St. Louisans helped reopen investigation of murder in Chile

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Erica Hagan was 22 when she was found murdered in an on-campus apartment. Her sister helped collect signatures for a petition to reopen the 2014 case

ST. LOUIS — Erica Faith Hagan was a 22-year-old Georgetown graduate student teaching children how to speak English in Chile when she was found beaten to death in her on-campus apartment.

Six years later, her murder remains unsolved.

But it is far from forgotten.

In recent months, Hagan’s sister, Vivian O’Neal, told anyone who would listen to her about the botched investigation. She recounted the story to strangers when she went grocery shopping. When she waited tables at a popular St. Louis restaurant. And spread the word on social media. 

She got about 1,000 people to sign a petition that was part of an international effort to pressure Chilean authorities to reopen the case.

In addition to the petition, protesters have lined the streets around Colegio Bautista – where Hagan was teaching at the time of her murder – holding pictures of the brown-eyed American girl with brown wavy locks past her shoulders with the words, “Justicia Para Erica Hagan.”

She’s become the poster child for a national movement demanding Chilean authorities do more to solve crimes against women.

“She was only there two months, and she mattered to them and it feels good to know that she touched other people, especially that far away,” said Vivian O’Neal of St. Louis.

Hagan’s mother, Regina O’Neal, has watched it all unfold in a country she has never been to, and in a language she doesn’t understand, from her computer in Kentucky. She has posted numerous updates about the case to the Justicia Para Erica Hagan social media page, liked by about 21,000 people.

This month, almost six years to the day Erica Hagan died, the pressure worked. Chilean authorities announced they were reopening the case. Vivian O’Neal credits her mother’s persistence for the renewed attention.

“Sometimes, I feel sad that it’s even come to this, that you have to go so far and to such great lengths to get somebody to notice and to listen, even when you’re yelling at them but I am grateful and I hope that it’s going to be resolved and that my sister will get the justice that she deserves,” Vivian O’Neal said.

Erica Hagan graduated as valediction of her high school class in Kentucky, which earned her a scholarship to Georgetown University. She studied psychology, and minored in Spanish, her mother said.

On a missionary trip to Chile, she fell in love with the country and its children, her mother said.

“That’s when she just really found her spot,” her mother said.

She returned to the country after graduating from Georgetown to teach elementary children at the Colegio Bautista in Tenaco, Chile.

Two months later, her host family found her body in the bathtub. She was nude. Beaten. And submerged in scalding hot water that had leaked into the school’s science laboratory next door.

A fire poker was the murder weapon.

“It was brutal,” her mother said, trailing off. “She was brutally murdered.”

The only way Regina O’Neal said she knew it was her daughter’s body was because of a tattoo on her foot, which had been left out of the water. It was her favorite Bible verse from the book of Corinthians.

“It’s the one about love, you know, love is good, and that was Erica,” Regina O’Neal said. “She loved everybody.

“At the beginning, people said it was a jealous rage, you know, somebody, her lover or something, a boyfriend. But it wasn’t. The autopsy revealed she was a virgin. She wasn’t raped.”

The killer, or killers, tried to set the apartment on fire.

A security guard was arrested, but acquitted at trial.

Allegations of a botched investigation soon surfaced.

Erica’s watch went missing from evidence.

A police officer’s DNA was found on the fire poker because of careless crime scene processing.

And the prosecutor was related to Erica Hagan’s host family – several members of whom were questioned as suspects.

Earlier this year, the Chilean government awarded Erica’s father a $240,000 settlement for the mishandling of the case.

Regina O’Neal is divorced from Erica’s father, so she said she didn’t get any of the settlement.

She says she doesn’t want money.

And, on social media, she has found thousands of sympathetic ears.

Hoy es 5 de septiembre, a seis años de tu asesinato a manos cobardes y psicopáticas. ¿Quién podría matar a una mujer con…

Posted by Justicia para Erica Hagan on Saturday, September 5, 2020

A team of Chilean authorities who are part of the movement to get justice for women has taken on the case pro bono.

Chilean media also have kept the case in the news.

One television station aired part of a recorded conversation between the son of Erica’s host family and his ex-bisexual boyfriend, with whom Erica Hagan was spotted walking on the day of her murder.

“It is of his ex-boyfriend calling him and saying, ‘Please tell me you didn’t have anything to do with this,’ and there’s a 10 to 15-second pause before the young man says, ‘What do you want me to say?’” Regina O’Neal said. “But there’s still a lot of questions.”

Recently, an attorney working for the school used a document Regina O’Neal said she gave him outlining flaws in the case to convince a judge to let the school go back into the apartment. The judge granted the request, and now the crime scene is further contaminated. 

Regina O’Neal said after that happened, she made an emotional post on her social media page and days later, found out the case was being reopened.

She and Vivian O’Neal hope to soon go to Chile to meet the lawyers now working on the case as well as the activists who have taken to the streets demanding justice.

It’s because of them that the mother and daughter now know why Erica fell in love with the country and its people, even though they believe the authorities there failed them.

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