Authorities searching for another missing Fort Hood soldier

The disappearance came amid a pending sexual harassment investigation.

August 21, 2020, 9:05 PM

Authorities in Texas are searching for another missing Fort Hood soldier amid a tumultuous period for the base that's included multiple service members turning up dead.

Sgt. Elder Fernandes, a 23-year-old chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) specialist assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, has not been heard from by his family since Sunday, prompting them to report him missing three days later, according to a statement from the Killeen Police Department on Thursday and comments made by family members to ABC News Friday.

Elder Fernandes' mother, Ailina Fernandes, and brother, Elton Fernandes, told ABC News in a telephone interview that he had reported being sexually harassed in the months leading up to his disappearance.

"It was an ongoing investigation for two months that will never get closure," his mother said. "And there's a lot more that I don't know; only Elder will be able to tell us, when we find him."

The 1st Cavalry Division confirmed there is an open investigation into alleged abusive sexual contact involving Fernandes to ABC News Friday evening, saying that he was moved to a new unit and steps were taken to shield him from retribution.

"The unit sexual assault response coordinator has been working closely with Sgt. Fernandes, ensuring he was aware of all his reporting, care, and victim advocacy options," said division spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Brautigam. "The unit also facilitated his transfer from a unit who has recently deployed to a different unit within the brigade to ensure he received the proper care and ensure there were no opportunities for reprisals."

Updates will be provided when the investigation is complete, he added.

Fernandes' older brother, Elton Fernandes, said that he spoke to him about the alleged incident, asking if it was true.

"He came and told me 'yes,' but not to worry about it because he's taking care of it," Elton said.

Brautigam also confirmed that Fernandes was hospitalized from Aug. 11 to Aug. 17, the day he went missing.

The Army did not give the reason for the hospitalization, citing patient confidentiality rules.

His mother and aunt, Isabel Fernandes, told ABC News that they spoke to him on the phone several times while he was at the hospital, but he did not reveal much as to why he was there.

But their contact ended abruptly, according to his aunt.

"On Sunday, he spoke with his mom, promising that he will call on Monday from his phone to give us more information," said Isabel Fernandes.

Fernandes was last seen by his staff sergeant on Monday afternoon, when he was dropped off at a residence located in the 2700 block of Woodlands Drive in Killeen, police said. His aunt said Fernandes used to live at the address, but his former roommate told the family he had not stayed there for some time, and never entered after he was dropped off.

PHOTO: Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, is pictured in a photo released by the Killeen Police Department in Killeen, Texas, on Aug. 20, 2020. He was reported missing by his family, who have not heard from him since Aug. 17.
Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, is pictured in a photo released by the Killeen Police Department in Killeen, Texas, on Aug. 20, 2020. He was reported missing by his family, who have not heard from him since Aug. 17.
Killeen Police Department

On Wednesday, his mother traveled from her home in Boston to Texas to search for her son. She said she went on base with police and found his only known car still parked there.

Fernandes also had a new apartment waiting to be moved into with rent and utilities paid, but he never picked up the key, according to his aunt and mother.

As law enforcement agencies continue to investigate, Fort Hood is continuing its own search efforts.

"The unit continues to search areas of the base and is periodically checking his home, area hotels, and other areas of interest," a Fort Hood official said.

Based on information gathered from fellow soldiers, Fernandes "may have left Fort Hood on his own accord," according to a statement from the Army Criminal Investigation Command Friday.

The statement also said Fernandes did not report to work Monday as scheduled. Fernandes was officially considered Absent Without Leave (AWOL) on Tuesday, according to a base official.

"This status enables multiple agencies to be involved in the search for Sgt. Fernandes as we work to find him," Brautigam said.

Fernandes' aunt told ABC News the Army hasn't provided much helpful information.

"I guess the police is helping, but the Army's not so much," she said. "They can't give answers. Everything is like pulling teeth to get any information from them."

PHOTO: Missing Army Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, is pictured in a poster released by Fort Hood in Texas on Aug. 20, 2020.
Missing Army Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, is pictured in a poster released by Fort Hood in Texas on Aug. 20, 2020.
U.S. Army

His mother agreed.

"I can't get access to any information, the Army is not giving any information to no one. So I'm trying to see for when the lawyer gets in contact with them and more higher people, they will be able to give us some information, because they know," she said.

Brautigam said that unit leaders have been in contact with the family daily to provide comfort and updates as they become available. They first reached out Aug. 11, when Fernandes was admitted to the hospital, he added.

"We appreciate the working relationship we have with his family as we work together to find him and provide for his well being," Brautigam said.

The Fernandes family has retained an attorney, Natalie Khawam, who's also the attorney for the family of Vanessa Guillen, 20, who went missing from Fort Hood in late April and whose remains were discovered near the base months later.

Guillen's mother said a few months before her daughter went missing, Vanessa told her she was being sexually harassed by a superior but didn't report it out of fear of retaliation.

Fernandes' disappearance comes after a difficult month for Fort Hood.

Pvt. Mejhor Morta, a 26-year-old Fort Hood soldier, was found dead on July 17 in a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir, government officials and local police said. Investigators said he likely drowned, though no foul play is suspected.

About two weeks before that, on July 1, human remains were discovered near Fort Hood and subsequently identified as Guillen. A suspect in the case, 20-year-old Army specialist Aaron Robinson, died by suicide as officials closed in on him. Another suspect, Cecily Aguilar, 22, Robinson's girlfriend, is accused of helping him dispose of Guillen's body. She was charged with one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence and pleaded not guilty.

On June 19, skeletal remains found near Fort Hood, following an anonymous tip, were later identified as Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales, who had been last seen Aug. 19, 2019. Investigators suspect foul play, according to Houston ABC station KTRK.

Fernandes was last seen wearing a black Army T-shirt and shorts with black, orange and yellow athletic shoes. Anyone with information on Fernandes is urged to contact the Fort Hood Military Police at 254-288-1170, U.S. Army CID at 254-287-2722, or the Killeen Police Department at 254-200-7905.

ABC News' Luis Martinez contributed to this report.