Contributed by: Don WinnerBy Nicole Carr FORT BRAGG, N.C. (WTVD) -- A Fort Bragg soldier charged with the murder of a Panamanian woman faced a pre-trial hearing Monday to decide whether he will face a military trial.
Master Sgt. Omar Velez-Pagan, 36, is facing a number of charges including unpremeditated murder for the slaying of his Panamanian girlfriend, Vanessa Rodriguez. The 25-year-old woman's partially decomposed body was discovered in the Guarare province of Panama last summer. It was near the training site where Velez-Pagan worked with other U.S. soldiers and Panamanian National police trainees.
Investigators believe Velez-Pagan ran the woman over several times with his pickup truck, and attempted to bury the body before anyone could find her.
One of the Panamanian policemen would discover Rodriguez's body and Velez-Pagan immediately confessed to killing the woman, a fellow soldier testified. Velez-Pagan described the killing as accidental to several soldiers including a training colleague and supervisor.
Velez-Pagan is now facing a slew of charges under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, including unpremeditated murder, aggravated assault, adultery, and drug use for steroids. The charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison, without the possibility for parole, dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowance, and reduction to the rank of E-1.
Within days of the murder, diplomatic immunity allowed Velez-Pagan to be transferred to the United States to face his legal fate, causing outrage across Panama and with civil rights groups wanting to the Central American justice system to handle the case.
On Monday, Velez-Pagan's military defense team asked that the murder charge be dropped because prosecutors did not prove that he "intended" to kill Rodriguez.
"What is disputable is intent, and the government has not shown intent," said Capt. Timothy Warner in closing arguments.
Prosecutors said the soldier absolutely intended to get rid of a woman who ready to blow the lid on their affair, and cost Velez-Pagan his career.
"This was not an accident," said Capt. Richard Connaroe. "We're not talking about simple negligence...We're not talking a heat of passion."
Maj. Stewart Hydenkhan, a the presiding preliminary hearing officer, will make his recommendations about what charges should stand and whether to send Velez-Pagan's case to a military court-martial. A final decision will be made by Fort Bragg's commander, Lt . Gen. Joseph Anderson.
The process could take months, but Rodriguez's family said Monday they are hopeful. Her parents, siblings and Panamanian Embassy representatives traveled from Panama City to Fort Bragg for the hearing.
"What can I say," her father Rogelio Rodriguez asked reporters. "Because I miss my daughter a lot, but uh, I believe American justice."
A WELL-KNOWN AFFAIR AND MURDER
Velez-Pagan, a decorated soldier described by colleagues as an outstanding, mild-mannered leader, is assigned to the U.S. Army Security Assistance Training Organization, known as USASAC. At the time of the June 2014 murder, he was working with the U.S. Embassy in Panama, leading training efforts for Panamanian National Police officers.
Velez-Pagan, whose wife and young family resided in Fayetteville , was involved in an affair with Rodriguez, whom he called "La Chiriquiana," since she was born in the Panamanian province Chiriqui.
Rodriguez's father said his daughter was a student at the University of Panama, and wanted to go into broadcasting.
"She wanted to be a reporter just like you," he said.
Their affair was no secret, testified U.S. Army Sgt. Raoul Esteras, who was also a part of the police training group alongside Velez-Pagan.
"I did give him some advice on breaking up with Vanessa," Esteras testified.
"All the time, I told Vanessa, 'Vanessa, watch out. I don't like that type of relation,'" her father told reporters. "But , um, she didn't listen to me."
On June 22, 2014, Esteras testified the police trainees and soldiers needed a break. They'd been training non-stop, and decided to relax at a nearby beach for several hours. Velez-Pagan and Rodriguez were also on the beach, drinking and relaxing with the group. They were all supposed to meet at a hotel bar that evening to watch a World Cup game, but when Esteras pulled into the hotel parking lot, Velez-Pagan and Rodriguez passed the meeting spot in Velez-Pagan's pickup truck.
"We went into the fenced parking lot and he approached me in the outside of the fence and waved good-bye."
Esteras would not hear from Velez-Pagan until the next morning, when Velez-Pagan replied to a wellness check text. Velez-Pagan had missed physical training that morning, and asked Esteras to pick up a military uniform for him from the dry cleaners.
