The man suspected of sexually assaulting and killing 13-year-old Hania Aguilar was connected through DNA to a rape from 2016 -- but investigators never followed up on that DNA evidence, and if they did, that likely would have saved the girl's life, prosecutors said Wednesday.
"This hurts," Robeson County, North Carolina, District Attorney Johnson Britt told reporters. "This is like taking a punch to the gut and not being prepared to get it."
Michael McLellan, 34, is accused of abducting and killing the teen in November. Her disappearance sparked a massive manhunt and her body was found in Robeson County weeks later.
Britt said he met with Hania’s mother and stepfather "to explain to them what had happened to express my regret, and our regret, that this had been missed. And that in all likelihood had this gone forward and we established a case against him at that time, Hania would not have died."
The missed opportunity came in 2016 when a victim's rape kit -- for a case in which there was no suspect -- was sent for analysis, Britt said.
The kit was analyzed in 2017, and Britt said the district attorney's office was told there was a hit from the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, meaning that DNA found from the 2016 victim’s rape kit possibly matched DNA of someone already in the system.
CODIS contains DNA samples of known offenders convicted of felonies. McLellan had been convicted of first-degree burglary in January 2007, a class D felony, according to the North Carolina Department of Corrections' website.
Britt said an email including that information was sent to the sheriff’s office, copying the district attorney's office
At that point, Britt said that information should have given the sheriff's office probable cause to seek a search warrant, obtain a DNA sample from McLellan and compare that sample to the 2016 rape kit.
As Britt held the CODIS report in his hand Wednesday, a reporter asked him if the information on that paper could have saved Hania's life.
"Potentially yes, and probably yes," Britt responded.
Britt said his office and the sheriff’s office are trying to determine how this evidence was overlooked.
Hania was abducted outside her home at the Rosewood Mobile Home in Lumberton on the morning of Nov. 5.
She had taken the keys to her aunt's SUV to start the car when a man dressed in all black with a yellow bandanna over his face forced her in the car and drove away, police said. The stolen SUV was found three days later in Lumberton.
Britt said Wednesday that, through the recovered car, McLellan became a suspect in Hania's kidnapping one week after she vanished, though he was not officially named a suspect until weeks later. By that time McLellan was in custody for a different crime, prosecutors said.
Evidence from Hania's recovered body also linked McLellan to the crime, Britt said.
McLellan is charged with 10 felonies in Hania's case including first-degree murder, first-degree forcible rape, statutory rape, abduction of a child and first-degree kidnapping, the FBI said.