HINESVILLE, Ga. – FEAR goes on trial today.
Court-martial proceedings against Pvt. Isaac Aguigui (right), the accused ringleader of FEAR, an antigovernment gang of active-duty American soldiers, are scheduled to begin here this morning on the Fort Stewart Army base where, military prosecutors charge, the young soldier murdered his wife nearly two years ago.
Sgt. Deirdre Wetzker Aguigui, a promising Army linguist, was found unconscious on July 17, 2011, on the sofa in the living room of the Aguiguis’ home on the sprawling base and later pronounced dead at a post hospital. She was 24 years old and five months pregnant.
Aguigui allegedly financed the Fort Stewart-based gang – including a frantic two-month buying spree of $87,000 worth of military-grade weapons – with $500,000 in life insurance money he received shortly after his wife’s death.
A few months later, state prosecutors say, the gang murdered two teenagers to keep secret its plot to overthrow the government through a torrent of kidnappings, bombings and political assassinations. The murder weapon was one of the guns purchased with Deirdre Aguigui’s insurance proceeds.
Heather Salmon, described as the gang’s matriarch, won’t be attending the court-martial.
She’ll be 50 miles away, where she’s been for the last year, locked up in the Brantley County Jail, charged in civilian court along with Aguigui and two others with the execution-style murder of the teenagers.
On Saturday, Salmon, 29, dressed in a baggy pink-and-white jail uniform, sat down with Hatewatch in a visiting room at the jail and, in an exclusive interview, talked about Aguigui, the charges against her, and her fears for the future.
“None of this makes any sense to me,” Salmon said. “It’s ridiculous. I’m afraid for my kids. I’m not afraid for myself, because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Salmon said she is not guilty of murder or of anything else to do with the gang. She added she did not even know FEAR existed or what its acronym stands for until her lawyer told her: Forever Enduring, Always Ready. But state prosecutors say Salmon, a former soldier and mother of four, is the steely-willed second-in-command to Aguigui, 22, who was a page at the 2008 national Republican convention.
Aguigui, Salmon, her husband, Pvt. Christopher Salmon, and Sgt. Anthony Peden, have been charged with the murders of Michael Roark, 19, and his girlfriend, Tiffany York, 17. Roark was a member of the men’s Army unit before his discharge three days before his murder. It appears Roark was also part of the gang, but had decided to quit and return to his home in Washington. Roark and York sometimes hung out with the others at the Salmons’ home. “Tiffany was really sweet,” Salmon said in the interview. “Mike was kind of like the annoying little brother.”
A fifth member of the gang, Pfc. Michael Burnett, was also charged with murder, but received a lesser sentence in exchange for his testimony against his former comrades. During a court appearance last August, Burnet said Salmon’s husband and Peden did the actual killing as Aguigui watched.
Prosecutors say members of the inner circle of the gang called themselves the “Family” and Salmon, the matriarch, was called “Momma Ray” by the men who followed her orders.
“I’m nobody’s mother except for my kids,” Salmon said, adding that to be reunited with her children, “I’d testify against everybody – if I knew anything.”
All told, 11 people – most of them active-duty or former soldiers – have been arrested and charged in the case. Salmon is the only woman.
“Isaac was having some serious issues the last couple of months,” Salmon told Hatewatch. “He would talk to me about his wife and tell me that he missed her and everything. He just started getting farther and farther into drugs. And slowly but surely, he started to change. He was very levelheaded when I first met him. He was easy to talk to. But as time passed he started doing stupid stuff with the guys.”
While she did not go into the woods and shoot the sweethearts in the head — she was at home babysitting — authorities say Salmon was “part and parcel” of FEAR and a key decision-maker on the December night of their death.
Salmon is not facing the death penalty. But her husband, Peden and Aguigui may be put to death if convicted.
“Isaac was charismatic,” Salmon said. “And when he wasn’t on drugs, he was a really good person, a decent guy. I’ve never heard him say he wanted to cause anyone any harm.”
Yet one night in a bedroom at her house, about a week before the teenagers were killed, she said, Agugui “dissected a cat while it was alive.”
Salmon said that a few months ago, agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command came to visit her in jail and asked her about the death of Aguigui’s wife. Salmon said all she knew was what her friend Aguigui told her: After spending some intimate time together, he found his wife unconscious on the living room sofa. He called 911 and attempted CPR but she did not respond. Autopsy results were inconclusive.
But as civilian prosecutor Isabel Pauley dug deeper into Aguigui connection to the murder of the two teenagers, she began to repeatedly state in open court that his wife’s death had been “highly suspicious.”
Still, for nearly two years no one was held accountable – until now.
