U.S. soldier suspected of murder in Panama likely to face military justice

Monday, June 30 2014 @ 05:35 PM UTC

Contributed by: Don Winner

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier suspected of murdering a Panamanian woman will "most likely" face charges in a military court in the United States, a U.S. military spokesman said on Sunday.

Master Sergeant Omar Velez is being held in pretrial confinement at the U.S. Army's Fort Bragg in North Carolina, but formal charges have not been filed against him, said Colonel William Bigelow, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command.

Velez was conducting training in Panama as part of the U.S. Army Security Assistance Training Management Organization, a unit generally associated with foreign sales of military equipment, Bigelow said by telephone.

He said Velez will probably face charges in U.S. military courts. He emphasized that a final decision has not been made.

Panama's attorney general's office has not commented on the case.

Panamanian daily newspaper Critica has reported that Velez was apprehended as he was attempting to bury the body of the 26-year-old victim, with whom he was believed to have a romantic relationship.

The U.S. Southern Command cannot confirm those details, spokeswoman Kimberly Hanson said.

The U.S. Army "will fully investigate this tragedy and take any and all appropriate action," according to a statement issued late last week.

Editor's Comment: Finally. With this report the US military has confirmed the identity of MSG Omar Velez as the suspect in the murder of the 25 year old Panamanian woman Vanesa Rodriguez. Is should be pointed out that the Panamanian press is reporting Vanesa's age as 25, while this Reuters report is saying she's 26.

And yes, military members on active duty who commit crimes such as murder always face a jury trial under the Unified Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). It's nice to see that Reuters is following my lead on this story.

Reuters should now ask the US Military and SOUTHCOM if they have this photo of Vanesa Rodriguez holding a military issued firearm, on the training range near the Guarare river where Omar Velez was training members of the Panamanian police and security forces;

At the time of his arrest, MSG Omar Velez was reportedly caught red-handed, standing over the corpse of his dead girlfriend, next to a freshly dug grave, the shovel and pickaxe he used to dig the grave, and a bag of lime he was going to dump on her body to speed decomposition. All of this was found near the shooting range where this photo was taken.

One more minor observation. When SOUTHCOM issued this press release over the weekend in response to the murder of Vanesa Rodriguez and the arrest of Omar Velez, the first sentence of the original version said "The United States expresses its deepest regret over the death of a young Panamanian woman." This was later changed to read "The United States Army expresses its deepest regret over the death of a young Panamanian woman." They made the change because the Commander in Chief of the US Southern Command cannot speak for the United States of America - that's what the President is for.

But, there's a problem. The Commander in Chief of the US Southern Command also cannot speak for the US Army. General Raymond T. Odierno is the Chief of Staff of the US Army, and only he can speak on behalf of, or "express its deepest regret."

General John F. Kelly, a member of the US Marine Corps and the Commander in Chief of the US Southern Command can only speak for SOUTHCOM - not the US Army or the United States of America. This is what happens when military gonks issue press releases over the weekend, when the adults - civilian employees with deep experience and lawyers - are taking a day off to roast hot dogs or whatever.

Now, I don't expect SOUTHCOM will issue yet another correction to fix this gaff. And, it's sort of depressing that I had to be the one to point it out. Aren't the lights on there, somewhere? Hello, Public Affairs Branch? Anyone manning the desk (with a clue)?

But whatever. At least now someone in the US government has finally and officially admitted that US Army Master Sergeant Omar Velez is in fact, in custody as a suspect in the murder of Vanesa Rodriguez in Panama. This confirms the earlier reporting by La Critica as spot-on.

Don't fuck this up, guys. If this asshole murdered his girlfriend, there's no need whatsoever to "protect" him from anything. There are more than 50,000 people living in the Republic of Panama as members of the English speaking community of expatriates. Many of them are former military veterans, and military retirees. If there is any perception - and I mean any little tiny perception whatsoever - that the US government or the US military is going to anything to cover this incident, you can expect blow-back. There should be no effort whatsoever to protect this Velez guy beyond whatever is strictly required by law. He is entitled to a legal defense from a defense attorney, but he is not entitled to any sort of defense of his name (or whatever) by the Government of the United States of America.

In short - Omar Velez should be treated exactly the same as anyone else who has been accused of murder.

One more question. Why hasn't he been charged? What's the time frame? How long can the US military hold Velez as a detainee, without charging him with a crime?

From experience in murder cases, I know there are procedural elements regarding evidence. I'm sure the FBI Special Agents working at the office of the Legal Attache in the US Embassy in Panama are doing their thing. Also, there will be someone (not sure who) in a US military uniform who will be responsible investigating and gathering evidence - with the cooperation of the Panamanian judicial authorities - in order to eventually charge MSG Omar Velez with murder and conduct a trial.

There are many elements of this story that are unfolding as I write this. I'll continue to provide follow-up information as it develops. And of course, I'm working my own angles...

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