A Savannah medical examiner asked to take a second look at the autopsy results of Sgt. Deirdre Aguigui said he determined the 24-year-old, who was about about six months pregnant, died by asphyxiation.
Pathologist Dr. James Downs testified during an Article 32 hearing conducted Monday and Tuesday on Fort Stewart. He said he looked at the evidence from the original autopsy done in September 2011, and by ruling out all other possible causes of death, determined she died July 17, 2011, by asphyxiation, and that her death was a homicide. The original autopsy found the cause of death to be undetermined.
“Deirdra Aguigui died of blunt-force asphyxiation,” said Downs, who explained that he has conducted more than 16,000 autopsies in his 25-year career. “I start with the autopsy report and physical findings, and I walk through what I can see with my own eyes or what’s written on the page. … That’s what autopsy means, to see it yourself.”
Downs reviewed dozens of autopsy photos with lead government attorney Maj. Jaclyn Grieser. He noted instances of petechial hemorrhages in the left eyelid and lips as well as multiple examples of blunt trauma to her wrists, elbows, upper and lower back, head and face. He said the bruises on the wrists were evidence that she probably had struggled violently against handcuffs.
During the examination of each photo, Pvt. Isaac Aguigui looked forward, rather than at the large flat-screen TV on the wall to his left. He did glance up at one point, however, when Downs noted the petechial hemorrhage to the left eyelid — evidence, he said, that she died of asphyxiation.
Downs said it wasn’t unusual that there weren’t more signs of hemorrhaging. He said if the asphyxiation is done quickly — via an Army combatives move called a sleeper hold — the blood to the head is blocked, preventing a lot of hemorrhaging. Other witnesses previously had testified that Aguigui received basic Army combatives training during his advanced individual training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and he told neighbors who inquired about loud noises coming from his Fort Stewart apartment that he and his wife sometimes practiced Army combatives. Neighbor Amanda Still testified hearing such noises the evening of July 17, 2011.
Other witnesses testified Aguigui abused his wife physically and sexually. Lt. Col. Kristin Brown, who was chief of Winn Army Community Hospital’s OB/GYN clinic, testified she saw Deirdre Aguigui several times between April and July 2011. She noted that Deirdre Aguigui had marital problems, and the sergeant told Brown that her husband often required her to perform certain rough acts that included bondage. Brown said she never saw any signs of bruising during complete medical exams.
Brown said Deirdre Aguigui did report falling on her hip at one point, and complained often about pain in her knees and lower back. Brown said her patient seemed mostly sad about her marriage, although she was excited about her pregnancy. Other witnesses testified about the Aguiguis’ marriage, including Isaac Aguigui’s alleged frequent infidelity.
Close friend Michael Schaefer said Isaac Aguigui called his wife vulgar names and frequently said that he hated her. During a trip to Columbia, S.C., on July 15, 2011, Schaefer said, Isaac Aguigui said he would be better off without his wife.
“He was having doubts about whether the child was his,” Schaefer said. “He claimed she’d had an affair while she was downrange. He said he’d be better off without her. I took it to mean if she were dead … I told him that was what divorce was for.”
Schaefer’s sister, Kimberly Fekete, testified she also heard Isaac Aguigui say he would be better off if his wife was dead during the weekend her brother and Isaac Aguigui stayed with her. She said Aguigui went into a vitamins shop while he was there to purchase what she thought was potassium chloride. This later was identified at potassium iodide, which is used to treat cancer patients suffering from radiation poisoning. Others testified they had heard him say his wife was allergic to iodine.
Although the bottle was found in the Aguiguis’ medicine cabinet and a syringe was found in the living room of the apartment during the investigation, autopsy results were negative for potassium iodide. Other medical witnesses called included Dr. William Thompson, the emergency room doctor on call the night Deidre Aguigui was brought to Winn’s emergency room; Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dr. Lisa Rivera, the pathologist-in-training who led the initial autopsy; and Dr. Russell Harley, a semi-retired pathologist with a specialty in lung pathology who also participated in the first autopsy.
Special Agent Justin Kapinus, U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command and lead CID investigator, testified that his office received a call from the casualty-assistance office that Isaac Aguigui had asked about death gratuity pay for his wife. Kapinus said this was one among many examples of unusual behavior by Isaac Aguigui after his wife died. He said Aguigui received more than $500,000 in death gratuity and Soldiers Group Life Insurance.
Several witnesses, including a girlfriend, Samantha Cox, said Isaac Aguigui told her he was going to come into a lot of money soon, referring to a business loan he was expecting approval on. After his wife’s death, he held several beer parties, witnesses said.
Schaefer said the two had talked about starting a security company, but he left all the details to Isaac Aguigui. Defense attorney Capt. Scott Noto had Kapinus testify he had found a security guard’s uniform in the Aguiguis’ master bedroom closet.
Kapinus said the Aguiguis’ apartment appeared too staged for investigators, noting a plate with a single potato, knife and fork on the floor next to the couch where Deidre Aguigui supposedly had been found unresponsive, but fragments of potatoes were strewn across the floor. The bedroom seemed even more staged, he said. Adult “toys,” such as leg restraints and hinge-style handcuffs, lay on the bed next to other paraphernalia. On one end of the bed was a bowl, book and pillow.
In her closing statements, Grieser asked where Aguigui was supposed to have slept until 8 p.m., according to what he told CID investigators. Did he sleep on top of this stuff, she asked. She also noted there was no evidence that Aguigui ever applied for a loan or government grant.
She argued there was sufficient evidence that Aguigui had the opportunity, means and desire to kill his wife. She noted that Downs, a federal “expert” in pathology testimony, had determined there was probable cause to believe Deidre Aguigui died of blunt-force asphyxiation, probably from a sleeper hold. She said the CID investigators discussed their findings and those of Downs and concluded there was enough evidence.
Noto said the government failed to show there were reasonable grounds for the second autopsy. He claimed the hearing itself was the result of what he called Down’s “theory” that Deidre Aguigui died of asphyxiation. He seemed to confuse what Rivera had explained about the difference between cause of death and manner of death.
She had said an autopsy might conclude with a cause of death but not the manner in which it was caused. Noto suggested there was no evidence to determine whether Deidre Aguigui was asphyxiated by strangulation, smothering or some other manner.