The two triggermen for a murderous militia of renegade American soldiers pleaded guilty today in a Georgia courtroom to shooting to death a former soldier and his 17-year-old girlfriend a few weeks before Christmas 2011.
The couple was lured to a patch of woods in the middle of the night and killed, according to prosecutors, to keep secret the militia’s delusional plans to overthrow the government through a terror campaign of murder and mayhem. The group’s plans included the eventual assassination of their commander-in-chief, the president of the United States.
The soldiers called their broken band of brothers Forever Enduring, Always Ready, or FEAR for short.
Dressed in a business suit, his wrists and ankles shackled, Pvt. Christopher Salmon was the first of the two confessed killers to appear before Judge Robert L. Russell in Long County Superior Court this morning and enter his plea – guilty on two counts of murder and other charges.
Salmon, 27, who faced the death penalty, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as part of a negotiated plea agreement, the prosecutor, Isabel Pauley, told Hatewatch today, adding that the disgraced soldier was the second in command of FEAR, the close friend and confidant of the group’s ringleader, Pvt. Isaac Aguigui.
FEAR's leaders, clockwise from top-left: Michael Burnett, Anthony Peden, Christopher Salmon, Isaac Aguigui
“They were like brothers,” Pauley said.
On March 27, Aguigui, 22, already serving his own life sentence for the murder of the couple, was found guilty in an Army court of murdering his wife, Sgt. Deirdre Wetzker Aguigui, and their unborn child. The sergeant was seven months pregnant when she was killed in her apartment on Fort Stewart in July 2011. The militia leader also received a life sentence in that case.
Prosecutor Pauley said Aguigui used his wife’s $500,000 military life insurance policy to bankroll FEAR. Before it was broken up, the group of about 10 men and one woman – Salmon’s wife Heather – amassed nearly $90,000 in military-grade weapons.
FEAR was secretly based at Fort Stewart, the sprawling Army base in Georgia, a short drive from the courthouse and the knot of woods where Tiffany York, a high school junior, and her 19-year-old boyfriend, Michael Roark, a former soldier, were killed execution-style on Dec. 5, 2011.
Salmon admitted in court today to shooting Roark in the head shortly after Sgt. Anthony Peden shot and killed Roark’s girlfriend as she sat in the passenger seat of Roark’s car.
Peden also pleaded guilty today, but as part of an agreement with prosecutors his sentencing was postponed until a sentencing hearing can be held within the coming weeks or months, Pauley said. Peden, Pauley said, wants to present mitigation witnesses in an attempt to get a life sentence with the possibility of parole.
“The families, on all sides, don’t want Peden to get anything less than the rest of them,” Roark’s grandfather, Michael Jahr, told Hatewatch today after attending the court proceedings. “We’re confident that the judge won’t go along with anything less.”
Jahr said he was satisfied with the Salmon sentence. "Life without parole is like a 50-year death sentence," he said.
Five members of the group – Aguigui, Salmon, Peden, Heather Salmon and Pvt. Michael Burnett – were initially charged with murder in the case.
Burnett was the first to confess and testify about the militia and the murder. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges and is in jail in Georgia, awaiting sentencing. Heather Salmon is also in jail on murder charges but does not face the death penalty.
Peden, who wiped away tears as he sat at the defense table, did not speak at the hearing today. But Salmon addressed the court and Roark’s family, who had traveled from Florida, Arizona and Washington to watch the killer of their beloved Michael sent away for the rest of his life.
Salmon turned to the family and apologized and added, “Hopefully, you’ll be able to find peace.”
At that, Roark’s father, Brett, yelled, “Oh, shut up.”
Roark served with the members of FEAR at Fort Stewart before leaving the army three days before he and York were killed. He often spent time socializing with them at the Salmons’ home, which was the militia’s on-base clubhouse and headquarters. Prosecutors said Roark was killed because FEAR was afraid he might reveal its plans. York died because she happened to be with him that night.
After Salmon’s “empty apology,” Michael Jahr, like his grandson, a military veteran, addressed the court and Salmon from the witness box. He looked directly into Salmon’s face and told him that he wished he could be “a fly on the wall” of the prison visiting room when Salmon’s young sons come to visit.
“I told him, I’d like to hear when he tells his two sons that he shot the young man who used to babysit them while the rest of them went out to party,” Jahr said. “I looked at him and he looked right at me. But he had that stare on his face that you know you’re not going to get through.”