A North Carolina prosecutor said 34-year-old Michael McLellan should have been jailed in 2017 when DNA identified him as a suspect in an unsolved rape but instead — through an oversight — was free when 13-year-old Hania Aguilar was abducted and killed last month.
“In all likelihood had this gone forward and we established a case against him at that time, Hania would not have died,” Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt told reporters on Wednesday.
Less than a week ago, multiple charges were filed against McLellan in connection with Aguilar’s slaying — including first-degree murder, first-degree forcible rape, statutory rape, abduction of a child and first-degree kidnapping, according to the FBI.
The Robeson County Sheriff’s Office was notified last year that CODIS — a federal DNA database — identified McLellan as the suspect in a 2016 rape, Britt said, and his office was copied on that notification.
“When they received the CODIS hit, that would’ve given them probable cause to get a search warrant to obtain a known DNA sample from McLellan,” Britt said. A conviction in the rape, he added, could have resulted in a life prison sentence.
But none of that happened, and apparently, no one knows why.
“I don’t know if [the paperwork] got lost in the sheriff’s department, if it got buried on someone’s desk, if it got placed in records,” Britt said. “It just vanished.”
The mistake hangs heavy over the tragic details of Aguilar’s case.
She was abducted outside her Lumberton home on Nov. 5, sparking a nationwide manhunt. The search for the missing teen came to a bitter end on Nov. 22, when her decomposing body was found not far from where she was taken.
The final autopsy report, which could reveal the cause of her death, is not yet complete, the FBI said.
As in the 2016 rape case, DNA evidence was allegedly used to link McLellan to Aguilar’s slaying.
It’s unclear if McLellan was on the radar of detectives in Aguilar’s case before CODIS identified him as a suspect. Although the possibility that he might be a danger should have been as plain as the teardrop tattoos on his face.
McLellan’s rap sheet, according to WBTW News, goes back nearly 20 years. It contains convictions for multiple crimes, including assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, breaking and entering, burglary, larceny and two separate convictions of assault on a child under the age of 12.
In October — just weeks before Aguilar’s abduction — he was accused of kidnapping and attempting to rob a woman at gunpoint in Fairmount, WBTW News reported. He turned himself in to police on Nov. 13.
And now, authorities allege, McLellan killed a teenage girl who would likely still be alive if not for an oversight on their part. It’s something Britt said he had to inform her family about before the press conference.
“We were actually meeting with Hania’s mother and her stepfather to explain to them what had happened, to express my regret and our regret that this had been missed.”
The news was delivered just days after the family was informed that the State Department denied a temporary visa to Aguilar’s father, a Guatemalan citizen. Several politicians, including North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, urged the State Department to reconsider, but the agency refused to budge.
Naimeh Salem, the Texas-based immigration lawyer who represented the father, told The New York Times her client had “no negative immigration history.” She blamed President Donald Trump’s administration.
“With past administrations, we never had a problem like this,” she told the Times. “With this administration, most everything that is discretionary is getting denied.”
As a result, Aguilar’s father was unable to attend her funeral on Saturday.
McLellan is being held without bond in the Robeson County Detention Center. In addition to the charges filed in connection with Aguilar’s slaying, authorities said, he is facing charges of first-degree rape and first-degree burglary from the 2016 case. His next court date is scheduled for Dec 21.
According to Britt, his office and the sheriff’s office are conducting internal investigations into how the 2017 CODIS alert slipped through the cracks.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am,” Britt said.