DARIEN — A member of the radical militia group Forever Enduring Always Ready, or F.E.A.R., had his sentence reduced Thursday after he cooperated extensively with the government against fellow members in the 2011 slayings of Tiffany York, 17, and Michael Roark, 19.
Michael Burnett will now serve only eight years instead of 10 years, but he will still be on probation for 40 years.
Burnett entered into a plea agreement Aug. 27, 2012, and was originally charged with two counts of murder that were negotiated down to involuntary manslaughter, and two other felony murder counts were dropped. Burnett also pleaded guilty to two counts each of street-gang violations, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime and street-gang activity associated with the use of the firearm. He also was originally charged with two counts of aggravated assault, which were dropped under the negotiated plea.
What would have been four life sentences plus 100-plus years, according to Atlantic Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Robert Russell, was negotiated to serve 10 years in prison, 40 on probation, on the condition that he cooperated fully with authorities in the criminal cases against co-defendants Isaac Aguigui, Christopher Salmon and Anthony Peden.
Formal sentencing was withheld by Russell during that initial plea agreement, as Burnett was expected to testify against the co-defendants during their criminal trials.
During the final sentencing hearing held Thursday in McIntosh County Superior Court, former Assistant District Attorney Isabel Pauley, who was the lead prosecutor in the criminal trials against the F.E.A.R. defendants, spelled out the extent of Burnett’s cooperation to Russell.
At the request of Burnett’s attorney Tracy Mullis, Pauley took the stand.
Pauley said Burnett’s cooperation with local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies surpassed what was expected. Pauley credited Burnett with providing the information necessary to piece together the evidence tied to the murders of Roark and York. She said he also provided sufficient information linking other suspects to the crime. Cooperating with federal and military agencies, Burnett exposed the national reach of F.E.A.R. and its anti-government plans.
Pauley said Burnett even thwarted a prison break being planned by Aguigui while awaiting trial. The scheme, according to testimony, included gunning down a local sheriff and his deputies.
In addition to cooperating on the F.E.A.R. case, Burnett, while in prison, became privy to information regarding a homicide case in Chatham County. His cooperation and later testimony helped convict the prime suspect.
She added that Burnett had to be moved to different facilities, as the reach of F.E.A.R. militia leader Aguigui was strong even while he was imprisoned.
Pauley also said every statement and piece of information provided by Burnett was corroborated and factual.
A tearful Burnett could barely get the words out when asked by Russell to explain what happened the night York and Roark were driven to Lake Morgan in Long County and executed.
Across the courtroom, York’s mom, Brenda Thomas, was taken aback and shook her head in disbelief when Burnett testified that he had stopped the group from killing the couple once before and thought the issue was over.
“I tried to dissuade them. … This wasn’t the first time that I had to do that. … A few weeks prior, they had talked about it, and I talked them out of it. … I thought it was over. … I never saw this happening,” Burnett said, bursting into tears. “I have to live with this the rest of my life.
Burnett said he feared for the life of his son, who was just a little over a year old and in the care of Heather Salmon, a F.E.A.R. member and treasurer and the wife of Christopher Salmon.
Burnett said he also feared for his own life during his chaotic time in the group.
“They had my son,” Burnett said. “I knew that if I didn’t go along with this, they would hurt my son. He was 16 months old. … If I wouldn’t have been there and gone along ... they would have killed him and me.”
Burnett broke down again as he said his son, now 5, knows who he is but has yet to experience being around his father.
The son currently lives with Burnett’s father out of state.
“I just want to go home and see him,” Burnett said before turning to Thomas. “I’m so sorry. … I wish I could change what happened.”
In the courtroom, Burnett’s family came to offer support, and his mother, Tina Martin Klobanak, sobbed. She later took the stand and described her son as a “big teddy bear” and a momma’s boy who always tried to defuse bad situations and who happened to fall in with a bad group while going through a rough divorce.
“He was always a person willing to help … always wanted to be a protector,” she said. “He never really got in trouble before. … He was always a good kid. … I wish we would have been more aware of what was happening right after his divorce.”
Thomas took the stand and said Burnett had not done enough to save her daughter and that he needed to be held accountable for his part in the crime and thereby serve the full sentence in the initial plea.
“I heard your mother speak … and I heard her say you are a protector, a big teddy bear, but you didn’t protect my Tiff or Michael,” Thomas said.
“I heard you say that you wish you could have done something. Well, you could have,” she continued. “You were a part of their group. … You stated that it just wasn’t one time that they were plotting to kill Michael and that you stopped it, but you could have went further. … My daughter is not here. My daughter is not coming home. … I know you want to go home and be with your son. My daughter is not coming home. She is not here to see her little niece. … You’ve done some good things after the fact, but it doesn’t change your involvement in this group. ... You could have stopped this … called 911 … and you didn’t.”
Russell listened intently and decided Burnett’s cooperation merited the reduced prison time from the original negotiated plea.
Mullis asked if her client would receive credit for time served. Russell said that decision is made by the Department of Corrections.
“I feel justice was served,” Thomas said after the hearing, despite the two-year reduction in Burnett’s sentence. “People need to be held accountable for their actions. … I believe the judge was fair, and he got what he deserved. I know he has done a lot of good things … cooperating and preventing some other bad thing from happening. But he didn’t prevent the death of my daughter and Michael.”