FORT HOOD (Now designated Fort Cavazos), TX – The 1st Cavalry Division held a press conference with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID), the 553rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion (CSSB) and the 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade (CDSB) to address the public and take questions about Sgt. Elder Fernandes at its headquarters here Aug. 26.
“We greatly appreciate the teamwork within the 1st Cav, within the Soldiers across Fort Hood (Now designated Fort Cavazos),” said Maj. Gen. Jeffery Broadwater, commanding general, 1st Cav. Div. “The community leaders, the Killeen Police Department, The Temple Police Department, CID, and all the other community agencies that helped us with this search – We were truly hoping for a different result.”
The Temple Police Department announced that Fernandes was found deceased in Temple. The discovery happened after a near week-long search throughout the Central Texas area that saw an unprecedented joint community effort.
Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, whose home of record is listed as Brockton, Mass., was found near Lake Polk in Temple. He entered the Army in September 2016 as a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear specialist and has been assigned to the 553rd CSSB, 1CDSB since April 2019.
“The Army Family and the 553rd Family are grieving with Sgt. Elder Fernandes’ Family,” said Lt. Col. Justin M. Redfern, commander, 553rd CSSB. “We have partnered with them almost from the very beginning.”
Fernandes’ Family arrived in Killeen, Aug. 19, to search for him after the unit contacted them when he failed to report to duty, for a second time within two weeks. Redfern explained the first incident happened Aug. 10 and was “unusual” for him to not show up for work.
“So, we reached out to his family and asked if they had heard from him,” said Redfern. “They were able to confirm contact with him and subsequent to that, we were able to gain contact with Elder, which was a positive outcome.”
The next day, Aug. 11, Fernandes was admitted to a hospital and while there stayed in contact with his family. He was released Aug. 17 when he cleared all protocols and was deemed fit for duty by medical providers. His supervisor picked him up and took him home and he “was dropped off at that residence where he asked to be taken to,” said Col. Patrick A. Disney, commander, 1CDSB.
According to Fort Hood (Now designated Fort Cavazos) officials, it was this residence, where he was dropped off, where Fernandes was last seen by fellow Troopers from his unit alive.
The press conference took place the day after Temple Police Department announced the discovery of Fernandes to address the mounting questions and information in the news and across social media platforms. Public interest has been focused on Fernandes’ report of alleged sexual misconduct and how leadership handled the case.
“We take every sexual assault seriously,” said Broadwater. “They [cases] are not investigated by us, they are investigated by an outside organization, CID, in order to do that and once those facts are brought out then we deal with each and every one of those occurred, accordingly, so that justice is served.”
The command has a responsibility to protect the privacy of all Soldiers that are part of an investigation. This becomes “priority number one” according to Redfern.
“From a unit perspective we take very seriously the obligation to care for our, America’s sons and daughters,” said Redfern. “They come to us as adults; they have their own privacy and we have a responsibility to protect their privacy.”
Redfern explained, “What that does is it creates an environment where a chain of command can be trusted with the outcome and it offers an opportunity for the victim to get the help that they need.”
Prior to Fernandes’ sexual misconduct allegation, there was a noticeable change in Fernandes’ behavior in mid-March that Redfern says was followed with a “spiral down” effect after he moved to live off post in April.
“He was a person that we felt was exemplary and as the behavior changed the chain of command became very aware of the change in behavior,” said Redfern. “The chain of command was very much invested in this Trooper, he was a leader in the formation.”
When Fernandes reported his allegation, in May, the chain of command acted immediately, moved him to a new unit at his request and ensured access to all resources. CID immediately opened and conducted the investigation that was recently closed.
“Sgt. Fernandes did report that he was sexually assaulted when someone allegedly grabbed his buttocks,” said Special Agent Damon Phelps. “Our investigation has been completed and with the command and legal team for further action, if warranted. I can also share that the subject did then took and passed a polygraph examination and we found no witnesses that could corroborate Sgt. Fernandes’ allegations. There was a thorough legal review and the allegations were unsubstantiated.”
It is also standard practice for CID, according to Phelps, “To routinely brief the victims throughout the investigation as well as on the outcome.”
The change in Fernandes’ behavior at work, the allegation of sexual misconduct and his hospital stay prompted leaders to act again to ensure his safety.
“Those factors and the involvement of the chain of command led to this constant search,” said Broadwater. “We were concerned about Sgt. Fernandes and his well-being.”
“The Wagonmaster Family is heartbroken with the news of Sgt. Fernandes’ passing,” said Col. Patrick Disney, commander of the 1CDSB. “Since his absence was reported, we have made a significant, concerted effort to search for him throughout Central Texas. We are grateful for the outpouring of support and assistance we received as we worked to find him. We send our deepest and most heartfelt condolences to his Family and friends.”
The unit is cooperating with local authorities from the cities of Killeen and Temple as this incident remains under investigation.
The Division will continue to support the Fernandes Family during this difficult time and requests everyone respects their privacy during this time of grief.