LUDOWICI — Emotions boiled over in a Long County courtroom Thursday as prosecutor Tom Durden announced he will seek the death penalty for three Fort Stewart soldiers accused of a double homicide and plotting to commit terrorist acts.
Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, Pvt. Christopher Salmon and Sgt. Anthony Peden,were led into the courtroom one at a time to be informed of the prosecution’s decision. They are charged with executing a former soldier, Michael Roark, 19, and his 17-year-old girlfriend Tiffany York in an attempt to cover up their plans to overthrow the government and assassinate the president.
“You [expletive] killed my kid,” shouted Wesley Thomas, York’s stepfather, as he rushed toward Peden, who was seated with his attorney at the defense table.
Peden — the last of the three defendants to have his moments in court — was shuttled out of the courtroom as law enforcement tackled and handcuffed a tearful Thomas. Family members said the distraught stepfather had helped York’s mother, Brenda, raise Tiffany for more than a decade.
Brett Roark, Michael Roark’s father, shouted at the armed officers to let Thomas go as another family member yelled “eye for an eye.” None were charged in the incident.
“I wish we could get to them. I wish we could have five minutes with them,” said Nicholas York, Tiffany’s older brother, after the pre-trial hearings. York said he understood why his stepfather charged the defendant. “He has seen what it has done to our family and how much stress it has put us through. It’s torn us apart.”
Roark and York’s bodies were discovered Dec. 6 along a road near Ludowici, a rural town about 15 miles from Fort Stewart. Monday, a fourth defendant, Pfc. Michael Burnett, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for testifying against the other soldiers.
According to the Associated Press, he told the judge that the soldiers lured Roark and York to the woods with an invitation to do some target practice. Burnett said Peden shot York as she attempted to get out of her car and then checked her pulse before shooting her again.
He said the men forced Roark to his knees before Salmon shot him twice in the head.
The soldiers were arrested about a week later following an investigation that involved local law enforcement, the military, the GBI and federal authorities.
Also to stand trial in the slayings is Heather Salmon, Christopher Salmon’s wife, who has been charged with murders but will not face the death penalty.
Each of the three soldiers, who are on active duty without pay, will be appointed special counsel trained in capital defense from the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. The soldiers, who were led into the courtroom wearing shackles and prison jumpsuits, will be arraigned at a later date. Each man declined to make a statement in court.
The allegations of terrorism came into play because Georgia’s death penalty law requires that prosecutors show that a murder involves one of several “aggravating circumstances.” After the 9/11 attacks, legislators added conspiring to commit terrorism to the list of such aggravating factors.
That is one provision Durden, district attorney of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit, invoked in seeking the death penalty.
While prosecutors contend the soldiers are part of a loosely-organized militia called F.E.A.R., an acronym for Forever Enduring Always Ready, Fort Stewart officials said they do not believe the soldiers are part of a larger organization. They said the base does not have a problem with gangs.
“This is an isolated incident involving four soldiers and is not a reflection of the U.S. Army or Fort Stewart,” said Ron Elliott, Fort Stewart’s public information officer.
Prosecutors say Aguigui bankrolled the group’s operations with a life insurance payout he received after the death of his wife, Deirdre, last year. Elliott confirmed that her death, which occurred at Fort Stewart, is under investigation.
Deirdre Aguigui, an Army linguist, had served one tour of duty in Iraq. She was five months pregnant at the time of her death.