The only person charged in the 2020 killing of Vanessa Guillen, a soldier at Fort Hood in Texas, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to four counts including accessory to murder after the fact.
Cecily Aguilar, 24, faces a maximum possible penalty of 30 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a $1 million fine, prosecutors said. She also pleaded guilty to three counts of false statement or representation.
Specialist Guillen, 20, was last seen on April 22, 2020, at Fort Hood, the nation’s third-largest Army base. Prosecutors say she was repeatedly struck on the head with a hammer by another soldier, Specialist Aaron Robinson, who killed her and hid her body in a large box.
Specialist Robinson had been detained, but he escaped and killed himself with a pistol days before charges were announced in July 2020.
Specialist Guillen’s case drew outrage from many, including celebrities, lawmakers, women in the military and Latinos.
An Army investigation found “major flaws” at Fort Hood and a climate that was “permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” including the harassment of Specialist Guillen. This caused 14 officials, including high-ranking leaders, to be fired or suspended.
A Netflix documentary, “I Am Vanessa Guillen,” released on Nov. 17, brought new attention to the case, telling the story of her family’s push for justice. A federal law by the same name, which took effect on Jan. 1, requires that sexual harassment complaints involving service members be sent to an independent investigator.
More on U.S. Armed Forces
Justice Department officials said that Specialist Robinson’s girlfriend, Ms. Aguilar, had been told about the killing and that the couple had tried to dismember and burn the remains.
Between April 22, 2020, and July 1, 2020, Ms. Aguilar assisted Specialist Robinson in “corruptly altering, destroying, mutilating and concealing evidence,” to prevent him from being prosecuted, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.
She also altered and destroyed information in a Google account for Specialist Robinson, the statement said.
Ms. Aguilar initially lied to investigators about what she knew, but she later confessed to playing a role in the disposal of the body, prosecutors said in court documents.
“During the investigation into the disappearance of Vanessa Guillen, Aguilar made four materially false statements to federal investigators,” the statement said.
The federal public defender’s office for the Western District of Texas, which is representing Ms. Aguilar, declined to comment.
A sentencing date has not been set, said Michael Lahrman, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Before her plea, Ms. Aguilar had been scheduled to go to trial in January.
Ms. Aguilar, a civilian, was charged with 11 counts. Before Tuesday, she had pleaded not guilty on all charges, so the plea came as a surprise, said Natalie Khawam, the Guillens’ lawyer.
“We were just looking for the day where she would just confess and admit to her crime, and the harm that was committed on this family,” she said, adding, “Today’s admission to guilt provides us some relief.”
Ms. Khawam took on Specialist Guillen’s case in 2020 without charging the family, with the intention of finding her alive. When her remains were found, the focus shifted to justice and accountability for her death — and avoiding future ones like it.
Specialist Guillen’s family will provide testimonies to the judge for Ms. Aguilar’s sentencing. Court appearances and continuous advocacy have extended the process of mourning the loss, said her sister, Mayra Guillen.
“It gives me some comfort knowing that she’s admitting to what she did and she’s not going to keep fighting us, but definitely it’s not a closed case until the day of sentencing,” she said.
After Ms. Aguilar’s sentencing, the family’s advocacy will continue to focus on other people in the Army who have experienced sexual harassment, as well as seeking justice for Specialist Guillen’s own harassment.
“I only ask God for true justice, because she’s not the only one responsible,” said her mother, Gloria Guillen. “I know there are more, and I hope to God that the truth comes to light.”