The antigovernment plot began with a video game. Soon, two people were dead. In the end, there was only human wreckage
LUDOWICI, Ga. — The suspected leader of a murderous militia of military men was the last to be interrogated that mild Georgia winter evening 18 months ago. Although he was only 20 at the time, United States Army Pvt. Isaac Aguigui played it cool and defiant. “You can go to hell,” he told an agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). His tough-guy act didn’t last long. Within 20 minutes, Aguigui deserted his rigid military discipline and whimpered, “I’m just going to end up in a jail cell alone for the rest of my life.”
On July 19, his tearful prophecy came true.
The now 22-year-old soldier was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty to the murder of Tiffany York, 17, and her boyfriend, Michael Roark, 19, a former soldier who served with Aguigui at the Fort Stewart Army base in nearby Hinesville. Georgia state prosecutors say the young sweethearts were shot to death in the woods not far from the sprawling military facility to keep secret Aguigui’s video-game inspired militia and its delusional plans to overthrow the government of the United States through a torrent of bombings, kidnappings and political assassinations.
Aguigui’s guilty plea pushed his co-defendants — Pvt. Christopher Salmon and Sgt. Anthony Peden — closer to the executioner’s needle. In a matter-of-fact voice, Aguigui said Peden killed York and then Salmon killed Roark, who, Aguigui said, “asked for mercy and forgiveness.”
By then, Aguigui said he told the terrified teenager, “It was too late.”
Peden and Salmon were both in the heavily guarded Long County courtroom for a status hearing on their cases as Aguigui promised to testify against them to avoid the death penalty.
Aguigui and his small band of troubled brothers called themselves FEAR — Forever Enduring, Always Ready. Forever did not last long.
Five days after the murders, on Dec. 10, 2011, Aguigui and three of his comrades from Fort Stewart — Pfc. Michael Burnett, Peden and Salmon — were arrested. One by one, they were brought into the interrogation room for separate interviews, conducted most of the time by the folksy GBI agent who made it clear to the disgraced soldiers that “this is the end of the road” and everyone is “singing like birds,” “crying on the frigging floor,” “blubbering and blubbering,” and using up his box of tissues.
Only Salmon, the man called “Phish,” asked for a lawyer and clammed up. The others talked in bloody detail about the murders in the woods. They pointed fingers at each other and tried to cut deals. And they wept for their children and themselves. The Intelligence Report has obtained video and audio recordings of the interrogations, and they offer a chilling and raw look at evil at an early age.
“All your family, whatever y’all are, have already made statements to us,” the GBI agent told Aguigui. “While they change a little bit in consistencies, everybody is pretty much putting you in the middle of it, the one behind everything, the mastermind, the head honcho that has ordered them to do this, and is going to take over the United States of America.”
Aguigui and his buddies had been stockpiling guns and ammo at a frantic pace — $87,000 worth in just a couple of months — drawing the attention of the Feds even before the murders. The funds all came from Aguigui.
“Is it true?” the GBI agent demanded, his chair rolled up so close to Aguigui’s in that tight interrogation room that the agent was practically sitting in his lap. “Did you send them out? Are they your soldiers and you’re leading your own personal war?”
It wasn’t much longer before Aguigui was weeping.
“You ever think how Dr. Frankenstein thought when Frankenstein ripped his first person in half?” Aguigui asked the agent. “‘Dear Jesus, what have I created?’ And all he wants to do is go back to that moment before he brought it to life.”
The agent asked, “What’s the monster?”
Aguigui sobbed. “I think it’s me.”
A is for Aguigui
The strange, sad story of FEAR — Aguigui’s Frankenstein — has dribbled out in bits and pieces, a blend of fact and fantasy. Early reports about the group were sensational and alarming. Led by the homeschooled Aguigui, a private who had been a page at the 2008 Republican National Convention, FEAR was said to be a secret anarchist militia within the military, based at Fort Stewart and plotting, among other acts of terror, to assassinate the president of the United States.
The truth was never so cinematic. FEAR is more right-wing “Patriot” group than anarchist collective, more gang than militia. “Isaac agreed with the Founding Fathers, that there should be a revolution every 10 years,” Heather Salmon, the wife of Christopher Salmon and the only woman charged in the case told the Intelligence Report in an exclusive interview in a visiting room in the Brantley County Jail in Georgia, where she has been confined since her arrest in June of 2012. “But I never took the militia talk seriously. There were only five of them.”
Aguigui told the GBI agent that he wanted to start a militia to patrol the border between his home state of Washington and Canada. He said there is a lot of drug trafficking along the border and he wanted to stop it. He did not mention the $10,000 to $15,000 worth of cocaine, marijuana and other narcotics prosecutors say Aguigui purchased in just four weeks shortly before the murders. Sometimes the drugs were delivered to Aguigui at Fort Stewart. “The militia wasn’t supposed to go out and burn everything to the ground,” Aguigui insisted. “It was supposed to be in defense of the people. It wasn’t supposed to turn into this.”
