LUMBERTON, N.C. — A North Carolina prosecutor says authorities failed to act last year on evidence linking a 2016 rape to a released felon now accused of raping and killing a 13-year-old girl.
Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said Tuesday that deputies didn't follow up after DNA evidence from the earlier rape matched that of Michael Ray McLellan. Only after McLellan's DNA was again found, this time in a vehicle involved in the kidnapping of Hania Noelia Aguilar, did authorities connect the cases.
"At some point, it obviously fell through the cracks," Britt said in a News & Observer report . "You hate it. You punch yourself."
McLellan, 34, is now jailed on charges of raping and killing Hania, who was kidnapped from outside her Lumberton home on Nov. 5. Authorities said she was forced into an SUV. Her body and the SUV were later found several miles away.
The newly elected sheriff, who took office Dec. 3, said in a statement Wednesday that his office has opened an internal affairs investigation to determine why deputies failed to act on the previous rape evidence. Sheriff Burnis Wilkins promised to make citizens aware of the findings.
Investigators said DNA collected from the SUV helped lead to McLellan's arrest. McLellan's DNA had been collected for the federal database after he was convicted in 2007 of felony assault with a deadly weapon and first-degree burglary.
But that information wasn't utilized by law enforcement after he was paroled in 2016.
Later that year, a woman was attacked by a man who removed an air-conditioner from a home, crawled through a window and assaulted her at knifepoint. Britt says she had tried to defend herself with a gun, but it didn't fire.
As the state crime lab worked to reduce a backlog of ignored rape kits last year, it discovered that DNA from the 2016 kit matched McLellan. Britt said that information was sent to the district attorney's office and the sheriff's office and should have prompted investigators to obtain a new DNA sample from McLellan to confirm the test, but no one followed up. McLellan remained free.
In February, he was convicted of felony breaking and entering, and motor vehicle larceny — and released in June, with credit for time served.
In October, police said he pointed a gun at a woman, tried to take her car and demanded money. He left that scene without hurting the woman, and surrendered to police in that case on Nov. 13, eight days after Hania was kidnapped.
Prosecutors charged McLellan in Hania's case while he was in custody for the October attack, but didn't publicly identify him until Saturday, the day of Hania's funeral. Only after that did they charge him with rape and burglary in the 2016 case.
Officials say McLellan will get public defenders, including those who specialize in death penalty cases.