Case #2: Military Murders

I wanted to dedicate at least one post here to telling the disturbing and oft-hushed-up stories of members of the United States Armed Forces who have been victims of violent crimes. I figured it being November, the month we celebrate Veteran’s Day, this was as good a time as any to dive in.

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I think that, for many of us within the United States, we see military duty as something inherently dangerous because of the risk that comes with active combat. We know they’re risking their lives because people die every day from fighting wars and being on the ground. And while that’s certainly real and terrifying, there are many members of the armed forces who suffered at the hands of their fellow soldiers—not an enemy combatant. And when crimes like this are insular, like in the US military, the details of an investigation often become murky.

When dealing with the United State’s military in any context, there’s going to be some different standards. The United States’ military has its own judicial system: the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, or USCAAF. It has worldwide appellate jurisdiction to try active-duty members of the US armed forces. The three main differences between a civilian and military court have to do with how trials are operated. Rather than having a jury of your peers, as in a civilian court, military court juries are typically made up of between 3 to 12 normally commissioned military officers. A military court does not need an unanimous decision by the jury to convict, only a 2/3 majority decision (and, in military court, there are no mistrials, only split trials). And finally, military court is based off of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: the military equivalent to the United State’s criminal penal code and laws. And yes, those two sets of laws are different. So, because of this, there’s often a lot that goes on within military criminal cases that the public doesn’t get access to (including family members).

The following stories are ones I learned about from other true crime media (most notably my inspirations, the lovely girls at Crime Junkie podcast). But they’re just a few of thousands of untold and underreported stories. By sharing these names and their stories, we can try to help them and their families by getting the rest of the world as furious as we are.

LaVena Johnson: 2005

LaVena Johnson was a young woman from North County, Missouri, who enlisted in the United States Army in 2005, when she was 19 years old. She told her parents, John and Linda Johnson, that she wanted to be able to help pay for her college education at a private university in California, as well as continue the family legacy her father had started of being a veteran.

LaVena’s body was discovered on July 19th, 2005, while she was stationed on active duty in Iraq. She was the first woman solider and the first black woman soldier to die while serving in Iraq. She was found in a contractor tent on the base, laying on her back with her right arm across her face. A photo of her body as it was found was included in the documentary The Silent Truth about this same case, as you can see below:

The cause of death was defined as an intra-oral gunshot to the head. The manner of death was classified as suicide. LaVena, the Army told her family, had taken her own life.

When the Army informed the Johnsons of their daughters’ death, they immediately felt that something wasn’t right. LaVena had called home not even a week before her body had been found. She had excitedly told them she might be coming home early, and made sure to insist that the family didn’t decorate their Christmas tree without her, because it was one of her favorite traditions. She had plans to attend college and dreams of becoming a movie producer. It made no sense at all, to those who knew her best, that LaVena would kill herself. Compounding their worries were memories of what LaVena had told them over the phone in the past months since she’d been deployed: disrespect from fellow male soldiers, name-calling, deliberately disobeying her orders and getting her in trouble with superiors. Just a few weeks before, LaVena’s father had urged her to request a “Battle Buddy”, or fellow female soldier to stick by her throughout the day and look out for one another. LaVena had refused, saying she couldn’t risk the reputation that came with ratting people out.

LaVena’s parents didn’t know this at the time, but LaVena had been sexually assaulted and was being treated for a sexually transmitted disease at the time of her death. Her attacker has not been identified.

The Army determined that LaVena had killed herself by putting her M-16 rifle to her mouth and pulling the trigger, which made no logical sense when taking into account LaVena’s height (5’1″) and the length of the rifle. More than that, when LaVena’s body was sent back for her burial, her family realized that her face, which one would expect to be horribly disfigured after a bullet to the mouth, seemed largely untouched. However, her nose appeared to have been broken and then reset, and her lips had been cut, neither of which were mentioned in the Army’s report. The only signs of a bullet wound, entry or exit, was a small hole on the left side of LaVena’s head: one that, to John Johnson’s trained veteran eye, looked much more like a 9mm bullet hole than an M-16. The Army had glued (yes, glued) her uniform gloves to her hands, something that even the funeral home had never seen before.

LaVena’s father wanted answers. He contacted the Army, demanding more information about his daughter’s case. When he was ignored, he filed Freedom of Information Acts to request documents and photographs related to the investigation. Finally, only with the help and public pressure of Missouri Representative William Lacy Clay, John Johnson received access to copies of investigation documents, including the autopsy report and photos. Later, after an even more bitter legal battle with the Army Criminal Investigation Command, he received a CD rom with more complete records and higher-resolution photos.

The evidence was horrifying and, nearly at first sight, totally out of line with the Army’s official findings. Crime scene photos showed the M-16 rifle LaVena supposedly used to be nearly all the way across the floor from her body. Autopsy photos revealed LaVena had severe bruises and scrapes across her face and entire body. Residue on her back suggested her body had been dragged along the ground, and she had burn marks on her hand and back. Corrosive liquid, assumedly meant to destroy forensic evidence, had been poured over her genitals, and part of her vagina and anus had been cut out. None of these details were included in the autopsy report, and a rape kit wasn’t even performed during the investigation.

