FORT BLISS, Texas — A Fort Bliss soldier who was found dead in her barracks on New Year’s Eve had reported an alleged sexual assault to her superiors months before she died, her family and base officials said.
Pfc. Asia Graham, 19, was found unresponsive Thursday. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, which is probing Graham’s death, has said that foul play is not suspected. Her cause of death has not been revealed.
Graham’s death has called attention to a military installation plagued by problems. At least two Fort Bliss soldiers have been charged with murder in the past year, and a third is accused of firing on El Paso police officers responding to a domestic disturbance in June.
‘It wasn’t her time’
KTSM in El Paso reported that Graham, who enlisted in the Army in July 2019, was sent to Fort Bliss that December. She was raped within a month of her arrival, her family told the news station.
Fort Bliss officials confirmed that Graham went to authorities on the base on June 1 and reported the alleged assault. Army CID investigators started an investigation.
“Charges were preferred against the alleged offender on Oct. 22, 2020, which includes one specification of sexual assault pertaining to Pfc. Graham,” military officials said in a statement to the news station. “Those charges are pending adjudication.”
The suspect in the case has not been publicly identified.
“It wasn’t her time. I don’t understand why it was supposed to be her time,” Graham’s mother, Nicole Graham, told KTSM about her daughter’s sudden death. “She just recently got outside therapy that she requested from the military, and she was doing better. She was on her way up.”
Graham’s death and sexual assault allegations come at a time when the Army is under fire for rampant violence and sexual abuse on several of its bases. Last month, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced that 14 officers and enlisted soldiers at Fort Hood had been either fired or suspended.
The disciplinary action was the result of a review by an independent panel of civilians, who were appointed to examine the command climate at the Texas base following the high-profile April 22 killing and disappearance of Spc. Vanessa Guillen.
Guillen, 20, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in an arms room on the base. Her dismembered remains were found months later in multiple shallow graves along a river about 30 miles from the base.
The soldier suspected of killing her died by suicide as investigators closed in. Spc. Aaron Robinson’s civilian girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, faces federal charges for allegedly helping him dispose of Guillen’s body.
Guillen’s brutal death prompted multiple protests and demands for action by military officials and congressional leaders.
Guillen was one of more than two dozen Fort Hood soldiers to die by homicide, suicide or accident in 2020. The Houston native’s claims to her family that she had been sexually harassed by superiors at Fort Hood also prompted authorities to examine how claims of sexual harassment were being handled by high-ranking officials there.
Along with Guillen, a second Fort Hood soldier reported missing last year, Sgt. Elder Fernandes, had reported being the victim of sexual abuse. Fernandes, 23, vanished Aug. 17 after seeing friends at a home in Killeen.
Fernandes was found hanging from a tree Aug. 25 in Temple, Texas. Foul play was not suspected in his death.
Graham, a Cherryville, North Carolina, native, worked as a human resource specialist at Fort Bliss. According to the El Paso Times, she was assigned to the 1-501st Attack Battalion, 1st Armored Division Combat Aviation Brigade.
“The Iron Eagle team is deeply saddened by the loss of our friend and teammate. We send our deepest condolences and prayers to her friends and loved ones,” Col. Geoffrey Whittenberg, 1st Armored Division Combat Aviation Brigade commander, said in a statement.
“Pfc. Graham was a valued member of the Iron Eagle team and did an outstanding job for this Battalion,” Whittenberg said. “Her loss is felt not just in our formations but across the Army. We lost a skilled human resource specialist who wanted nothing more than to serve her country and her battle buddies.”
Multiple homicides involving soldiers
Graham is one of two Texas-based soldiers whose deaths last week are under investigation.
Staff Sgt. Jessica Mitchell, a drill sergeant at the U.S. Army Medical Center for Excellence at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, was found shot to death in her car New Year’s Day in San Antonio.
San Antonio police officials said officers were called to investigate a stalled car on Interstate 10 just after 2 a.m. Friday. When they arrived, they found Mitchell’s white Dodge Charger riddled with bullet holes.
Mitchell, who was inside, was rushed to University Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. She was 30 years old.
“The suspect vehicle is possibly red in color and should have damage to the passenger side of the vehicle,” police officials said.
Anyone with information on Mitchell’s slaying is asked to contact San Antonio homicide detectives at 210-207-7635.
