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, pleading guilty to a slew of charges surrounded the young couple’s death. Under the initial agreement, he was to serve 10 years in prison, 40 on probation and cooperate fully with authorities in the criminal cases against Burnett’s co-defendants Isaac Aguigui, Christopher Salmon and Anthony Peden.
Formal sentencing was withheld by Atlantic Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Robert 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 Long 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 of the defendant. Pauley credited Burnett for 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.
She added that Burnett had to be moved to different facilities on occasion as the reach of F.E.A.R. militia leader Aguigui was strong even while imprisoned.
She also said every statement and piece of information provided by Burnett was corroborated and factual.
A tearful Burnett could barely get the words out of his mouth 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.
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.
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 bear” and a momma’s boy who always tried to defuse bad situations who happened to fall in with a bad group while going through a rough 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 of the initial plea.
Russell listened intently and decided Burnett’s cooperation merited the reduced prison time.
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, despite the two year reduction. “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.”
Read more in Sunday’s Coastal Courier.