn’t like being told by a woman what to do,” she said. “He would treat women like they were nothing.”

Then in 2005, McLellan found more trouble. Fairmont police charged him with breaking into an apartment on New Year’s Eve, shooting Teena Marie Lewis three times and striking her 3-year-old daughter, Brianna.

“It’s not very clear why he went in to assault Miss Teena Lewis,” then-Fairmont Police Chief Robert Hassell told The Robesonian after McLellan’s arrest. “He had been drinking very heavily earlier that night.”

Lewis survived the shooting, and McLellan pleaded guilty to a pair of felonies that sent him to prison for a minimum of 10 years. Released in 2016, a decade after the crime, McLellan found more trouble and nothing like a stable life.

By the time he got out of prison, McLellan had a pair of teardrops tattooed under his right eye. On his Facebook page, he described himself as a landscape architect, though court documents describe him sleeping inside broken-down cars in Lumberton, bouncing between addresses.

His issues with women continued.

“Hello my beautiful Queens,” he posted on Facebook in 2016. ”I am just looking for the woman of my dreams. But the women now are so (expletive) and trying to play games with people’s feelings.”

2016 rape

On Oct. 16, 2016, sheriff’s deputies in Robeson County got a call for a reported rape on Resa Loop Drive, a street where McLellan was known to have lived, court records show.

The woman who lived there told deputies someone had removed her window-unit air-conditioner while she was sleeping, climbed inside and raped her at knifepoint, asking throughout the act if she recognized him.

The victim underwent a sexual assault exam, and the sheriff’s office submitted rape-kit evidence to the state crime lab in January 2017. Technicians uploaded the evidence to CODIS, a national database maintained by the FBI, and found a match to McLellan, whose DNA was in the system because of a previous felony.

Results were returned to Robeson County deputies nine months later, an average turnaround for that year.

But they sat untouched for another year. Sheriff’s deputies did not act on the match or seek a search warrant for new DNA for McLellan as guidelines dictate.

“You see a preventable crime like this and it’s hard to find a word even,” said Ilse Knecht, policy and advocacy director for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit group working to fight sexual violence. “It’s devastating. They don’t stop until they’re stopped. We have the science and technology to stop them. It’s an absolute tragedy.”

Two warrants, one day apart

One year out of prison for the shooting, McLellan was back behind bars.

Lumberton police got a call from Rock Star Auto Sales in July 2017, where the owner Gerome Davis reported a red Mazda 6 had been stolen.

A day later, court records show, Davis spotted the stolen Mazda and followed it until the driver jumped out and ran. Police caught McLellan with the car’s key ring and charged him with breaking and entering and larceny of a motor vehicle.

McLellan spent 217 days in jail waiting for trial in Robeson County, so by the time of his conviction, he had already served much of his 11-month sentence.

Records show that, as part of his post-release supervision — North Carolina’s version of parole — he was to keep a clean, drug-free record; meet with his parole/probation officer; and make monthly payments of $40.

That fall, records show, he spoke out loud about “doing some licks,” a slang term for committing robberies. Those records show he had three targets in mind, the last of which was a mobile home park near the Lumberton Kia dealership, where he believed the Hispanic residents had drugs and cash. Rosewood Mobile Home Park sits next to a closed-down Kia dealership.

Then in October, a woman was sitting in her car outside her Fairmont home when a masked man got in, pointed a gun and demanded money and the vehicle, Edwards, the police chief, said in December.

“She actually recognized his voice,” Edwards said, so the assailant took off his mask to “make small talk.” He insisted on money, but when the woman said she had only $6, the robber took the $1 bill and left her the five.

Michael Ray McLellan, 34, sits in court for his first appearance on charges of the kidnapping and murder of 13-year-old Hania Noelia Aguilar on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, in Lumberton, N.C. Andrew Craft The Fayetteville Observer

Arrest warrants named McLellan as the suspect, charging him with attempted robbery and second-degree kidnapping.

Those charges triggered the second warrant from the state on post-release violation. Documents filed by a Robeson County parole/probation officer, Latoya Godfrey, show McLellan had also failed a drug test and missed his monthly payments.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Diana Kees said in an email that the state Community Corrections division “was cooperating with the local police department because their warrant provided the underlying basis for the department’s warrant.”

“Community Corrections was cooperating with the Fairmont Police Department, whom we understood were actively searching for McLellan to serve their warrant for his arrest,” DPS spokeswoman Pamela Walker wrote in an email Thursday. “Prior to this time, McLellan had been cooperative with his (parole/probation officer) and was scheduled to meet with his PPO on Nov. 7. If no other law enforcement agency had served him by that time, McLellan’s PPO had planned to serve McLellan with the post-release warrant when he reported.”

When McLellan did not come to his Nov. 7 meeting, the state served him with its warrant in the Robeson County jail Nov. 13, the day McLellan was detained by Fairmont police.

In January, with Hania dead and McLellan charged with both her murder and the 2016 rape, Sheriff Wilkins announced that one deputy would be fired and another would resign after an internal review of the missed DNA evidence.

Darryl McPhatter, the fired deputy, denied any responsibility in a post on his Facebook account.

“Administration knows the DNA hit from the 2016 case was located in someone else’s office along with other hits from other DNA cases and it was never passed over to me,” McPhatter wrote. “Anyone who knows me would tell you if I had received the DNA hit the suspect would have been processed and charged. There is no way I would let a rapist walk our streets.”

Celsa Hernadez, Hania’s mother, has not found satisfaction so far.

“I truly remain disappointed about all of this,” she said.

‘She’s got a plan’

In August, Hania started eighth grade.

Every morning, recalled science teacher Alisha Kellogg, she smiled at teachers and took her seat.

“The morning she went missing, one of my co-workers grabbed me,” Kellogg said. “The kids were saying, ‘Hania’s OK. She’s got a plan. She’s going to find a way back.’

“They had hope until they found her body.”

A photograph of Hania Aguilar was included on her headstone, pictured here on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. The community raised the funds to pay for the headstone, which is now surrounded by purple and pink decorations. Julia Wall

Nearly 1,000 people attended Hania’s funeral in December. Friends at school held their own memorial service, reading letters out loud. Purple balloons still grace the entrance to Lumberton Junior High, and along Elizabethtown Road, a few deflated tributes still hang from telephone poles.

A Barbie doll sits perched on her gravestone, bent over from the weather but still wearing a tiara. Across the stone, these words are inscribed in both English and Spanish: “Vuela alto hermosa angel,” or “Fly high beautiful angel.”

And on the spot where the girl lies buried, the dirt is hidden beneath dozens of bouquets — all of them purple, the color Hania would have chosen.

News & Observer reporters Dan Kane, Simone Jasper and David Raynor contributed.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

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.