Graham’s death has brought renewed attention to the case of Pvt. Richard Halliday, 21, who vanished in July and remains missing. He was last seen alive July 23 or 24 on the base.
As in Graham’s case, Fort Bliss was Halliday’s first duty station. He was assigned to the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command.
The Times reported that the Army initially classified Halliday as absent without leave, or AWOL, but that his status has since been changed to “missing.”
Halliday’s family, who suspects foul play, has staged rallies outside the gates of Fort Bliss for months, the newspaper reported. His parents spoke to their son for the last time the day before he disappeared.
The couple did not find out their son was missing until Aug. 28, his mother told the newspaper.
Patricia Halliday said she has spoken to Nicole Graham to commiserate on the tragedies that have befallen their children.
“I can’t imagine what she’s feeling,” Halliday said. “My condolences right now, and my sadness, goes out to her.”
In a separate case, a Fort Bliss soldier was arrested over the summer and accused of killing his estranged wife and stuffing her body into the closet of an apartment in the neighborhood of East El Paso. Spc. Linwood James Smith III, 22, is charged with murder in the death of Kerica Robinson.
A criminal affidavit obtained by the Times indicated that Robinson was reported missing after a friend had been unable to reach her since May 27. Police detectives called Smith and asked him to meet them at the apartment he once shared with his wife.
During an interview, Smith kept changing his account of when he’d last seen his wife. The newspaper reported that when they searched the soldier’s phone, investigators found incriminating Google searches, including “what happens if police can’t find a missing person” and “can police trace a bullet to a gun.”
When confronted with the searches, Smith “exhaled in a loud manner,” the affidavit stated. He then told the detectives he’d shot Robinson, telling them he’d done so after she attacked him with a knife.
Smith, who served as a signal support systems specialist in the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, is being held in the El Paso County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail.
A second Fort Bliss soldier was charged with murder in October after authorities said she urged a driver to ram a vehicle into her soldier boyfriend’s car. Capt. Malcolm Xavier Perry, 27, was killed in the collision, which ignited his Audi A4.
Perry was burned alive as he screamed for help, court records indicated.
Capt. Clevy Muchette Nelson-Royster, 27, is charged with murder. The 23-year-old driver who rammed Perry’s car, Richard Mustapha Sennessie, is also charged with murder.
Documents obtained by the Times indicate that Perry called 911 the morning of Oct. 11 and told a dispatcher that someone was using a Jeep Wrangler to ram his car.
“I am going to die,” Perry said moments before the crash.
The criminal complaint against Nelson-Royster indicated that she had met up with Sennessie, an acquaintance, late the night before at a nightclub. They met up with Perry, her boyfriend, at a strip club, where Perry got into a fight.
Sometime after leaving the club, Sennessie, who was driving Nelson-Royster’s Wrangler, began ramming Perry’s car for an unknown reason. He fled the scene after the car was engulfed in flames.
Perry, who joined the Army in 2015, had been stationed at Fort Bliss since March, the newspaper reported. He was assigned to the 123rd Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.
At the time of her arrest, Nelson-Royster headed Echo Forward Support Company, a logistics unit with the 1-501st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion.
A third Fort Bliss soldier faces criminal charges after a June 15 incident in which he opened fire on El Paso officers who rang his doorbell. Spc. Alexander Eugene Jeffery, 29, is charged with three counts of aggravated assault.
The Times reported that officers went to Jeffery’s off-base home following a 911 hang-up call in which a woman could be heard crying and a man yelling. When they arrived at the house, they spoke to people outside the home, who said they hadn’t called for help but that friends inside the house had gotten into an argument earlier that morning.
One of the witnesses, an off-duty El Paso police officer, told his colleagues that Jeffery had firearms but the weapons had last been stored in a bedroom safe, the newspaper reported. The officer, Alexander Mallari-Valfre, accompanied the two responding officers to the front door.
“When the officers rang the doorbell, (Jeffery) began to fire a semi-automatic rifle through the front door,” a criminal complaint stated.
As the officers scrambled for cover, Jeffery again fired on them from a bedroom window.
One of the officers who had responded to the 911 call was injured by the gunfire. He underwent surgery for multiple wounds, the Times reported.
Jeffery surrendered to officers and was arrested.