What happened to Vanessa Guillen and when did she disappear? Netflix show looks into the tragic disappearance

New Netflix documentary I Am Vanessa Guillen details the disappearance of the army specialist

Vanessa Guillen
(Image credit: Netflix)

In 2020, Vanessa Guillen was a 20-year-old United States Army soldier stationed in Fort Hood, Texas. Last seen around NOON EST on April 22 in the parking lot of her unit, Vanessa suddenly went missing although her car keys, credit cards and IDs were found safely inside her armory barrack.

Shortly thereafter, an investigation kicked off with Vanessa's own family suspecting something horrible to have happened, especially considering a conversation that the victim had recently had with her own mother, telling her she was being "harassed by a superior."

In their pursuit for the truth, Vanessa's family members even met with then-President Donald Trump and unleashed a slew of changes to the way cases of the sort are being dealt with in the army.

WHO KILLED VANESSA GUILLEN?

Vanessa's dismembered and burned remains were found at the end of June, about two months after she was first reported missing. 

On July 2, prosecutors brought up charges against 20-year-old U.S. army specialist Aaron Robinson, suggesting he had killed Vanessa and then tried to get rid of her body. Just a few days before the charges were made public, though, Aaron shot and killed himself. 

Vanessa Guillen

(Image credit: Netflix)

At the same time, officials also arrested Cecily Aguilar, Aaron's girlfriend. According to official court documents, Aaron told his girlfriend that he had struck Vanessa on the head with a hammer, killed her and hid her body in a big box. The couple supposedly then tried to dismember and burn Vanessa's remains.

Cecily pleaded not guilty to the July 14, 2020 indictment by a grand jury. Her trial is scheduled to begin in January of 2023.

According to The New York Times (opens in new tab), "army leaders have declined to discuss possible motives for the killing."

Throughout the much-criticized investigation, army officials also discovered that Vanessa was being sexually harassed, albeit not by Aaron, who was, however, accused of sexual harassment in unrelated matters.

In August 2022, Vanessa's family lawyer, Natalie Khawam, filed a $35 million lawsuit against the United States Army for sexual assault and wrongful death.

WHEN DID VANESSA GUILLEN DISAPPEAR?

Vanessa was first reported missing on April 23. The next day, the army released a message asking for the public's help to find her. Human remains were discovered near the Leon River in Bell County, Texas, on June 30 and, a few days later, on July 3, they were confirmed to be Vanessa's.

WHAT IS THE I AM VANESSA GUILLEN ACT?

Vanessa's disappearance and death inspired a legislation titled the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act, which sought to change the way that sexual assault allegations are being handled in the army by making it easier for victims to come forward. 

Parts of the act went into law on January 1, 2022 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act that was signed by President Joe Biden. 

According to the Texas Tribune (opens in new tab), under the new law "commanders will no longer be involved in military sexual harassment or sexual assault investigations."

WHAT IS I AM VANESSA GUILLEN?

I Am Vanessa Guillen is a new Netflix documentary about Vanessa’s case that specifically dissects the way that the victim's family has used the tragedy to change the way cases of the sorts are handled within the military.

"It has a bigger mission," said director Christy Wegener about the production to NBC News (opens in new tab). "We focused on the fact that this family was going through one of the hardest periods of their life, and they turned it into a movement to help the greater good."

The 90-minute documentary is now available for streaming on Netflix. 

Anna Rahmanan is a New York-based writer and editor who covers culture, entertainment, food, fashion and travel news. Anna’s words have appeared on Time Out New York, the Huffington Post, Fortune, Forbes, Us Weekly, Bon Appetit and Brooklyn Magazine, among other outlets.