Army Sergeant Elder Fernandes of Brockton was alive for days after he was discharged from a Fort Hood psychiatric hospital in August, newly released police reports show, raising the troubling possibility that searchers might have prevented his death if they had made a more extensive effort.
Fernandes’s body was discovered hanging from a tree on Aug. 25 about 30 miles from the sprawling Texas military base in what police said was a suicide. The 23-year-old’s death helped spur an investigation into the way the base responds to soldiers in crisis, leading to the recent suspension or firing of more than a dozen Army officials at Fort Hood.
Fernandes was suicidal when he checked into the Darnall Medical Center on Aug. 11, reporting that he was bullied after alleging he had been sexually assaulted by another soldier. But when he was discharged six days later, he was dropped off in front of a friend’s house off base and left alone, the report from the Temple, Texas, police said.
His frantic mother, Ailina Fernandes, flew to Texas two days later and demanded that the Army and local police look for her son.
“They knew he was pleading for help,” said his aunt, Isabel Fernandes, referring to Army officials. “The first 24 hours were crucial. Bells should have gone off. They should have moved mountains to find him.”
Army officials have insisted they initiated a thorough and widespread search of the base as soon as Fernandes went missing on Aug. 18, but the base did not issue a public appeal for help until three days after Fernandes left the hospital, on Aug. 20.
Fernandes’s mother has said that the search for her son did not begin until after she arrived in Texas on Aug. 19. She said the Army initially told her that her son was AWOL and officials wouldn’t look for him for 30 days. She said they told her that if he was found by law enforcement officials, he would be arrested. She then went to the local police in Killeen, Texas, who agreed to look for Fernandes.
The police report indicates that Fernandes was alive at least three days after he left the hospital. On Aug. 19, he was seen resting on someone’s property, his head propped up against a tree in Nolanville, Texas, eight miles from Killeen.
The owner of the property later told police he asked Fernandes if he was okay and where he was headed, the police report said. “He said he was not really headed anywhere,” the owner told police. He offered Fernandes a ride, but the young man declined and just walked off down the road.
Tracking pings from Fernandes’s cellphone suggested he was at a restaurant around the same time the homeowner encountered him in Nolanville.
“Someone saw him,“ said Isabel Fernandes after reading the new police reports, which are expected to be made public this week. “Had the Army tried to find him, he would be alive today.”
And the person who saw Fernandes’s body hanging from a tree on Aug. 25 said the soldier was not there when he walked by the same area on Aug. 20.
The family’s lawyer, Lenny Kesten, demanded the Army make public the results of its own investigation into Fernandes’s disappearance and death. The Army’s criminal investigation division’s report was turned over to the Temple, Texas, police, but not made public, at the Army’s request.
“The family deserves to know what they did to find him and what drove him to this,” said Kesten. “He told doctors at the hospital that he had been sleeping outside for a few days before he got there. What did the Army do to make sure when he got out that he had support? Nothing. Who does that?”
Army officials declined comment on the new reports or their efforts to find Fernandes. They referred The Globe to a series of press releases they had issued over the past several months.
The first press release about Fernandes went out on Aug. 20, the day after he was seen in Nolanville. Then, on the 21st, the Army issued another press release seeking the public’s help.
“A search for SGT Fernandes is ongoing by Fort Hood Soldiers, Army CID Special Agents, the Killeen Police Department ,and other state and local law enforcement agencies,” the press release said.
“We are very concerned about the welfare of this Soldier and first and foremost we want to ensure he is okay,” said Christopher Grey, spokesman for CID. “If someone out there has any information, regardless of how trivial you may think it is, we are asking you to contact us immediately.”
In early December, 14 Fort Hood soldiers were fired or suspended after an investigation of a pattern of violence including murders, sexual assaults, and harassment at the base. Two of the suspended soldiers, Major General Jeffrey Broadwater and Command Sergeant Major Thomas C. Kenny, were commanders in Fernandes’s unit, the 1st Cavalry Division.
This year, 25 soldiers assigned to Fort Hood have died due to suicide, homicide, or accidents, compared with 32 last year and 24 in 2018, the Associated Press has reported.
Fernandes had reported that another soldier had sexually assaulted him in May but after the soldier took a polygraph test and was cleared by the Army, Fernandes was subsequently harassed and bullied, he told doctors at the hospital.
Up until then, Fernandes was happy and loved the Army, his family has said. He had just re-enlisted in February. He was a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear specialist assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 553rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion (CSSB), 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade (1CDSB).
He was waiting to return to Germany, where he had worked before being assigned to Fort Hood in January. His return had been delayed because of COVID-19. While he was waiting to return to Europe, the assault took place, his aunt said.
His family was very close; he spoke to his mother at least once a day, his aunt said. Though he called her from the hospital each day, his aunt said, he never explained why he was there. The family didn’t know he was suicidal or being treated for emotional problems because he never told them. He promised to call home as soon as he got out of the hospital.
When he didn’t call, his mother grew concerned. She called the base on Aug. 18, the day after his release. He was supposed to return to work, but he didn’t show up.
She immediately flew to Texas, where she learned he was missing. She also learned about the assault and his threats of suicide.
“When he was in the hospital, he told doctors if he had to go back to the Army, he would have to kill himself,” said Kesten. “But instead of ensuring his safety, the Army sent him back and told him they would court-martial him because he had not shown up for work for a few days before he was admitted to the hospital.”
For three days before Fernandes checked himself into the hospital, he had missed work and was sleeping outside, Kesten said.
His aunt said the newly released police reports raise more questions than they answer.
“The report is missing so many things,“ said Isabel Fernandes. “It just says what Temple police did when they found the body. I’m interested in knowing what the Army did before that. The Army doesn’t want their report made public. What are they trying to hide?”
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.