Once back in the Northwest, Aguigui said, he wanted to settle his Army buddies, his “family,” on 90 acres in rural Washington where they could build a community and raise their children.
“That sounds like a pretty good dream,” the agent said. “But how does it end up with Roark and his girl killed along the side of the road?”
“Six ounces of pressure,” Aguigui said. “And cock back the hammer.”
Aguigui talked a lot about “anarchy” with his troubled family of soldiers, a chaotic state of affairs, Burnett told the GBI agent, that Aguigui lusted after.
“He wanted me to be part of something called 666,” Burnett told the GBI agent.
“Do you know what that was?” the agent asked.
“We would go out and cause anarchy,” Burnett said. “Kill people. Blow shit up.”
Later, Burnett added, “The kid’s a terrorist and a psycho.”
Several members of the group were inked with the same tattoo — the Greek letters alpha and omega, superimposed on one another. The tattoo was a sign that they were made members of the family. Burnett had one on his right shoulder. Aguigui designed the tattoo. He pulled up the right sleeve of his Army-issued green T-shirt to show the agent. He explained that alpha and omega meant the first and the last, the beginning and the end, and that was the same concept as Forever Enduring, Always Ready.
“We took the A,” he added, “because my last name is Aguigui.”
‘They Trust Me’
Michael Roark was part of the charismatic Aguigui’s tight circle of Army friends, who were on their way to becoming a millennial Manson family. In the few months leading up to the murders of Roark and Tiffany York, a 17-year-old high school junior, the group morphed from a rowdy, macho, violent videogame-obsessed, gun-loving, hard-drinking party crew into a rowdy, macho, violent video game-obsessed, gun-loving, hard-drinking, fledging antigovernment militia.
Roark was killed, prosecutors say, because the men were afraid he knew too much about their plans. The girl called Tiff was killed because she happened to be with Roark that night.
All told, 11 people — mostly active-duty or recently discharged soldiers — have been arrested and charged with various offenses in connection with FEAR and the murder in the woods. Six members of the gang have pleaded guilty.
Locked in that interrogation room 18 months ago, Aguigui told the GBI agents he felt like “a bitch” for talking and telling on his comrades.
“They trust me so much,” Aguigui cried. “You don’t understand. I’ve never had people trust me like this.”
As the saga continues to unfold in civilian and military courtrooms, it is increasingly clear that FEAR is not so much a domestic terrorist militia as a small gang of disaffected, heavily armed young soldiers who called themselves “True Patriots” and were caught up in, as the GBI agent put it, a Tom Clancy novel “about the end of the United States and this-is-just-the-first-step kind of crap.”
The agent was not far off. The gang members were caught up in a video game, or more precisely, a magazine article about a Tom Clancy video game, yet to be released, called Rainbow 6: Patriots. The game is a hyper-violent tale of a band of disaffected young soldiers, seeking to snatch the government from the fat cats and politicians and give it back to the people.
Burnett said Aguigui talked about True Patriots “over and over,” adding in disgust, “He got the idea from a fucking video game.”
As silly as that sounds, this crew of highly trained killers certified by Uncle Sam could not be taken lightly. While they didn’t start a revolution, they did wage an extensive crime spree. Besides cold-blooded murder, prosecutors say, FEAR members were involved in at least one other near-fatal shooting, as well as burglaries, car break-ins, insurance fraud schemes and the illegal purchase of weapons. “They’re a crime syndicate,” Burnett told the GBI agent. “That’s what they are, that’s what they want to be.”
Aguigui’s pregnant wife, Sgt. Deirdre Wetzker Aguigui, an Army linguist, was found dead in her home at Fort Stewart on July 17, 2011, around the time FEAR was getting started. She was murdered, military officials now allege, by her husband, who financed his would-be militia with the proceeds of her $500,000 life insurance policy. But it took more than a year for the Army to charge Aguigui with his wife’s death. The initial autopsy performed by military pathologists was inconclusive as to cause of death. Investigators turned to a civil medical examiner to review the results and he ruled the death of the Aguigui’s pregnant wife a homicide. She was either choked or smothered. This July, a two-day hearing was held at Fort Stewart to determine whether there is enough evidence to go forward with a court martial. A decision was pending at press time.
The Aguiguis were expecting a boy.
“I just want to wake up from this bad dream,” Aguigui told the GBI agent. “That’s all I want. I want my life back. I want my son back. I want all this money to go away. It’s nothing but problems.”
