Gloria Barrios’s search for answers brought her to the gates of Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, on October 3. Her 27-year-old daughter, Blanca Luna, had been found stabbed to death there seven months earlier. Barrios still didn’t know what exactly had happened to her daughter, and the air force had ignored her demands to see the autopsy report, photos, and other evidence in the case. So she’d come to see what she could find out herself.
As I reported in a Reader cover story in July (“Murder on the Base?”), Luna was completing training in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in the air force reserves, her second stint in the military, when she was found stabbed to death in her room at Sheppard on March 7. The air force called it an “apparent homicide.” Barrios, a longtime Pilsen resident who doesn’t speak much English, spent the ensuing months trying to get the military to share the most basic information about the circumstances of her daughter’s death. When air force investigators finally did talk to her about the case, they suggested Luna might have committed suicide. As Barrios began telling her story, she made contacts with activists, attorneys, and political leaders interested in helping her find out more. Among them was Ann Wright, a colonel who followed 29 years in the army and army reserves with 16 years as a diplomat before resigning in protest over the invasion of Iraq. Wright suspected that Luna’s death was part of a pattern of violence against women within the military that had gone mostly uninvestigated.
Barrios arrived at Sheppard in October with her sister and several friends and supporters, including Wright; Juan Torres, a Chicago-area man whose son had died under mysterious circumstances in Afghanistan in 2004; and her trusted interpreter Magda Castañeda. Barrios told officials she wanted to see the room where her daughter died.
She was told she could tour the base—but only with her sister and Torres. The others would have to wait outside. Castañeda and Wright said officials singled out Castañeda, accusing her of talking to the media too much.
Barrios was allowed to take a look around the base hotel where her daughter had lived but not the actual room where she’d been found dead. Barrios left the base feeling even more angry and frustrated at how little information she’d been given.
A couple weeks later, Barrios received a letter from Captain C.T. Mallak, from the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, as well as copies of the autopsy and toxicology reports and a CD of photos of Luna’s body.
“I must emphasize that the photos on this disc are graphic in nature,” Mallak wrote. “I strongly recommend that you read this report and view these photographs in the presence of people that can provide you with emotional support during this time, such as a minister, a family friend, or a counselor.”
Since the autopsy report, dated March 8, was in English, Barrios turned to friends for help. Torres, whom Barrios met through the Chicago Committee Against the Militarization of Youth, a grassroots group that fights military recruitment in high schools, and Shaun McCanna, a filmmaker who just completed Drugs and Death at Bagram, a documentary about Torres’s son John, translated it for her. McCanna says it was a painful task.
The report says Luna’s body was found with a five-inch kitchen knife sticking out of the back of her neck, blade up, half of it sunk into her flesh: “This 27-year-old active duty USAF female died of a single stab wound to the back of the neck that penetrated the distal brain stem.” It says that her black jacket and two T-shirts were cut open by medical workers and that defibrillator pads were stuck to her body. It notes she was wearing no pants or underwear. “An area of dry white/translucent flaky residue is present on the left groin,” it says. There was a “sanguineous fluid” in her mouth as well as a “dark red area” on the left side of her lips and a small abrasion on her inner lip. Her other organs and body parts were described as healthy or “unremarkable.” Toxicology tests were negative for alcohol and other substances except for atropine, a drug used by medical professionals to revive patients in shock—likely administered as medical staff tried to save her.
As painful as these details were for Barrios, the conclusion of the report was even worse: “The autopsy findings and circumstances of death alone are insufficient to discriminate between homicide and suicide and, at the time of this report, the subsequent investigative and evidentiary information are inconclusive. Therefore, the manner of death is undetermined.”
On November 12, McCanna e-mailed questions about the autopsy and the progress of the investigation to Colonel Christina Bedford, one of the investigators who initially contacted Barrios last spring. The following day, Barrios says, a Spanish-speaking air force liaison named Fernando Martinez called her on her cell phone. She was heading into a doctor’s appointment and wasn’t able to talk, but he gave her his cell and office numbers. After she left him several messages, he called her back on November 17. She says she asked why her daughter wasn’t wearing any pants and was told, “They took them off for the examination,” which she doesn’t believe. Martinez told her no fingerprints were found on the knife. She asked about the dried fluid on Luna’s groin; he said he would get back to her with more information.
Paul Stone, spokesman for the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner in Rockville, Maryland, told me he was unaware of Luna’s case but would make sure someone contacted Barrios. “We will talk to family members for as long as they want and answer any questions,” he said. Stone couldn’t comment on the content of the autopsy report, but he said it had taken a long time for Barrios to get a copy because medical examiners in his office had reviewed the original report by the regional Armed Forces Medical Examiner in Texas because “it was such an unusual case.”
Barrios hopes the information in the autopsy means there will be criminal justice proceedings. The report notes that evidence, including vaginal swabs and fingernail clippings, were collected and turned over to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. But that doesn’t mitigate her anger and frustration.
“I can’t express what I feel about these people,” she says. “They’re treating me like dirt. They are driving me crazy. It’s like they’re playing with my mind, giving me bad information.”
As the season’s first snow fell in mid-November, Barrios sat in her home in west Pilsen leafing through childhood photos of Luna, showing birthday parties where she dug into chocolate and strawberry cakes, her favorites. Barrios reminisced how people often thought she and Luna were sisters, and she was often the only parent hanging out with Luna and her teenage friends. Luna was on the swim team at Curie High—Barrios called her “my little fish”—and said she was the leader of her group of friends. The other girls were usually satisfied to hang out in Pilsen and Little Village, but Luna would convince them to go downtown “to the big stores” instead.
Other photos on the table showed Luna in elementary school with a science project asking, “Will the pulse rate increase or decrease with loud and soft music?” Her high school graduation picture showed her slender and elegant in black high heels and a black pantsuit. Barrios said she had a tattoo of her favorite animal, a panther, on her shoulder. “The panther is smarter and more agile than the lion,” said Barrios, smiling as she echoed her daughter’s words. A Day of the Dead altar erected in Barrios’s living room includes dark chocolate, which Luna loved, and a poem she wrote urging friends to live in the moment and seize the day.
Barrios has met with a lawyer to weigh her options. She says she doesn’t want money—she wants answers from military officials, and she wants them to classify Luna’s death a homicide and find the culprit.
“I want other girls to know what goes on at these bases so the same thing doesn’t happen to them,” she says. “The military is just trying to protect their reputation. This gives me anger and courage.”v