Accused anti-government militia leader Isaac Aguigui pleaded guilty Friday morning in Long County Superior Court to hatching a plot that resulted in the December 2011 shooting deaths of Tiffany York, 17, and Michael Roark, 19.
Aguigui, a 22-year-old Army private, is said by prosecutors to have recruited disenchanted soldiers based at Fort Stewart into a group called F.E.A.R., Forever Enduring Always Ready, with the aim of eventually overthrowing the government. He accepted a plea negotiated by Chatham County Assistant District Attorney Isabel Pauley, thus possibly avoiding the death penalty.
Under the terms of the deal, Aguigui pleaded guilty to two murder counts and four counts of violating the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act. He agreed to cooperate with authorities in all other cases connected with the incident.
Judge Robert Russell III sentenced Aguigui to concurrent life-imprisonment sentences — without the possibility of parole — for the teenagers’ deaths and 15-year sentences for each of the additional charges.
Aguigui said two other militia members, Anthony Peden and Christopher Salmon, F.E.A.R.’s alleged co-creator, carried out the killings as he watched.
Roark’s and York’s family members were in court and listened as Aguigui talked about Roark’s involvement with his militia. He said he and other group members questioned Roark’s habit of bringing his girlfriend, York, around the group because she was a minor and the members were concerned she might tell her parents about their plans and goals. Aguigui said they also questioned Roark’s allegiance to F.E.A.R. when he stopped participating in activities. In order to protect the group, he said, the members decided to execute Roark, who recently had been discharged from the Army.
Aguigui said he, Peden and Salmon lured the teenagers to a wooded area at Lake Morgan the night of Dec. 5, 2011, by inviting Roark to shoot at targets in Long County. Aguigui said the plan did not involve killing York, and he told Roark not to bring her. When Roark let her come along anyway, the group members decided to kill York to avoid leaving a witness.
Aguigui said Peden shot York as she exited the car, and then Salmon shot Roark in the head. Their bodies were discovered by local fishermen.
Roughly four days later, Aguigui, Peden, Salmon, Michael Burnett and Heather Salmon were arrested. Others reportedly involved were arrested during the next year. And this year, the Army reopened an investigation into the July 2011 death of Aguigui's wife, Sgt. Deirdre Aguigui, and has charged him with murder.
Salmon and Peden also were in court Friday. Their attorneys expressed concern about the media coverage surrounding the case and requested that the press not be allowed to take pictures or video during proceedings. District Attorney Tom Durden reasoned that the case had been going on for two years and said the media had a right to cover it. Russell ruled that the media could use cameras.
Long County Sheriff Craig Nobles said that authorities heard rumors about an escape attempt planned Friday during transport of the prisoners.
Peden’s attorney, Burton Baker, told the judge that his client had not been part of an escape plot. Even so, Russell ruled that Peden and Salmon would remain in leg irons and handcuffs. The attorneys had asked that their clients’ restraints be removed.
Additionally, because new counsel had been appointed to both Peden and Salmon, Russell said their cases would need to “start over.” Peden’s first court appearance will be Dec. 5, and Salmon’s will be Dec. 6.
During proceedings, Roark’s father, Brett Jahr, stifled cries and eventually was helped from the room when he appeared to become physically ill after hearing his son’s death described. He stood, sobbing, and made his way to the hallway.
Tracy Jahr, Roark’s mother, and life partner Jackie Gillmore buried their faces in tissues as Aguigui recalled hearing Roark beg for his life before he was executed.
York’s mother, Brenda Thomas, wiped away tears as she learned Peden reportedly volunteered to shoot her daughter twice in the head.
During the victims’ impact hearing, Thomas said she misses her daughter’s smile, personality and beauty.
“When I got the call, it was unreal. It was like a part of our lives died along with Tiffany,” she said.
She looked at Peden, who was seated in the courtroom during the hearing, and said she knows her daughter is in heaven.
“I feel her spirit and presence around me every day,” she said. “Even though I can’t feel and touch her, she is here.”
Thomas said she was appalled to learn the killers were soldiers.
“Soldiers — here in our country — did this to our kids in our own backyard. I was so disgusted,” she said. “As a realtor, every time a soldier came into my business, I would thank them for what they’ve done for us and our country and for my family, and I can’t say that anymore. I hope you spend the rest of your miserable life locked up in a cell and think about what you’ve done to our kids, to our families and to your families. I am so disgusted, but God gives me the strength and the peace to know that one day I will see Tiffany and Michael and all my loved ones, and I can’t say that for you. God bless your souls. That’s all I have to say.”
Roark’s mother attempted to take the stand but became too upset to speak.
“I’m sorry,” Jabr said between sobs. “I just can’t do this right now.”
She handed her written statement to Durden, who read it to the court.
Gillmore did have a message for Agugui.
“Look at me,” she said to him. “This morning, I stood in the bathroom and I asked God to give me the words to say. Before Dec. 5, 2011, I knew there was evil in this world. Before Dec. 5, 2011, that evil had never touched me or my family. You, Isaac, with your friends, with your actions, you brought that evil into my son’s life. But I can tell you he is here right now. His body is here because his ashes are securely around my neck since his grandfather brought him home. Right here — it’s with his mom, his grandmother and his aunt. This is all I have left of his physical body. His spirit is here because he is that bright and shiny, regardless of how you have tainted him or how you have manipulated him or the lies you told him or what you thought he did to you. He is here now because he is deeply loved and missed. He is here now because each one of us honors him. You and your people can never take that from me or any one of us.”
Roark’s grandfather, Michael Jabr, said Roark was following in the proud footsteps of his military father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
“You are a disgrace to the Army,” he told Aguigui. “Your actions disgrace all who have served this country and those who serve today … ”
After the trial, Thomas said she was pleased that Aguigui took a plea deal. She vowed to attend Peden’s trial and watch him go to jail.
Gillmore and Jabr said the plea was not the closure they were hoping for, but knowing Aguigui will remain in jail for the rest of his life is something they could live with.