The rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl kidnapped outside a North Carolina home last month could have been prevented if authorities had properly followed up, but DNA evidence matching the suspect in a separate rape kit “fell through the cracks,” according to a district attorney.
Robeson County District Attorney Luther Johnson Britt III told reporters Tuesday that investigators had DNA evidence linking Michael Ray McLellan to a 2016 rape one year before he was charged with first-degree murder and other felony crimes in the death of Hania Noelia Aguilar.
“At some point, it obviously fell through the cracks,” Britt said, according to the News & Observer. “You hate it. You punch yourself.”
State crime lab investigators using a federal database last year found that a 2016 rape kit sent from Robeson County matched McLellan’s DNA. The sample in the national law enforcement database known as CODIS was already in the system in connection with a previous felony conviction, Britt said.
That information was later relayed to the district attorney’s office, which then sent the data on a disc to sheriff’s officials. That match typically would prompt authorities to track down McLellan and obtain a new DNA sample to confirm the test results, but that didn’t happen, Britt said.
McLellan, 34, was already in police custody on an unrelated charge before he was connected to the teen’s death. Aguilar was forced into a relative’s idling SUV in front of her mobile home in Lumberton on Nov. 5, police said. The eighth-grader was found dead 22 days later in a pool of water about 10 miles south of her home.
Britt said the evidence in the Aguilar case led investigators to find the previous DNA match in the database, which led to charges in the 2016 rape, he said.
In that incident, Britt said, a man removed an air conditioner before entering a woman’s residence and assaulting her at knifepoint. The woman had tried to stop the attack with a handgun that didn’t fire, according to the district attorney.
Britt acknowledged that no one followed up on the link, which potentially could have saved Aguilar’s life.
“That is something we have talked about,” he said of that possibility.
Britt did not immediately return a message seeking comment from The Post on Thursday.
County officials, meanwhile, met with the girl’s relatives Wednesday and tried to explain what went wrong with the help of an interpreter, CNN reports.
“She was very tearful,” Britt said of Aguilar’s mother. “It was a difficult conversation to have with her. Maybe the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had with a victim’s family — to tell them that had this information been followed up on — her daughter might be alive.”
Asked if the problem had been resolved, Britt replied: “We assured her we were working on that.”
Newly elected Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Watkins told CNN that an internal affairs investigation has been launched into the matter. The office did not have a tracking system that would have indicated which employee received the notification about the DNA match, but that issue has since been fixed, Watkins said.
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