Body found hanging from tree was missing Fort Hood soldier, officials say

Body found confirmed to be that of missing Fort Hood soldier

TEMPLE, Texas (KWTX) - A body found hanging in a tree Tuesday evening near Sammons Park in Temple was that of Hood Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, Fort Hood officials confirmed late Wednesday afternoon.

Fernandes was the focus of a week-long search.

“Since his absence was reported, we have made a significant, concerted effort to search for him throughout Central Texas,” said Col. Patrick Disney, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade to which Fernandes was assigned. “We are grateful for the outpouring of support and assistance we received as we worked to find him. We send our deepest and most heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.”

Fernandes’ backpack and his driver’s license were found with him, according to attorney Natalie Khawam, who represents his family.

“We are sickened by this tragedy that has happened one too many times. We are heartbroken for Elder Fernandes’ family,” Khawam tweeted Tuesday night.

Khawam also represents the family of slain Fort Hood Spc. Vanessa Guillen.

Family members said Fernandes’ staff sergeant dropped him off on the afternoon of Aug. 17 at his home in the 2700 block of Woodlands Drive in Killeen, police said earlier. That was the last time Fernandes was seen.

Fort Hood last week confirmed an open investigation of “abuse sexual contact” involving the missing soldier, who had been transferred to a different unit.

Fernandes reported in May he was grabbed in the buttocks, post officials said Wednesday. But officials said during a news conference Wednesday an investigation that just recently ended determined that sexual assault claims were unsubstantiated.

Members of Fernandes’ unit noticed a change in his behavior and that he was struggling beginning in March, officials said Wednesday. He failed to report for duty on Aug. 10, and after the unit made contact with him, he was admitted to the post hospital, where he stayed until Aug. 17 when he was discharged, officials said.

The battery of his car was dead, however, so an NCO drove him to his home in Killeen, they said. The NCO didn’t escort him inside because Fernandes stayed outside to smoke a cigarette, officials said.

Fernandes’ body was discovered just before 6 p.m. Tuesday along railroad tracks on the south side of the park.

“Upon officers’ arrival, it was determined that the subject had been deceased for some period of time,” said police spokesman Cody Weems.

Foul play is not suspected, he said.

Family members, however, say they don’t believe Fernandes took his own life.

“It’s not in his character. He was a happy, loving ambitious young man who just recently re-enlisted,” said his cousin, Maria Shorter. “Fort Hood told us he is an outstanding soldier who leads from the front. If he was so outstanding and such a superb soldier, how do you expect us to believe that there was no foul play? Why would an upstanding soldier in the United States military leave on his own accord?”

Fernandes, of Brockton, Mass., joined the Army in 2016 and had been assigned since April 2019 to the 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade.

The disappearance was another of a string dating back to last year.

Pvt. 2nd Class Gregory Wedel-Morales disappeared on Aug. 19, 2019. His skeletal remains were discovered on June 19 in a field in Killeen.

On June 30, contractors working on a fence along the Leon River discovered what appeared to be human remains that were later identified as those of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, 20, who was last seen sometime between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on April 22 in the parking lot of her 3rd Cavalry Regiment Engineer Squadron Headquarters.

She was murdered by another soldier, court documents show.

Fort Hood Pvt. Mejhor Morta, 26, of Pensacola, Fla., was discovered missing on July 16. He was found dead the next day in the area of Stillhouse Hollow Lake. A preliminary autopsy report indicated his death was consistent with drowning.

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