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The unsolved killing of a Fort Bragg soldier has led to an effort to reform Army investigations

A portrait of Enrique Roman-Martinez is in the center of the image. Blurred people wearing black sit in foreground.
Master Sgt. Alexander Burnett
82nd Airborne Division
Friends of Spc. Enrique Roman-Martinez sit silently during his memorial ceremony at The All American Chapel on Fort Bragg, N.C., August 13, 2020.

The unsolved killing of a Fort Bragg soldier in 2020 has led Congress to enact some military criminal justice reforms.

The omnibus spending package passed just before Christmas contains language designed to improve the military's handling of "cold cases." Representative Norma Torres, a California Democrat, began pushing for the changes after the death of Specialist Enrique Roman-Martinez, whose family lives in her district.

Roman-Martinez disappeared on Labor Day Weekend of 2020 while camping with a group of fellow 82nd Airborne Division soldiers on Cape Lookout. They reported him missing the next evening after a puzzling delay of several hours in which they interacted with a park ranger without mentioning Roman-Martinez.

Six days later, his severed head washed ashore. No other remains were found.

After a year and a half, the Army halted its active investigation. Investigators said a joint task force that included the FBI spend thousands of hours on the case, traveled to six other states, conducted more than 400 interviews, and executed more than 100 warrants and subpoenas. The task force also said it had sent teams to the barrier island seven times for land, sea, and air searches.

None of that yielded evidence linked to Roman-Martinez’ death.

The seven soldiers with him were charged with several minor offenses, including drug charges for some. But none were charged in Roman-Martinez’ death.

Torres said the Army ended its investigation too soon. She also said the Army waited too long to involve civilian law enforcement agencies such as the FBI. She said those agencies could have provided more help in the crucial early hours of the investigation, before evidence was washed away by bad weather.

In November, Torres introduced a bill - named for Roman-Martinez - that would have mandated a number of changes in the military investigative process. While that bill did not pass Congress, several key provisions were included in the omnibus budget package.

Justin Krakoff, a spokesman for Torres, said the budget bill includes language that directs the Pentagon to ensure best practices for handling cold cases are shared across the investigative divisions in all service branches. It also says each service’s military investigation organization must create standards for when cold cases should be opened to outside review, and they must develop standard procedures to guarantee the effective handover of a case to a new investigator when necessary.

“It shouldn't have taken a member of Congress to demand FBI or other experts to come in and investigate this case,” Torres said. “Within a few hours of this case, those experts should have been called to the scene and maybe more evidence could have been collected.”

Torres said the victim's family deserves a better ending to the investigation.

“At the end of the day, for me, he is not just a number,” she said. “Roman-Martinez has a name, and it’s Enrique. He has a family that loves him. And he has a community that was waiting for him to come back.”

Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.
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