The bullet from the M-16 rifle LaVena allegedly killed herself with has never been recovered. When pressed by the Johnsons on what evidence they had for LaVena being depressed enough to take her life, all the Army had to say was that it was rumored LaVena had been broken up with by a boyfriend, and that in the days before he death, she was eating “a lot” of ice cream.

It is obvious to any reasonable human that suicide can not possibly be the manner of death in the case of LaVena Johnson. To this day, even after a review of the investigation that lasted years, the US Army is insistent in their claim that LaVena took her own life, despite nearly every piece of evidence pointing to the contrary.

The Johnsons have not stopped fighting, even after the horrific ordeal they’ve been put through. Besides their continuing legal, political, and media efforts, they have created a college scholarship fund in LaVena’s name. Donations can be made to: The LaVena L. Johnson College Scholarship Fund P.O. Box 117 Florissant, MO 63032.

Tina Priest: 2006

Tina Priest was another female soldier stationed in Iraq who was found dead of an M-16 rifle wound. Just like LaVena, the Army officially declared her death a suicide. When her mother confronted officials with the fact that Tina was too short to physically be able to shoot herself with her own rifle, the eventual explanation they gave her was that her daughter must have pulled the trigger with her big toe. Yes. Really.

Tina’s mother had known that, shortly before her death, Tina had been raped by a fellow soldier and had reported the incident. Several weeks after Tina died, her mother learned that the charges her daughter had brought against the soldier had been dropped, in lieu of being fined a measly $1,500.

The Army has declared this case closed and done, despite obvious contradictions to their findings and clearly suspicious circumstances. Tina Priest should never have had to die for another soldier’s reputation to be saved.

Gregory Wedel Morales: 2019

When Gregory Morales’ mother was contacted by Fort Hood officials in August of 2019, they told her that her son had gone AWOL. They told her that by their account, he had made a decision to leave the base—and, they reminded her, the US Army does not look for deserters.

Kim Morales instantly felt that something was wrong. Her son was mere weeks away from being discharged from service. He’d just purchased a new car, as part of plans to start a new job working on wind turbines. What reason would he have to willingly run away, especially with the consequences of being a deserter? The Army, however, has remained adamant from the very beginning: Gregory’s disappearance would be treated strictly as a desertion, nothing more.

Kim could do nothing but wait. And wait. After a month, she reached out to the Army’s investigator to ask about putting up a reward for leads or information. She was told the matter would be looked in to, but it wasn’t until seven months later that any reward was officially announced. Nine months after Gregory went missing, his family discovered the car he had purchased right before his death up for sale on the Internet. When Kim Morales called Army investigators to tell them, she was told they had received that intelligence nearly a month ago. No one had bothered to update the family.

In June of 2020, Army investigators quite literally stumbled upon Gregory’s remains. While conducting a search for another missing Fort Hood soldier, a tip from the public led officers to an empty field about four miles outside of the base, where they found Gregory’s remains buried. As with most of these cases, not much information has been released to the public. We know that while no official cause of death has been determined, Kim Morales has said publicly that investigators told her they believe her son was shot in the face. The police department of Killeen, Texas (law enforcement for the town Fort Hood is located in), has been quoted by reporters as saying they do believe foul play is involved.

But… what now? As of now, the case of Gregory Wedel Morales’ murder is simply labeled as pending and awaiting final autopsy results. There still seems to be little motivation for the Army to give this case the thorough investigation it deserves. Gregory deserved better than to be cast off and labeled a deserter by the country he was fighting for. The Army’s efforts in protecting Gregory and getting justice for his family were so minimal that, if not for the investigation of fellow Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen, he most likely would have never been found.

Elder Fernandes: 2020

Elder Fernandes was yet another Fort Hood soldier who went missing earlier this year (check out Crime Junkie’s episode about the Fort Hood conspiracy). He was last seen at a home in Killeen, Texas, on the night of August 17th, 2020. He was reported missing after he failed to report to work the next morning, despite his car still being parked on base. According to the Army, information collected by Elder’s fellow soldiers implied that he had left the base willingly, of his own accord.

On August 25th, 2020, Elder’s body was found hanging from a tree in Temple, Texas. Around 5:40 pm that evening, a passerby had called police when they saw the body while taking a walk.

By scratching just a bit below the surface, it seems like the circumstances of Elder’s disappearance are cause for concern. In April of 2020, Elder was sexually assaulted while on base by a fellow soldier. He was reassigned, but continued to be followed, harassed, and bullied by his assaulter and fellow soldiers. On August 11th, just 6 days before he went missing, Elder was hospitalized for reasons that have not been disclosed, even to the Fernandes family. Elder did not tell his family the reason for the treatment, only that he would call after being discharged. When he was, on August 17th, Fort Hood officials say that a staff sergeant drove Elders to his home in the sergeant’s car. After that, he was never seen alive again. His death was ruled a suicide.

The Fernandes family has publicly expressed doubt towards the Army’s version of events. Elder’s mother Ailina says she does not believe her son would have left the base of his own accord and not return, citing her last phone call with him in which he told her he would call “‘as soon as I get out of the hospital and get my cell phone'”. His family insists Elder would never put his family through the pain of running away without telling them. That, coupled with the brutality of his death, the sexual assault, and the total lack of proof that Elder was ever actually brought to his home after being discharged, is enough to convince the family that the Army is not investigating this properly.

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