FORT BRAGG, N.C. — A Fort Bragg soldier has been charged with killing a Panamanian woman while he was deployed to the country on training.
WTVD-TV reported that Master Sgt. Omar Velez-Pagan is on military hold in the Cumberland County Jail. He’s charged with unpremeditated murder.
The charge is classified as an Article 118 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If found guilty, Velez-Pagan could face a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, dishonorable discharge from the Army, and be stripped of pay and benefits as an E-1.
Velez-Pagan, 35, was on a training mission in Panama, when the body of 25-year-old Vanesa Rodriguez was recovered on June 23 .It was near a river embankment in Central Panama, close to a military firearms training site, according to Panamanian officials.
Local media reports describe the two as “romantically linked,” and reported Velez-Pagan was found near the site with a shovel. He was detained by Panamanian authorities before being handed off to the U.S. military, which formally charged him on Monday.
The case has caused uproar overseas, and disbelief at home in Fayetteville, where Velez-Pagan lived with his wife and infant daughter.
“I feel real bad for the family over there in Panama who lost their daughter, a child. You don’t wish that on anybody” said Ray Diaz, Velez-Pagan’s neighbor. “But I just can’t see Omar doing anything like that. Not on purpose any way. That’s not the kind of person I seen him to be.”
Diaz met Velez-Pagan through his two sons, also soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg. The neighbors would visit one another, and he describes Velez-Pagan as “kind, upstanding and hospitable.”
The last time Diaz saw the soldier was last year before he departed for Panama. They celebrated the birth of his daughter. But last week, when he saw Velez-Pagan’s wife in the neighborhood, she seemed distant and would not speak. He now understands the circumstances, but hopes the allegations prove false.
“I just don’t see him doing what he’s been accused of,” Diaz said, shaking his head. “I hope it’s not true. That’s honest to God.”
Meanwhile, in an interview with the Associated Press, the Foundation for Gender Equity in Panama expressed dismay over diplomatic immunity. They believe Velez-Pagan was allowed to come home to North Carolina without a proper investigation in Panama.
The Army, through a press release issued by the U.S. Southern Command, expressed “deep regret” over Rodriguez’s murder, vowing to “fully investigate this tragedy and take any all appropriate action.” They say they are working in conjunction with Panamanian authorities, and cooperating with Panamanian law.
Velez-Pagan will face an Article 32 hearing on Fort Bragg. The pre-trial hearing date has not been set.