July 13, 2009
A photograph of Amanda Jean Snell shows her in Navy dress whites, a knowing look in her luminous, gray-green eyes and a slight smile on her lips. Her white cap with the dark-blue brim is perched above her ears, the USN insignia front and center over her forehead.
“Pure good in quantities that don’t seem they could possibly fit in your tiny frame” is how a friend would later describe her on MySpace.
From an early age, Snell seemed destined for the military. She was born in Twentynine Palms, California—home to the largest Marine base in the world—and her mother, Cynthia, served in the Corps. In high school, Snell was active in ROTC. After graduation, she enlisted in the Navy. She did basic training in Great Lakes, Illinois, then attended the Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center in Virginia Beach.
In the fall of 2008, Snell was assigned to the office of the Chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon and moved into Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington. Snell’s buddies from civilian life adored her, but she made few friends in Keith Hall barracks, which housed Marines, sailors, and a few Air Force personnel. They wanted to party hard; she didn’t. She described herself on MySpace as “kinda isolated.”
Snell volunteered as a youth minister at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Alexandria, and from her desk at the Pentagon she began dreaming of a life after the Navy: “I want to teach Special Education and kids with autism,” she wrote on MySpace. “I guess I have been lucky on that front to find something that I truly value . . . and found my purpose in.”
Snell was scheduled to work on Monday, July 13, 2009. When she didn’t report for duty, word went out to check her room. The door was unlocked. The bed was made. The room was tidy.
Amanda Snell was found wedged into the locker where she stored her clothes, a pillowcase over head.
She was dead.
• • •
A call went out to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. When foul play is suspected on a Marine or Navy base anywhere in the world, NCIS agents arrive on the scene.
“The NCIS mission is to investigate and defeat criminal, terrorist, and foreign intelligence threats to the United States Navy and Marine Corps,” its mission statement says, “wherever they operate: ashore, afloat, or in cyberspace.”
The Amanda Snell case would have made a good episode of NCIS, one of the most popular dramas on television, now headed into its tenth season: How did Amanda—an attractive, healthy, 20-year-old intelligence specialist—come to her end in her barracks? If she was killed, by whom? For what reason?
But for the real-life NCIS, the Amanda Snell case wouldn’t play out as neatly as it might on TV.
NCIS’s world headquarters was located in the Washington Navy Yard at the time. The DC field office of about 140 agents was in Anacostia; it had jurisdiction over a dozen bases, including the Marine Barracks on Capitol Hill, Naval Air Station Patuxent River, and Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
When Snell’s body was found, NCIS agents crossed the Potomac River and went to Keith Hall. They took photographs of her room and searched for clues. Forensic experts examined and bagged her bed linens. The agents began interviewing everyone in the barracks.
The autopsy showed no bruising or signs of struggle. Tests determined that there was no sexual assault, no rape, no indication of sexual activity. A medical examiner’s report ruled the cause of death to be “undetermined.”
Snell’s family and friends told NCIS investigators that she suffered from migraines and that one way she would ease the pounding was to curl up in a dark place and put a sheet or pillowcase over her head. She also had a slight heart defect.
Because there were no witnesses and no evidence of a crime, because her room seemed undisturbed, and because she had a medical history that might explain why she had expired, NCIS forensic agents thought she might have died of natural causes, perhaps by assuming a position that caused her to suffocate.
The paperwork came across the desk of John Wagner, a veteran NCIS agent then stationed at headquarters as deputy assistant director of the criminal division. There were two camps within NCIS: Some believed that Amanda Snell had died of natural causes; Wagner and others suspected foul play. Snell’s laptop was missing, as was her iPod.
Wagner didn’t buy that she had simply expired, and he declined to accept the “undetermined” cause of death. He directed agents to pursue the case as a homicide.
• • •
Jorge Avila Torrez lived seven doors down the hall from Amanda Snell.
Torrez, 20, was a Marine, but he didn’t come off as the typical jarhead. He was short and slight, and he lacked the swagger that Marines are supposed to display. He had two close friends who also lived in Keith Hall. They called themselves the three amigos.
Torrez had grown up in Zion, Illinois, on the shores of Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee. His parents had emigrated from Mexico. His father worked in a cardboard factory; his mother was a homemaker. Torrez was close to his older sister, Sara. Friends said he cut class in high school, and when police caught him with a small amount of marijuana at school in 2005, he was expelled.
Like Amanda Snell, Torrez enlisted right out of high school. In April 2009, he was assigned to an administrative job in the Washington area and moved into the barracks at Keith Hall.
George, as he preferred to be called, loved cars and trucks. Away from work, he spent hours playing video games. His friends thought of him as solid and dependable, the kind of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back.
Because Torrez lived down the hall from Snell, investigators asked if he had been in her room or had anything beyond a passing relationship with her. He said no.
He offered to help the agents with their investigation. Could he be their eyes on the base?