Family Suspects Cover-Up in Airman's Death on Base

Hours after Senior Airman Blanca Luna was found with a knife in her neck in her room at Sheppard Air Force Base, authorities told her family it was apparently a homicide.

But investigators later said it might be suicide, asking relatives whether Luna was right- or left-handed and wondering if she was having problems with money or a boyfriend, said her mother, Gloria Barrios.

Then an investigator denied knowing about bruises on the woman's face and scratches on her hands that relatives saw after her body arrived for burial, Barrios said. Agents also appeared dismissive when two people who had visited Luna at the base said some male airmen had given her problems, the mother said.

Now, after seven months in agonizing limbo and gnawing suspicions of a military cover-up, Luna's family is demanding answers.

"I have come here for responses ... but no responses have been given me regarding the murder of my daughter," Barrios said in Spanish through a translator Friday after meeting with Air Force officials at the base. "I feel everything was a failure because I did not receive what I came for. ... I feel there is a cover-up."

Base spokesman George Woodward said he understands Barrios' frustration but that most details cannot be released, to protect the investigation's integrity. Woodward said he could not comment on anything investigators might have told the family.

"We are committed to finding out what happened to Senior Airman Luna," Woodward said Friday. "We have nothing to hide."

Citing the continuing investigation, officials refused Barrios' request for a copy of the autopsy report, a list of witnesses interviewed and the airman's belongings. Barrios said the room in which Luna died in March remains sealed, but that she saw a similar room, classrooms and other parts of the base.

"What's next is I will keep fighting for justice for my daughter," Barrios said in front of a dozen supporters, one holding a sign that read "Justicia Para Mi Hija — Basta Con Las Mentiras U.S. Air Force," which means "Justice for my daughter — Enough of the lies of the U.S. Air Force."

After Luna's family requested a meeting at Sheppard, officials released an update this week saying authorities still have not determined how she died — "homicide, suicide, accident, or etc."

The statement said all Air Force deaths are investigated as homicides initially, but that nothing suggests that anyone on base is in danger. Agents are working on the case full time and have conducted more than 350 interviews nationwide, the statement said. More than 200 DNA tests have been done, Woodward said, declining to elaborate.

Barrios said authorities have needlessly harassed Luna's friends and acquaintances.

"My gut feeling is they are looking for a culprit outside of the base, but the murderer is on the base. They're looking in the wrong place," Barrios told The Associated Press.

Last fall, the 27-year-old Luna went to a training course at Sheppard, the largest technical training operation in the Air Force. The base near the Texas-Oklahoma state line has about 5,000 students at any given time.

Although she had served four years in the Marine Corps after high school, Luna enlisted in the Air Force Reserves shortly after returning home to the Chicago area while she was studying graphic design. She needed extra money and also loved the military, her mother said.

Luna had been assigned to a unit at Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana, about 115 miles from her home.

Denise Figueroa, Luna's best friend, visited the Texas base in November and February and said Luna seemed her typical jovial self — but mentioned a problem.

"It was not like a big problem — just, `Somebody in class didn't listen to me, but I talked to them,"' Figueroa, of Chicago, told the AP by phone. "She was higher than other people, and maybe they didn't like that."

After one of Luna's aunts visited her, she told Barrios a similar story — that some airmen appeared to resent Luna's leadership position because she was a woman, Barrios said. But at the time, the family didn't think much about it.

Then on March 7, just three days before Luna was to graduate from the heating, ventilation and air conditioning course, she was dead.

Luna was found with a knife in the back of her neck, according to her death certificate, and was pronounced dead after being rushed to a Wichita Falls hospital.

Barrios was told the tragic news and handed a printed statement signed by Maj. Gen. K.C. McClain, which offered condolences and said Luna died "as the result of an apparent homicide."

When Luna's body arrived in Chicago, it was already embalmed and dressed in a military uniform, her mother said. Barrios and other relatives said they noticed bruises on Luna's face, as if she had been punched, and scratches between her fingers that appeared to be defensive wounds.

Although investigators talked to the family several times after that, some information doesn't add up, Barrios said.

Luna's family insists she never would have committed suicide and that the evidence doesn't support that suggestion.

Barrios said Friday she also was upset that the Air Force gave the briefing only to her, a sister and one of her friends, whose Army soldier son died in Afghanistan in 2004 — all Spanish speakers. The Air Force provided its own translator.

Woodward said the Air Force denied access to Barrios' translator, Magda Castaneda, because she is a member of the Chicago Committee Against Militarization of Youth and is "not a disinterested party." Retired Army Col. Ann Wright, a vocal opponent of the Iraq war who has been raising awareness of violence against military women, also was denied access.

Barrios has a message for youths, urging them to "take a hard look" before joining the military.

"My daughter's dream became a nightmare," she said.