CJR Outbox

A Woman Went Missing

July 2, 2020

The press has sometimes been criticized for its inability to focus on more than one major story at a time. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that our work is organized and presented in a way that doesn’t reflect lived experience. We separate “crime” reporting from “health” reporting from “business” and “politics” reporting—as if these subjects aren’t all related, as if the happenings of one beat cannot be best understood in the context of another, or stripped of categorization entirely. The artificial separation of news events may be why we have not, in large part, centered the troubling case of Vanessa Guillén.

In the past six months, as the deadly coronavirus pandemic has collided with a much older threat, systemic racism, we saw the connection of all things: a racist healthcare system, racialized and unchecked capitalism, willfully ignorant leadership, and the erasure of these links in media accounts. A major narrative emerged in coverage, about state violence against Black people, and the anti-racist uprisings in response. In the mix should have been Guillén, a twenty-year-old specialist in the United States Army who was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. On April 22, she went missing. According to her sister Mayra, Guillén had plans to spend the day hiking with friends. But she was unexpectedly summoned into work and, around 11:30am, stopped responding to Mayra’s text messages. Calls went straight to voicemail. Mayra reported her sister missing and drove three hours to Killeen, the city that surrounds Fort Hood. Officers initially refused to give her access to the area where her sister lived; for hours, the family says, they refused to shut down the base and search for Guillén. A day later, the Army Criminal Investigation Command opened an investigation. Only then did officials enter the armory where Guillén worked. There were her car keys, wallet, military ID, and barracks-room key—all left behind. 

Local and national media have since covered the story, and Guillén’s family has been vocal, enlisting the help of a lawyer and celebrities such as Salma Hayek to publicize the case and pressure the military to act. In recent weeks, officials at the base have sent out hundreds of soldiers, who used drones, helicopters, and dogs to look for her. Guillén’s mother, Gloria, said during a news conference at Fort Hood, “If they find my daughter dead, I will shut down this base.” 

This week, near the Leon River, about thirty miles from Fort Hood, men building a fence noticed a stench and what looked like hair protruding from the ground. They called the police. Local law enforcement and military officials, who had previously searched the area, returned and, with the help of cadaver dogs, found partial human remains that Guillén’s family believed to be hers. It was a shallow grave; concrete had been poured on top, and rainstorms had helped conceal it. Press accounts later reported that, after Guillén went missing, an unnamed witness saw a man struggling to lift a large Pelican-brand storage case into a car; a burnt storage lid of the same brand was found near the grave site

Early on Wednesday, Killeen police approached a suspect named Aaron David Robinson, a twenty-year-old combat engineer from Illinois and a colleague of Guillén’s on the base. According to the Army, Robinson, realizing that he was about to be arrested, killed himself. A second suspect, an unnamed civilian woman, was arrested by Killeen police. Guillén’s sisters held another press conference with the family’s lawyer, this time demanding a congressional investigation of Fort Hood’s handling of the case. “They didn’t keep my sister safe,” Guillén’s younger sister Lupe said. “How can this happen at a military base?” (Army investigators deny that their efforts were less than aggressive.) Later that day, more human remains were found near the Leon River. They’ve yet to be identified by the Army Criminal Investigation Command.

The details of each life and death differ in important ways, but the press is always a character, often making the wrong choices about focus and framing.

Vanessa Guillén’s story is horrifying, yet it has not risen to the level of urgency with which we have treated other recent deaths. It’s difficult to say why, because the Guillén murder touches on many of the themes now in the news: a life endangered in the custody of officials; a woman of color gone from the world; denial and obstruction by police. At first, Army investigators claimed that Guillén had reported to a scheduled check-in the day she went missing. Later, they backtracked, saying that there had been an error in their paperwork. The investigators did not explain who made the error or why. Nor would they hand over information about who called Guillén into work that day, or about the whereabouts of her cellphone. Sharing this information, they said, could jeopardize the case. (Sound familiar?)

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The Guillén story also links to #MeToo, since Guillén had previously spoken to family and friends about being sexually harassed by a superior. On Wednesday, the family’s lawyer, Natalie Khawam, held a press conference in Washington, DC, during which she said that Guillén had told her mother, sisters, and other soldiers that a superior had been harassing her. Guillén said that a superior had intentionally walked in on her while she was showering and that she had been followed while she was running. The US military has a long, documented history of sexual assault, and of disappearances. Their families have complained about lackluster responses from military police. At a press conference on Thursday, military officials said they couldn’t corroborate any evidence that Guillén had been sexually harassed or that the allegations were connected to her disappearance; they also said that Robinson was not involved in the harassment allegations.

The unsolved disappearance of Guillén is the story of Breonna Taylor is the story of Nina Pop is the story of Tony McDade. The details of each life and death differ in important ways, but the press is always a character, often making the wrong choices about focus and framing. Investigators’ accounts of what happened are still murky; families are left grieving and without answers. Maybe if there were a video, Guillén’s life would have suddenly become of belated, widespread national import. Without a sense of connection to the bigger narratives in our midst, too many lives—and murders—go unnoticed. So long as violence against Black and brown people continues to happen in this country, the press will keep having opportunities to better handle these stories, to situate them in our reckonings with white supremacy and patriarchal abuse. But for Guillén, it seems that we are, again, too late.

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Alexandria Neason was CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Recently, she became an editor and producer at WNYC’s Radiolab.