North Carolina

2 Robeson County sheriff’s deputies are out amid mishandled evidence tied to teen’s murder

This Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, photo provided by FBI shows Hania Noelia Aguilar, the day before she went missing in Lumberton, N.C.
This Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, photo provided by FBI shows Hania Noelia Aguilar, the day before she went missing in Lumberton, N.C. AP

One Robeson County sheriff’s deputy has been fired and a second resigned following an investigation into overlooked evidence in the murder of 13-year-old Hania Aguilar, authorities said Thursday.

Sheriff Burnis Wilkins announced that Investigator Darryl McPhatter was terminated after an internal probe into DNA evidence linked to the girl’s abduction. Maj. Anthony Thompson, who was suspended in December along with McPhatter, resigned last week.

“It angers me, and I’ve got to deal with it,” Wilkins told ABC11, The News & Observer’s media partner. “To know what happened, to know the reports didn’t follow the proper channels, that further investigation wasn’t done, interviews weren’t done properly — I have a major issue with that.”

Michael Ray McLellan, 34, is charged with raping and murdering Hania, who went missing Nov. 5 when a man forced her into an idling vehicle outside her Lumberton home while she waited to go to school. Her body was found more than three weeks later.

Investigators had DNA evidence linking McLellan to a 2016 rape a year before charging him in Hania’s murder, but the sheriff’s office did not follow up, former Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said in December.

Using a federal database in 2017, the North Carolina state crime lab discovered that a 2016 rape kit sent from Robeson County matched McLellan’s DNA, which was already in the system due to an earlier felony conviction, Britt said.

At the time of Hania’s death, McLellan had been out of prison for five months after serving time for felony breaking and entering and larceny of a motor vehicle. He was still on post-release supervision.

Thompson, the former chief of detectives, and McPhatter, a detective, were suspended last month with pay pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

Thompson was a 34-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, and McPhatter was a 10-year veteran, the sheriff said at the time.

“The dedicated men and women of the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office are proud public servants,” Wilkins said in the statement released Thursday. “My expectations of them are to serve the public with the utmost respect and to the best of their ability as trained law enforcement professionals.”

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.