The US Army has filed criminal charges related to the case of Enrique Roman-Martinez, a 21-year-old soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division whose beheading remains one of the most baffling of the many unsolved killings to have taken place at Fort Bragg lately.
Specialist Alex Becerra, who according to multiple sources planned and organized the camping trip to the North Carolina seashore that preceded Roman-Martinez’s disappearance and death, has been charged with conspiracy; dereliction of duty; two counts of making false official statements; three counts of disobeying a superior officer; and wrongful possession, use, or distribution of a controlled substance — but not murder or manslaughter.
Roman-Martinez’s death occurred over Memorial Day weekend of 2020. The mysterious sequence of events, which remain completely unexplained, began when a group of seven soldiers, plus Roman-Martinez, defied a pandemic lockdown order to go on a camping trip to Camp Lookout National Seashore. Friday night it rained heavily. The next day, around 7 p.m., the group of soldiers reported Roman-Martinez missing. Becerra was the one who spoke to a 911 dispatcher. “We lost our friend,” he said. “When we woke up he was not here, and we’ve been looking for him all day. We were trying to find the park ranger or their offices or anything.”
That last part wasn’t true, it later emerged. Earlier in the day, park rangers had approached the group to ask them to move their vehicles, which were encroaching on protected sand dunes. At no time during that interaction did the off-duty soldiers mention a missing person, a spokesman for the national park told Army Times shortly after the recording of the 911 call was made public.
Becerra also volunteered, unprompted, that Roman-Martinez might have taken his own life. “We might be afraid he might have hurt himself,” he told the dispatcher. “He wasn’t diagnosed, but he did have suicidal tendencies.”
The victim’s sister, Griselda Roman-Martinez, says there’s no truth to that, either. “I spoke to him that Wednesday and we talked about him leaving the Army,” she tells Rolling Stone. “There was no way he wanted to end his life. He had too many plans.”
About a week after her brother went missing, on May 29, 2020, his severed head washed ashore on Shackleford Banks, not far from the soldiers’ campsite. The medical examiner at Fort Bragg determined that the cause of death was likely homicide. The rest of his body has not been found.
Nineteen months went by with no apparent developments in the case. The seven soldiers who were on the camping trip claimed that Roman-Martinez simply walked away in the middle of the night, never to be seen again, and agents with the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division, or CID, couldn’t seem to get any more information out of them.
“CID has told me they’re quite confident it’s murder by one or more of the seven other soldiers,” says Dustin Collier, an attorney representing the Roman-Martinez family pro bono. “They have told me, while they don’t have enough to charge for homicide, they have ample for lesser offenses, that they could use to leverage people to flip.”
Now the Army has quietly docketed a raft of charges against Becerra. A spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division declined to provide the charge sheet — which would spell out the factual basis for bringing Becerra up on a court martial — but confirmed that the charges are related to the disappearance and death of Roman-Martinez.
Reached by phone, Becerra declined to comment. “I have plenty to say,” he told Rolling Stone, “but I prefer not to say anything at this time.” He gave no indication of how he intends to plead at his arraignment, scheduled for January 20th.
Why anyone would have wanted Roman-Martinez dead is a complete mystery. There are no obvious suspects. But some elements of the account of his disappearance given by the seven soldiers who last saw him alive don’t add up.
Christian Romero, a high school friend of Roman-Martinez who joined the Army around the same time and also had been stationed at Fort Bragg, says he can’t understand why Becerra planned a camping trip at a time when the weather was so foul. “It was raining nonstop,” he tells Rolling Stone. “The ferry was closed. The tents blew over. Enrique just wanted to go home. That’s why he walked away in the middle of the night.”
This is according to what Romero says he heard from soldiers who were on the camping trip. They told the same story to authorities, who related it Griselda. But the group of seven also told investigators that Roman-Martinez had left his wallet, phone, and glasses behind in the tent, which Griselda says is very unlikely. Her “baby brother,” whom she “always took care of,” could barely see without his pair of thick glasses, she says, and never would have left them behind voluntarily.
A dog tag to commemorating Army Specialist Enrique Roman-Martinez.
Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News/Getty Images
Collier, the attorney representing the Roman-Martinez family, says that shortly after calling 911, the group of soldiers alerted their unit, the 37th Brigade Engineer Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division, but that their battalion commander, Lt. Col. Scotty Autin, waited till Monday morning to inform the CID, which delayed until the following Friday to secure Roman-Martinez’s barracks as a crime scene. “By that time,” Collier says. “He had been missing for almost a full week.”
According to Collier, who’s had multiple briefings with the CID task force investigating the case, one of the seven campers entered Roman-Martinez’s room before it was locked down. Griselda says that her brother, a sensitive young man who was into Buddhism and crystals, kept a daily journal. It has not been found.
Attempts to reach Autin by phone were unsuccessful.
In August 2021, CID increased the reward for information in the case to $50,000, the largest sum the Army has ever offered. But CID’s press release included a strange statement that seemed to backhandedly push the theory that Roman-Martinez had been decapitated by a boat-propellor strike. CID urged members of the public to come forward “if you were operating a boat in the area and recall possibly hitting something in the water.”