“She’d always come over to the house,” Salmon said of Deirdre Aguigui. “She was really excited to be pregnant. She was having some problems; she said her legs hurt off and on, which is normal with pregnancy. She asked a few questions about back pain and what to expect later on.”
While the military took its time investigating Sgt. Aguigui’s death, her husband’s antigovernment group was starting to organize at Fort Stewart.
“Tiffany and Michael would be alive today if the army had done its job when it was supposed to,” York’s mother, Brenda Thomas, told Hatewatch. “I’m never going to have closure and I’m never ever going to understand how the military allowed this to happen.”
Thomas said she was uncertain at first about whether she would attend today’s Article 32 hearing, which is a first step in the court-martial process, similar to a grand jury hearing, and includes cross-examination by opposing lawyers. But she has decided to take her three surviving children.
“We have to go,” she said. “He is the reason Tiffy is not here and Michael. It’s just hard to believe. People that are supposed to protect us took my baby from me. It wasn’t like this evil came from a different country and did this. I think one of the hardest things I deal with is these guys that are supposed to be soldiers took my daughter.”
Aguigui and the other men were arrested four days after the young lovers were found dead. Heather Salmon was questioned and released. She was not arrested and charged in the case until June 2012.
Like most of the men in the group, Salmon had a rocky career in the military. She said she was working as a waitress, going nowhere fast, when she joined the military in 2002. She lasted eight years, including a tour in Iraq, before being discharged for a prescription-drug related offense. At a bond hearing in January, Prosecutor Pauley told the court that Salmon “clearly poses a significant threat to the community as being part and parcel of this organization.”
Bond was denied.
In her 90-minute interview with Hatewatch, Salmon, who says she is still “pro-military,” did a lot of denying of her own. She denied all of the charges against her from the double murder to illegally buying weapons to even being a close friend of Aguigui’s. “I wasn’t as close to him as everybody thought,” she said. But a few minutes later, she said Aguigui frequently confided in her about how much he missed his wife and how “they had a perfection marriage.”
“I knew that wasn’t true,” she said.
She also denied knowing of the gang’s existence before the men were arrested. “I didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “A lot of it, I learned in here.”
Hers is a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil defense. Salmon said she learned about “their so-called plans to do all this crazy nonsense” through her lawyer, letters from her husband, and reading through legal documents about the case.
She said she did know that Aguigui wanted to start a “militia” back in his home state of Washington, where Salmon is also from. She said she did not take him seriously, especially in the last weeks before the gang was rounded up, because Aguigui was spending thousands of dollars on drugs and strippers at a club near the fort called Temptations. “He spent $30,000 there one night,” she said.
Aguigui took Salmon’s husband and a few other buddies along. “I didn’t want to know what happened,” she said.
Prosecutors say Salmon was essentially the chief financial officer for FEAR, dispensing funds as needed. She denied that. She said Aguigui asked her to help him legitimately manage his money and she opened up a few CD accounts. She said that by the time she started helping him in the late summer of 2011 – a few weeks after the death of his wife – he was down to a little more than $200,000.
Salmon described the men in the group, including her husband, as “basically a bunch of boys sitting around, not being very intelligent, playing [the video game] Call of Duty and thinking it was real.”
“I never thought it was serious,” she said.
She said that after his wife’s death, Aguigui moved into her house, where he had his own room. Aguigui and her husband were best friends. “They’d go up to Isaac’s room and hang out,” she said. “I was too busy chasing after my kids to pay attention.”
Salmon said her home became a gathering spot because everyone else in the group only had one- or two-room apartments – and her husband keep inviting his buddies over for dinner. She said the men got close doing extra duty – punishment work for various infractions. “They all started hanging out when they all got on extra duty,” she said. “You have to work until midnight. Sometimes they have you come in at 5 in the morning. It just sucks. You’re cleaning stuff, latrines, picking up garbage.”
They were not poster-boy soldiers.
The day after the murder of Roark and York, the group gathered around a bonfire in Peden’s backyard for what Salmon said Saturday was a cookout. Prosecutors and gang member Christopher Jenderseck, who has pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence in the case, said the fire was built to destroy evidence, including a cell phone, spent shotgun shells — and clothes stained with blood and brain matter.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Salmon said. “I was in the house with my kids.”
Indeed, Salmon paints herself as too overwhelmed by her parenting duties to pay much attention to the goings-on in her home or anywhere else, except for the time she said Aguigui brought two strippers to the house. She said she made it clear to her husband she would not tolerate that.
“I packed up to leave in October,” she said. “My husband talked me out of it. I should have left.”
Salmon said that if she regains her freedom, she will go home to her children and return to school. She’d like to be a nurse. She said she’s been reading a lot in jail. “I’ve read my Bible front and back several times,” she said.
She’s reading a crime novel these days. It’s called The Informant.