The case background
Pvt. Michael Burnett pleaded guilty Aug. 27 to two counts of voluntary manslaughter in exchange for his testimony against three other men charged in the crime. Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, Pvt. Christopher Salmon and Sgt. Anthony Peden each face 13 counts including malice murder, felony murder and illegal gang activity in slayings. Salmon’s wife, Heather Salmon, also has been charged with murder.
As the prosecution mounts allegations against five suspects in a December 2011 double slaying in Long County, wounds deepen for relatives of victim Tiffany York, who was killed in Long County on Dec. 4 alongside her boyfriend, Michael Roark.
The girl’s father, Tim York, and paternal grandmother, Linda Cardwell, spoke Thursday evening with the Courier from their home near Fresno, Calif.
Their greatest issue, they said, is lack of communication from the District Attorney’s office. They said they found out about last week’s hearings the night before.
"We hear it on the internet," Cardwell said. "Do you think that’s fair for the grandmother and the father?"
Victim witness advocate Samantha Ashdown, who serves Liberty and Long counties, said she has been notifying several members of the victims’ families but will begin communicating with Cardwell after hearing her concerns.
The lack of communication arose when another family member volunteered to notify the family in California — a frequent cause for confusion because advocates only are required to provide notice to those who directly request it.
"Sometimes we only know a couple of days in advance with scheduling with attorneys and judges and the way court goes," Ashdown added. "We can know anywhere from three to five days in advance."
They family said Tiffany York gave no indications of the allegations that the suspects and Roark were involved in an extremist militia that sought to overthrow the government — but some red flags had arisen.
Cardwell said her granddaughter mentioned guns and cash lying around, and York said his daughter texted him some pictures of guns. He thought at first that they were hunting guns, until a closer inspection indicated they might be assault rifles.
"I go, ‘What’s he doing with that many guns and stuff?’" York said. "She told me, ‘Dad, all I want is to get there to you and grandma’s house and let them get to Washington.’"
As for the cash, Tiffany York told her family the cash was proceeds from a security business.
Cardwell added that she sends her condolences to Roark’s father and does not blame his son.
"This has to be a hard, hard situation for him — you know, that was his son. My heart goes out to him, it really does," she said.
The Liberty County High School senior planned to move to California and live with her father and grandmother but was waiting to finish her first-semester classes so the credits would transfer, the pair said.
"I’ve got a plane ticket," Cardwell said, adding that she went back and forth about the color the teen wanted her room painted before deciding on a shade of yellow.
They also refuted claims that the teen had run away from her mother’s Midway home.
In an interview last week with WTOC, the teen’s mother, Brenda Thomas, said her daughter left home because she could not abide by the rules.
"I carry the guilt, I think it’s my fault … I didn’t know in Georgia the law was that a 17-year-old can leave home," York said, adding that he wishes he had come to get his daughter rather than letting her finish school.
"You could sit Tiffany in a room of 100 people, and I guarantee you not one person would walk out of that room and hate her," York said. "She had such a big heart — always loving and laughing … It’s just hard to believe that she’s gone now. I love her, and she’s very, very, very missed."
The teen’s stepfather, Wesley Thomas, said he interacted with Roark several times and that he never saw cause for alarm.
"Mike, he showed me guns, but they’re just collectible guns that you’d use for target practice, not for stuff like this," he said about the militia allegations. He added that the family used to skeet and target shoot together, and Tiffany York enjoyed it as well.
Thomas lunged at one of the defendants Thursday during a pretrial hearing, but said that no charges were filed against him.
"I shouldn’t have done what I did in the courtroom, but nobody’s going to tell me what I did was wrong … you don’t never know what you’re going to do in that situation unless you’re in it," he said, adding that officers restrained him, calmed him down and explained that he cannot behave that way.
Thomas said the teen did not know about the suspects’ alleged plot and that she would have spoken up if she did.
"I just want justice, I guess ... I know it’s going to be a long, drawn-out process, and it just doesn’t seem fair. My daughter didn’t get a choice on how long her life was going to live," he said.
He added that he does not think Fort Stewart has responded appropriately to the situation.
"I heard on the news yesterday that they’re saying there’s no more out there. … It’s hard to believe four people can plot stuff like this without having somebody else involved," he said. "I just feel Fort Stewart should be locked down until they get to the bottom of it — there’s no way four people can come up with all this."