On Dec. 6, 2011, two fishermen found Roark and York shot to death in the woods not far from Fort Stewart. Four days later, Aguigui, Peden, Salmon and Burnett were arrested at Fort Stewart by military authorities who had arranged a phony Saturday morning call-out of their unit. State and federal officials lined up to question them.
A couple of days before they were arrested, Burnett was questioned and followed the agreed-upon FEAR script for covering up the group’s involvement in the crime, “lie and lie and lie.”
Now, within minutes of being back in the interrogation room, Burnett announced, “I’m willing to tell you everything.”
“Who had the guns?” the agent asked.
“We all had guns,” Burnett replied. “Isaac bought us all guns.”
The group lured Roark and York to a secluded patch of woods near Morgan Lake on the night of Dec. 5, 2011, with the promise of some starlight shooting, a popular pastime with the young soldiers.
The couple drove to the lake in Roark’s black 2006 Nissan Altima. The four men followed in Aguigui’s tan Jeep. Peden drove, Burnett was sitting in the front passenger seat, with Salmon and Aguigui in the back. Burnett told the GBI agent that Roark was targeted to die because he knew too much about the group’s criminal plans, including “how Isaac wants to take over the drug cartel in Washington” and set up a security company “so they could launder money from the drugs through the security company.”
But the “biggest reason” Roark was killed was money, Burnett told the agents. “It was a revenge killing,” he said. “He stole money from Isaac.”
During the ride to the lake, the four men discussed what should happen to Tiffany York, the high school junior who loved the cartoon character Hello Kitty. “I think it was more like, ‘Shit, she’s here,’” Burnett said. “If he goes, she’s going to have to go. If he goes, she’s going to the police, ‘My boyfriend’s missing.’”
Burnett said he was asked to kill her but refused. Once in the woods, the end came quickly, at least for York. Before the teenager could get out of the car, she was shot in the head with a pistol called a Judge that fires either .45-caliber bullets or .410 shotgun shells. Burnett reluctantly fingered Peden as the shooter. “He’s my best friend,” he sighed.
After sobbing that he did not kill anyone that night, Peden eventually admitted to shooting York in the head, but only after Aguigui threatened to kill his 3-year-old son if he did not. “I know I’m going to burn in hell for the things I’ve done in my life,” Peden said. “The only thing I can hope for is my son has a better life than I ever could.”
Twelve days later, according to a GBI report, Peden contacted investigators and recanted his confession, stating “he had been thinking about his future and didn’t want to go down for something he didn’t do.”
Burnett said that using the same gun that Peden used to kill York, Salmon then allegedly shot Roark twice in the head. Burnett said Aguigui just watched and smiled.
The men left the teenagers where they fell and drove straight back to Fort Stewart and the Salmons’ house. Aguigui lived with the Salmons, moving in after his wife died. “Isaac was like an uncle to my kids,” Heather Salmon said. Burnett would often spend the night there, too, and that is what he did after the murders in the woods. He curled up on the sofa, as his son slept upstairs. “I was afraid to close my eyes,” he told the agents. “I was a witness. Loose ends. That’s what they kept talking about. Loose ends. Loose ends.”
‘We Will Rise’
Before Aguigui’s interrogation began, he sat alone in the boxy room and angrily stared up at the camera for several seconds.
“I want the truth about what happened on the road that night,” the GBI agent said, “so I can go to that little girl’s mom and dad and say this is how your daughter died.”
Instead, Aguigui talked about his own suffering, about how he had been in a “cold ass” holding cell for 12 hours and was hungry and unable to sleep.
“I got humiliated in front of my unit for something I didn’t do,” he said. “I got slapped into zip ties that cut my wrists open. I got a tuberculosis shot that started bleeding and got infected. If you think I haven’t been punished, you can go to hell.”
The agent and Aguigui went back and forth.
“I just want to know what this was all about,” the agent said.
“And I want to go home,” Aguigui shot back. “But sometimes we just don’t get what we want because we put ourselves in that situation.”
Slowly, tearfully, Aguigui began to provide his version of events. “Mike didn’t shoot them and I didn’t shoot them,” he said. “Two separate shooters. Same weapon.”
The FEAR four were charged with murder and went back to their “cold ass” cells. It was from jail that Aguigui tried to get a letter to Christopher Salmon, his locked-up best friend. Jail officials intercepted the letter in early January.
“I love you, bro,” Aguigui wrote. “Yes, this all sucks but we have got to keep it together. Yes, they’ve got us this time. But walls cannot contain a cause as strong as ours for long. One day we will all be free again together, and mark my words, my brother, we shall have our just revenge.”
He asked if Salmon’s wife, Heather, who was not arrested and charged with the murders of Roark and York until months later, could get him a copy of “The Article,” presumably the one about the Patriots video game.
“I could use the motivation,” he said, adding, “I love you, man. Keep your head up always. Remember, one day We Will Rise.”