Local News

Authorities: DNA linked defendant to disappearance, death of Hania Aguilar

Posted December 10, 2018 9:57 a.m. EST
Updated December 10, 2018 9:23 p.m. EST

— In a press conference Monday, Robeson County District Attorney Luther Johnson Britt said DNA evidence ultimately linked the man charged with murder Friday to the disappearance and death of Hania Aguilar.

Hania was kidnapped from her Lumberton front yard Nov. 5, as she readied to leave for school, when a man jumped into the SUV where she was waiting and drove away with the teen. The SUV was found within a few days, but Hania's body wasn't located until Nov. 27.

Britt said Monday that the vehicle offered the first clues to connect Michael Ray McLellan, 34, of Fairmont, to the crime.

"When the car was found and the car was processed, Mr. McLellan became a suspect," he said.

Because of his criminal history, McLellan had DNA on file. The FBI, which was helping with the search for Hania, was able to compare that DNA to evidence found in the SUV.

Britt defended the delay between that discovery and the filing of criminal charges Friday, saying the vehicle offered sufficient evidence that McLellan could have been charged, but the missing girl left a "hole" in that case.

"We believed that the best course of action to follow was to say nothing about him until we had enough evidence not only to arrest him, but hopefully to convict him," Britt said.

He denied that McLellan had confessed to the crime or that he led authorities to the location of her body.

"That is one of the many false statements that has been made in connection with this case," Britt said.

Throughout the search authorities still hoped to find Hania alive, Britt said.

"As time went on it became very apparent that she was dead, so it became necessary not only to find her but through the autopsy ... to collect evidence from her," he said.

McLellan faces 10 felony charges:

  • first-degree murder,
  • first-degree forcible rape and statutory rape of a person 15 or younger,
  • first-degree sex offense and statutory sex offense with a person 15 or younger,
  • first-degree kidnapping,
  • larceny,
  • restraint,
  • abduction of a child and
  • concealment of a death.

He appeared in court on Monday, where he was assigned a public defender. He has been in custody since Nov. 13, eight days after Hania's disappearance.

McLellan will be kept in custody in Raleigh between court appearances in Robeson County, Britt said. He is not eligible for bond.

Britt, whose term as district attorney is coming to an end, said that if it were up to him, he would seek the death penalty in the case.

Matthew Scott, assistant district attorney and district attorney-elect, said he had not made a decision about the death penalty, but he noted that McLellan's case would qualify.

"This is a horrific set of facts," Scott said. "It has galvanized the community. It has galvanized law enforcement. It has galvanized our office."

Aguilar's abduction led to a search over three weeks until her body was found in some water along Wire Grass Road.

Throughout the search, authorities called on the community to share tips, pointing especially to surveillance video that captured a man walking south on Lambeth Street before turning north on N.C. Highway 41 toward Hania's home.

Lumberton Chief of Police Michael McNeill said that video provided by neighbors did help investigators to see the path the vehicle took.

Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies vetted more than 850 leads and conducted nearly 500 interviews.

Britt credited hard work, a little luck and science with the outcome. He noted that the evidence gathered in the search for Hania helped to solve a 2016 case of rape, burglary and robbery.

Together, the FBI and State of North Carolina had offered up to $30,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Hania's killer. Upon announcing McLellan's arrest, law enforcement did not say whether anyone would collect any of that award money.