Griselda calls it “the stupidest statement I’ve ever read,” because the medical examiner, in his autopsy report, had specifically ruled out the possibility of a propellor strike — or shark attack — as the cause of the jagged chop injuries to her brother’s head and neck, which left his jaw broken in two places. Also, she says, there’s no way he would have gone swimming in the dead of night during a thunderstorm, far out to sea where powered watercraft operate. “They are trying to deter this investigation from a homicidal one to an accidental one,” she says, “and in my opinion they look ridiculous and incompetent.”
In November 2021, CID announced that “after exhausting hundreds of leads and thousands of hours of investigation,” the file had been moved to “cold case status.”
It’s unclear whether the charges against Becerra signal a new development in the case, or whether military prosecutors are simply charging him for being untruthful with investigators. Despite his apparently inconsistent statements, neither he nor any of the other six soldiers who were on the camping trip had any known motive to harm their friend. To date, there is not even a plausible theory of why anyone would have wanted to murder such a thoroughly nice guy, much less viciously decapitate him.
By all accounts, Roman-Martinez had no disputes with anyone. Though he was airborne qualified, he was noncombat support soldier, an HR specialist, who sat in front of a computer all day. He was a “hippie,” Griselda says, into nature and spirituality, a strong believer in women’s rights, staunchly supportive of his female friends. He was just a few months from getting out of the Army, and had plans to buy a new car, take a trip to Japan, and go to college on the GI Bill. “He would never hurt another person,” she says, wiping tears from her eyes. “Nothing justifies the way they murdered him.”
Last May, Rolling Stone was the first to report that drugs — specifically, LSD — might have played some role in whatever went down that Memorial Day weekend. Griselda says that her brother was an enthusiastic proponent of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which he believed held the cure for mental illness. Romero says that Roman-Martinez also took LSD, and that Becerra was allegedly known around the barracks as a small-time dealer of acid tabs. The drug charge against Becerra, which could be for simple possession or a more serious accusation of distribution, shows that military prosecutors suspect him of some kind of narcotics offense.
The detail might be a red herring. Kids in their early twenties go on camping trips and get drunk and trip on psychedelics all the time. But Roman-Martinez’s death took place amid a surge in drug crime on Fort Bragg, with multiple murders with apparent links to the use or distribution of narcotics on-post. And there are few other clues in his killing, which was just one of a massive wave of fatalities at Fort Bragg over the past two years, including repeated instances of fratricidal soldier-on-soldier violence, and literally dozens of deaths for which there is no explanation at all.
In one case, an elite Delta Force soldier suspected of trafficking drugs was found dead on an Army training grounds, the victim of an apparently professional hit by skilled assassins. In another, a heavily pregnant Army wife named Sarah Lewis was brutally murdered by her steroid-enraged husband, a medic in the 1st Special Forces Command, who then died by suicide. Not long after that, a parachute rigger in the 7th Special Forces Group named Tiara Vinson allegedly walked up to Kelia Horton, her rival for the affections of a third soldier, and shot her in the face. Most recently, a staff sergeant in the 82nd Airborne named Alonzo Dargan allegedly did a high-speed drive-by shooting on his extramarital mistress, Akeila Ware, the second pregnant woman to be allegedly murdered by a Fort Bragg soldier in the span of a year.
Sadly, the killings didn’t end there. In September 2021, a warrant officer named Anthony Rivera was charged with the murder of two toddlers he’d adopted, both of whom died of blunt force trauma. In addition, no fewer than five Fort Bragg soldiers were charged with or convicted of raping children under the age of 13 over the course of just six months in 2021.
Meanwhile, Fort Bragg soldiers have been turning up “unresponsive” in their barracks on a disturbingly regular basis since the beginning of 2020, including Caleb Smither, Terrance Salazar, Jamie Boger, Joshua Diamond, Matthew Disney, Mikel Rubino, Michael Hamilton, and numerous others who have not been named. Drugs may have been involved in the cases of Diamond and Disney, who were found dead on the same day in June 2021, just two weeks after an airborne master sergeant named Martin Acevedo III was charged with trafficking cocaine. Otherwise, there has been absolutely no explanation from the Army for how these apparently healthy young men died.
Likewise, in January 2021, an Army captain named Robert Latham died from an “apparent heart attack,” despite being 32 years old and seemingly in excellent physical condition. In October, a highly trained Green Beret and intelligence sergeant named Calvin Rockward died from a “sudden, unexpected medical event,” though he was only 38 and in even better shape, to go by his Instagram photos.
In total, a staggering 83 active-duty soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg died in the 18 months ending June 2021, according to data obtained by Rolling Stone. Only 11 of these deaths were from “natural causes.” Many, perhaps a plurality, were suicides. But in no fewer than 33 cases, the Army has classified the cause of death as “undetermined.”
In other words, the Army can’t or won’t say how a whole platoon’s worth of soldiers died at its largest installation, home of the Special Forces, the Airborne Corps, and the Joint Special Operations Command. Over this same 18-month period, just three Fort Bragg soldiers died in overseas combat, meaning these elite troops are a dizzying 27 times more likely to die stateside than in war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.