Local News

Family: Deployment changed soldier charged in sex assault

Posted February 3, 2010 5:42 p.m. EST
Updated February 3, 2010 6:51 p.m. EST

— A Fort Bragg soldier charged with burglary and sexual assault was emotionally scarred by a 2007 deployment to Iraq, his family said Wednesday.

Spc. Aaron Michael Pernell, 22, of 500 Regency Drive, was charged Monday in two burglaries and a sexual assault that occurred in December in the Ste. Mere Eglise neighborhood on post.

Fayetteville police said Pernell also is a "person of interest" in a string of break-ins and rapes in the Fayetteville area over the past seven months. Investigators are comparing evidence in the cases to determine whether to charge him in any of the cases.

"I was shocked. I didn't think he was capable of doing anything like this," his grandfather, Richard Foote, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from his home in Chicopee, Mass. "I still don't believe it. I don't believe he did it. I mean, this is just something that's not in his character."

Foote said he cared for Pernell and his sister for a year while their mother was in Air Force training. The children were home-schooled and attended church regularly, he said, noting Pernell's mother and stepfather are both ordained ministers.

"The kids were well-mannered, polite," Foote said. "(I had) no trouble at all with them."

Brenda Pernell said her son acted differently after returning from Iraq. A member of 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, he is an infantryman who fires mortars.

"We all saw such a change in him,” said Brenda Pernell, who also lives in Chicopee. “He started doing things he had never done before.”

Aaron Pernell became withdrawn and began drinking heavily, his mother said. He sought counseling through the Army but was told he didn’t need it, she said.

On his MySpace page, Pernell lists his occupation as "drunkard" and calls himself "an open book."

Maj. Brian Fickel, spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division, said he was unaware of any mental health issues with Pernell.

“This is not him,” Brenda Pernell said. “He’s always been a good kid.”

“We were raised to respect women,” said his sister, Vanessa Pernell, who also lives in Chicopee.

Fayetteville police charged Aaron Pernell in September with breaking into another home, where a mother and child were inside. No one was injured in that incident, and he was released on bond.

Six women in Fayetteville and a seventh in Hope Mills reported being sexually assaulted since late June. In each case, the victim said a man broke her home – usually an apartment – late at night while she was alone, according to police reports. In an eighth case, a burglar tried to sexually assault a Fayetteville woman before fleeing.

Last month, Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin said DNA from a rape that occurred last August east of Raeford matched evidence from a case in Fayetteville. Fayetteville police haven't confirmed such a link.

The Army plans to conduct an Article 32 hearing, which is the military equivalent of a probable-cause hearing, in the next week to determine whether a court-martial is warranted, Fickel said.