LUDOWICI — Tiffany York came from a proud military family. Which makes it all the harder for them to understand how the teenager and her soldier boyfriend might have been murdered by other soldiers in what prosecutors say was a bid to conceal a terrorist plot.
“It’s a big hit in the heart,” said her brother, Marine Sgt. Timothy York Jr., who lives in California. “These people served their country, and they’re killing their own, especially my sister.”
At a court hearing Monday, a Long County assistant district attorney, Isabel Pauley, laid out a narrative of not just cold-blooded murder but planned bombings and assassinations, according to the Associated Press.
A group of four men, all active duty soldiers at Fort Stewart, had stockpiled $87,000 in weapons and bomb components, Pauley told the judge. She said the group called itself F.E.A.R, short for Forever Enduring Always Ready, and planned to attack the base and bomb the cars of government officials.
York was dating a soldier, Michael Roark, who was friends with the men, who were in the same unit. Roark was discharged from the Army last Dec. 2. At that point, the other group members decided he knew too much and had to be silenced, Pauley told the judge.
On Dec. 5, fishermen discovered the bodies of Roark and York in woods near the base. Both had been shot.
A hearing is scheduled today for three members of what Pauley called a “domestic terrorist organization” — Sgt. Anthony Peden, Pvt. Christopher Salmon and Pvt. Isaac Aguigui. District Attorney Tom Durden said he will seek the death penalty for all of them. A fourth defendant, Pfc. Michael Burnett, pleaded guilty Monday to manslaughter and is cooperating with authorities.
Salmon’s wife, Heather Salmon, is also charged with murder, although her attorney, Charles Nester, said she was not present at the killings. Nester said he has been informed that the district attorney will not seek the death penalty against her.
York’s father, Tim York, said his 17-year-old daughter had only dated Roark for a few months, but several things about the young man troubled him. Tiffany had sent him a photo of the couple at a shooting range, with what the father described as a pile of about 15 rifles and handguns stacked on a table.
He said Tiffany had also wondered aloud about the large amounts of money that Roark and his friends had. She said Roark told her they were in a business that placed holds on credit cards.
According to the AP, Pauley said the money came from a very different source: a life insurance settlement Aguigui received after his pregnant wife, also a soldier, died last year at Fort Stewart.
York said he tried to convince his daughter to distance herself from Roark, to no avail. Now, the 49-year-old father, who has trouble walking after an illness, blames himself for not leaving his home in California to travel to Georgia to take his daughter away.
“I should have gotten on a plane and got my daughter,” York said.
Roark’s father, Brett Roark, said his son was in the military for only about a year before he became disillusioned and was discharged.
He said prosecutors told him his son was not a member of the group, but that the group was trying to recruit him and “he wanted to get away.”
His son had not gotten the group’s tattoo, which is an anarchist symbol.
The father, who lives in Florida, said his son gave no indication that he was in with a bad crowd or in any danger. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Not a glimmer.”
Others, though, had grown alarmed.
In September, when Aguigui was on home leave in Washington state, a relative called police in Wenatchee, Wash., to report that he had purchased at least a dozen guns at a local store. The caller, whose name has not been released, characterized the weapons as “assault rifles,” said Sgt. John Kruse of the Wenatchee police.
She also told police that Aguigui was under investigation in the July, 2011, death of his wife, Deirdre.
Kruse said Wenatchee police contacted Army investigators, who confirmed that Aguigui was under investigation in Deirdre’s death. Records at the Wenatchee gun shop showed that Aguigui had purchased 15 weapons, including several semiautomatic rifles.
Kruse said police alerted the FBI, and were later told that the FBI had interviewed Aguigui before he returned to Fort Stewart.
On the night Roark and York died, Tiffany called her father. Tim York said his daughter and Roark were out driving around. She told him Roark wanted to buy some synthetic marijuana, but couldn’t find any for sale. She reported that Roark was on another phone, talking to friends, promising that he would have some when he met up with them later.
York believes those were the people who lured his daughter and her boyfriend to their deaths.
He said Tiffany’s family has close ties to the military, with several relations having served. So the notion that members of the military could have turned against their government makes it especially hard to accept what happened to his daughter.
“They stood up and swore to protect this country, and now they were talking about blowing up innocent people,” he said. “I think they should be put to death.”
In seeking the death penalty, Durden said he will use a Georgia law passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It allows juries to consider the death penalty against someone who is found to commit or enter into a conspiracy to commit an act of domestic terrorism.
Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter said this appears to be the first time a Georgia prosecutor is using terrorism as an aggravating circumstance for seeking the ultimate punishment.
Tiffany York’s grandmother said that when the teen died, she was only days away from moving to California, where she was born and raised. She was going to live with her grandmother and father and pursue a nursing degree. She had told her father that she was going to distance herself from Michael Roark, who was planning to move in with his family in Washington state.
“She had a plane ticket,” said the grandmother, Joyce Cardwell.
Her father and grandmother had already set up a room for her, painting it, as she requested, in light yellow. Though nine months have passed since then, Cardwell said Tim York still sits in that room, looking over old pictures.