Pandemonium erupted Thursday at the hearing of the Ft. Stewart troops accused of murder and of devising elaborate plots of domestic terrorism, ranging from bombing the fountain of a popular park in Savannah to assassinating President Obama.
As the hearing at the state courthouse in Ludowici, Ga., neared its end, Wesley Thomas, stepfather of Tiffany York, who was allegedly shot execution-style by Sgt. Anthony Peden, lunged at her accused killer, causing an uproar in the courtroom. Thomas was wrestled to the ground by at least five security guards, as he growled and screamed at Peden, who was quickly escorted from the courtroom. Amid the chaos, one man shouted at the security guards, “the man’s daughter is dead!”
It was a highly dramatic close to a three-hour court hearing in which three defendants—Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, Pvt. Christopher Salmon, and Peden—were all informed that prosecutors for the state would seek the death penalty in their cases. The two other defendants in the case—Pfc. Michael Burnett, (who testified against the other three soldiers on Monday in exchange for a lesser charge of manslaughter) and Salmon’s wife, Heather Salmon—were not present at Thursday’s hearing. None of the defendants have entered a plea.
According to prosecutors, the four soldiers were part of a militia formed at nearby Fort Stewart, which trains the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. They dubbed their group FEAR, for Forever Enduring Always Ready, says Burnett.
What the four soldiers allegedly accomplished—the killings of their fellow Ft. Stewart soldier Michael Roark and York, his 17-year-old girlfriend—was a tiny fraction of the destruction they had planned to carry out, according to the prosecution. The two were allegedly murdered because they knew of the soldiers’ reported plans and were considered security risks.
The prosecution has said that the group also planned to bomb the fountain at Savannah’s Forsyth Park, seize control of Fort Stewart itself, bomb the cars of various political and judicial figures in Georgia, poison Washington State’s apple crop and, ultimately, kill Barack Obama.
But the murder charges were the focus of Thursday’s hearing, at the civilian courthouse in rural southeast Georgia. At times, other family members also engaged in emotional outbursts. York’s mother, Brenda Thomas, sobbed throughout the proceedings as each defendant was led in separately, shackled at the ankles, handcuffed and wearing orange prison jumpsuits. Each was served with papers declaring the state’s intent to seek the death penalty against him. As Salmon, who stands accused specifically of shooting Roark, was led out of the courtroom, a sobbing relative of Roark's yelled, “you piece of shit!”
When Thomas lunged for Peden, the courtroom erupted, with onlookers scattering as Thomas was tackled, falling face first into the ground. He wrestled with security guards before being led out of the room.
After Peden returned to finish the hearing, presiding judge Robert L. Russell III asked Peden whether he was OK. Peden nodded yes. After the hearing, Thomas walked out of the courthouse, his white shirt ripped in half. He embraced his wife for several minutes and got into his car. Members of the York family wore black-and-white Hello Kitty stickers reading, “In Loving Memory of Tiffany York, 1994-2011.”
According to Burnett’s testimony, on Dec. 4, 2011, York and Roark were driven by the four soldiers into the deep woods that surround Ft. Stewart. The two were told they were going to target practice. Salmon allegedly ordered Roark onto his knees before Salmon shot him twice in the head. Peden allegedly shot York in the head while she was getting out of the car, checked her pulse, then shot her again.
Details are continuing to surface about how the group allegedly planned to carry out domestic terrorism plots. In a court hearing on Monday, prosecutor Isabel Pauley told a judge that Aguigui, identified by Barnett as the ringleader of FEAR, spent at least $87,000 on stockpiling weapons and ammunition for the militia. According to prosecutors, the sum was obtained from a $500,000 insurance payment Aguigui collected after the death of his pregnant wife in July 2011, whose death Pauley called “highly suspicious.” No charges have been filed in her death. Aguigui also used part of the $500,000 sum to purchase land in Washington as part of a plan to train militia and poison the apple crop, according to Barnett’s Monday testimony. Aguigui is originally from the small town of Cashmere in Washington.
Aguigui actively recruited other soldiers at Fort Stewart “who were in trouble or disillusioned,” Pauley said at the Monday hearing. He allegedly used an article about a videogame involving soldiers taking over the government to gauge whether fellow soldiers would be interested in joining FEAR. “Aguigui called this process ‘the awakening,’” Pauley told the court, “and if those approached were interested they would be brought into the folds of the organization.”
On Thursday, the three defendants were nearly silent during the court hearing, each offering an occasional nod when Russell asked them if they understood the legal proceedings. Aguigui, Salmon, and Peden all replied with a “no, sir” when asked if they wanted to speak on their own behalf. The three soldiers also all looked over the shoulder of their public defender when served with papers declaring the intent of the state to seek the death penalty, and whispered briefly with their court-appointed lawyers. Aguigui’s public defender, Keith Higgins, requested that Aguigui be allowed to wear civilian clothes inside the jail where he is being held; Russell granted the request.
After court was adjourned, York’s brother, Nicholas Lee York, 23, told The Daily Beast that sitting in a courtroom with his younger sister’s alleged murderer was “the hardest thing in the world.” York said he believes all the defendants—including Burnett and Salmon—should be put to death if convicted. “I just wish it could happen faster,” he said, “I want them gone. They took something from me that was not replaceable.”
York said his sister was planning a move to California on Dec. 19—she was killed two weeks earlier. “Sometimes I wish it was me instead of Tiffany,” he said, adding that his mother stays up at night, holding an urn containing Tiffany’s ashes.
Domestic terrorism experts say the killings of York and Roark prove that FEAR, if responsible for the two deaths, was serious about their alleged plots, which Professor Charles Strozier, the Director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, called “wildly grandiose.”
Still, if the allegations are true, Strozier told The Daily Beast, “the fact that they are soldiers and they know guns and they are willing to commit murder to silence someone who could silence their plans … these are very important clues about the significance of the group.” John Berger, a terrorism expert and author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, says FEAR was “off the radar” of many groups that track right-wing extremism.
Whether or not FEAR would have succeeded in any of their reported plans, Strozier said, the alleged plots themselves should be considered “extraordinarily important” in the scope of right-wing violence that has increased since Obama’s election in 2008. A report released by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (PDF) the wake of this month’s shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin found that murders carried out by right-wing extremist groups have doubled since the mid-2000s, with a spike after Obama’s election.
Berger said that, for right-wing extremists, “when it comes down to killing people, so many of these guys talk and talk and talk. When the talkers see people acting … they can be moved to do something on their own. There is a feeling like a contagion.”
“This is what we dread,” Strozier said, referring to the extent of FEAR’s alleged plots. “This is our worst nightmare.”