Esteras said he took Velez-Pagan his clothes, and headed out to the shooting range around 8:30 a.m. About an hour later Velez-Pagan showed up complaining of stomach issues. He said he was going to the wood line to "handle his business."
Shortly after Velez-Pagan emerged from the woods, a Panamanian police trainee named Rich asked him for toilet paper so he could also "handle business," in the trees, Esteras testified.
"Next thing we saw was Rich with gun drawn, pointing at Sgt. Velez, asking for back up," Esteras testified.
Rich had discovered Vanessa Rodriguez's body, lying face down in the woods. It was located right past a partially dug hole, a shovel and a pick, said investigators. She'd suffered a black eye, loose tooth, crushed skull and tire marks were over her head, according to a Panamanian medical examiner.
"[He said] I killed La Chiriquiana, and the body's back in the wood line," testified Esteras, referring to Velez-Pagan in the moments after Rich's discovery.
"I told him he had the right to remain silent. You know I have to arrest you."
"[He said] I was trying to break up with her," continued Esteras. "'She was trying to blackmail me.' Something to that effect."
Velez-Pagan would later tell Esteras and a supervisor that he and Rodriguez had been a heated argument, and she began to scratch him. She would take the wheel of his Toyota pick-up, causing them to crash, said Velez-Pagan. He hit her in the face, and she jumped out of the car. When he went after her, the truck would move in reverse, running over her face, Velez-Pagan said. The soldier would conclude his story with an attempt to get back in the truck and move it off Rodriguez's body, only for another axle to crush her face. He wanted to perform CPR, Velez-Pagan told Esteras, but Rodriguez's body looked very bad, and she did not have a pulse.
Panamanian authorities would transfer Velez-Pagan to a nearby women's prison for protection, said Esteras. Diplomatic immunity was declared, and within days the soldier was flown to the United States, processed in the Cumberland County jail, and transferred to a military prison at Camp Lejeune where he remained until Monday's hearing.
SURVEILLANCE EVIDENCE AND DRUGS
Special Agent James Robinson, who works with the Criminal Investigation Division out of Honduras, testified about physical evidence and video surveillance showing Velez-Pagan purchasing items that would later be found at the scene.
The evidence included blood stains all over the passenger side of Velez-Pagan's truck. They would test positive with Rodriguez's DNA, said Robinson.
Robinson also narrated a surveillance video from a hardware store near the training site where Velez-Pagan worked. On the morning of June 23, 2014, the day Rodriguez's body was discovered, a U.S. soldier identified by the store owners as Velez-Pagan, can be seen purchasing a pick similar to the one found near his girlfriend's body.
Robinson said the soldier had requested and received a shovel from police trainees prior to the video surveillance. One police employee told him to go to the store for a pick when Velez-Pagan requested one.
Robinson also testified that he recovered steroids and syringes from the apartment Velez-Pagan shared with Rodriguez.
During testimony about the medical examiner's report, Robinson said four tire marks were located across Rodriguez's head, indicating the woman was run over several times.
"The body is too short for right rear (axle) and left rear (axle) to both be on the body," Robinson said the medical examiner concluded.
After testimony from four prosecution witnesses, to include colleagues and investigators, the defense declined to call their own witnesses. Velez-Pagan also declined to make a statement. The defense did offer the soldiers Official Military Personnel File, or OMPF, to vouch for his stellar service.
Statements from dozens of other prosecution witnesses were presented, including one from Velez-Pagan's estranged wife. She was not present in the hearing, but two gentleman, including a uniformed soldier, came to support Velez-Pagan.
Rodriguez's mother wept in the hearing room, as the defense asked the murder charged to be dropped.
It may take several months for LTG. Anderson to make a call on what charges to uphold and whether to forward this case to court martial.
Meanwhile Rodriguez's family said they will return to Fort Bragg to see this case out to its end.
"I hope he admits he's guilty, because he is guilty," said Rodriguez's father. " But he has the right to be defended. That's democracy."
Editor's Comment: Steroids. Once again an American in Panama goes nuts and kills someone while using steroids. Wild Bill was all juiced up as he killed at least six people.