OSI SA plays key role in Bragg court-martial conviction

Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agent Christian Rivera, Region 2, Force Protection Detachment, Panama, was instrumental in obtaining a murder conviction at a Fort Bragg, N.C., court martial March 28. (Photo courtesy Fort Bragg Public Affairs)

Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agent Christian Rivera, Region 2, Force Protection Detachment, Panama, was instrumental in obtaining a murder conviction at a Fort Bragg, N.C., court martial March 28. (Photo courtesy Fort Bragg Public Affairs)

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Fort Bragg Master Sgt. Omar Velez-Pagan was sentenced at his March 29 court-martial here to 30 years in military prison for the murder of his girlfriend, 25-year-old Vanesa Rodriguez of Panama City, Panama.

Further, Velez-Pagan is to be reduced in rank to private, dishonorably discharged and to forfeit pay and allowances.

He is being punished for running his government-issued pickup over Vanesa Rodriguez in June 2014 in Panama, where he was on a year-long assignment to train Panamanian police officers. On March 28 the jury convicted him of murder plus assault and battery for punching her.

Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agent Christian Rivera, Region 2, Force Protection Detachment, Panama, played a critical role during the initial response and throughout the investigation led by Army Criminal Investigation Command personnel.

Rivera spent nearly 11 days as a key witness for the murder trial.  He worked with the Staff Judge Advocate, Army CID and Panamanian prosecutors on the initial key activities of the investigation, specifically as a first responder and with evidence collection. The defense did not contest any of his activities and his testimony was limited to his personal and professional observations, which supported the prosecution's case.

This high-profile case shook the people of Panama, DoD and the U.S. Embassy Country Team.

Velez-Pagan previously pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for attempting to hide Rodriguez's body from authorities, to adultery for cheating on his wife with Rodriguez and to the illegal possession and use of controlled substances. He admitted to using anabolic steroids and testosterone to boost his muscle growth.

After the jury announced the sentence, Vanesa Rodriguez's father Rogelio Rodriguez said in an interview that his family is disappointed.

"To be honest, we respect the decision of the panel, but we were expecting the decision of the panel to be tougher and give, like, a lifetime prison sentence," Rogelio Rodriguez said. This would set an example "so nobody else would ever do what this guy did to my daughter."

The jury took less than an hour and 20 minutes to choose the sentence. It could have given Velez-Pagan, 37, life in prison without parole. The 30-year sentence that the jury picked includes the possibility for parole.

The sentencing decision by the jury of five military officers is subject to the approval of Fort Bragg's commander, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend. Townsend can reduce the sentence, but not increase it. And by law, the case is automatically under appeal.

Velez-Pagan received 644 days of credit for his pre-trial confinement.

The judge, Col. Christopher Fredrikson, shortened Velez-Pagan's sentence by another 184 days because the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office in Fayetteville, N.C., violated his rights as a military prisoner. The county jail has a contract to hold Fort Bragg inmates at its detention center.

Fifteen of the 184 days of credit are for housing Velez-Pagan and another inmate together in a cell designed for just one inmate.

The remaining credit is because the county jail published Velez-Pagan's inmate mugshot, with him dressed in a jail jumpsuit, on the jail's website from May 2015 to October of 2015. The military is not allowed to publish these types of pictures of its detainees and the county jail was acting as the military's agent when it housed Velez-Pagan.

Earlier in the day, the Fort Bragg courtroom filled with emotion as both sides presented testimony on how harshly Velez-Pagan should be sentenced.

Velez-Pagan gave an unsworn statement. He frequently had to pause because he could not maintain his composure.

"I'd like to apologize to Vanesa's family, Ms. Rodriguez and her family," Velez-Pagan said.

"Vanessa was a beautiful woman," he said. "I truly cared for her, and I'm sorry and I regret how I treated her. She deserved better."

He was grateful to his friends and family for their support, and the support of his fellow Army Rangers. "I'm sorry I let you down. You'll always be my brothers."

He also said, "I'm sorry I disgraced the uniform I wear."

Rodriguez's mother cried on the stand.

"I suffer a lot because she shouldn't have died that way," Iris Margot Chavarria-Requene said.

Rodriguez wanted to be a journalist, get married and have a daughter of her own, Chavarria-Requene said he visits his daughter's grave weekly to put flowers on it and clean it. He recalled that when she was growing up, he would sit on her bed and tell her stories.

Velez-Pagan kept his head down through the testimony of Rodriguez's family and friends. He kept a tissue in his hands that he sometimes used to dab his eyes and wipe his face.

On Velez-Pagan's behalf, his older brother, and retired sergeant first class, Miguel Velez said he was Velez-Pagan's role model when they were growing up. But that later changed.

"As I was a role model for him as a kid, he was a role model for me as an adult," Miguel Velez said. He named one of his sons for him, he said.

Miguel's wife, Demarys Velez, said if Velez-Pagan is released, he could live with them in Florida or live in a home they have in Puerto Rico. She said she has already arranged a job for him with a building company where she is the office manager.

Another brother, Irwin Velez of Puerto Rico, said he, too, has a place for Velez-Pagan to live and will have a job for him.

Velez-Pagan's two oldest daughters, who are in college in Puerto Rico, said he was a loving dad who took care of them after he and their mother divorced. One described him as "Mr. Mom."

Soldiers and officers who served with Velez-Pagan said he was an exemplary soldier, a leader they could count on.

A Navy chaplain and a volunteer chaplain from the brig at Camp Lejeune, N.C., which also housed Velez-Pagan, said he was a calming influence who drew other inmates to Bible study and who helped one lose about 40 pounds.

In the prosecution's closing statements, Capt. Vanessa Strobbe asked for a life sentence - she did not specify with or without parole - and a dishonorable discharge.

Velez-Pagan chose to have an affair with Rodriguez, Strobbe said. He chose to kill her, and if he had not been caught, he would have left her body in a hole in the ground in the woods in Panama, Strobbe said.

Capt. Nina Banks, one of Velez-Pagan's defense lawyers, said he would be a positive influence if he were allowed to return to society.

"Members, give him that chance," she said to the jurors.

If Velez-Pagan does not make parole, he'll get that chance in his mid-60s.

(Editor's Note: AFOSI Public Affairs contributed to this story.)