A Very Strange Murder Case
In a hearing today, the U.S. military cell plotting to overthrow the government will face the consequences. Eli Lake reports.
Georgia prosecutors today will seek the death penalty against three soldiers based at Fort Stewart who are charged with a 2011 murder and plotting terrorist attacks in the United States.
Tom Durden, the district attorney for Long County, Georgia, who is prosecuting the case, told The Daily Beast yesterday that he would seek the death penalty against Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, Sgt. Anthony Peden, and Pvt. Christopher Salmon, three members of a four-person cell known as FEAR, an acronym for Forever Enduring Always Ready. (A fourth member of the group, Pfc. Michael Burnett, has pled to the less severe crime of manslaughter and is expected to avoid the death penalty.)
Burnett told the Georgia Superior Court on Monday that Aguigui was the leader of a militia that recruited active members of the military and had ordered the murders of a former member of the group and his teenage girlfriend. Prosecutors said Monday that FEAR aimed to overthrow the U.S. government and murder the U.S. president. Specifically, the group planned to poison an apple orchard in Washington State, seize control of Fort Stewart, and blow up a dam, with the aim of ultimately toppling the government. Its members bore tattoos with iconography traditionally associated with the anarchist movement, though no links to other anarchist groups have been established.
No charges have been filed by the Department of Justice or the army’s criminal investigators in the case, though the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as the army’s own investigators, aided the criminal probe. A spokesman for the army’s criminal investigation command said the probe into the FEAR plot was ongoing. He also said there were no other suspects in the case beyond Aguigui, Peden, Salmon, and Burnett.
The case began nearly nine months ago when a local fisherman in Long County, Georgia discovered the bodies of Army Pvt. Michael Roark and his 17-year-old girlfriend, Tiffany York. On Dec. 6, Roark (who had just been discharged from the army) and his girlfriend were lured into the woods for what he was told would be target practice, according to Burnett’s testimony and the prosecution. As York got out of the car, Peden shot her in the head. Salmon then forced Roark to get on his knees and executed him, according to the prosecution. The two were murdered, Burnett testified, because the small group suspected Roark of disloyalty.
Lewis Levine, a local videographer and news reporter in Long County, was the first reporter to write about the murder. At first, Levine told me, “the local police were looking at it as a murder case. They had no indication of how widespread this plot was.”
The Long County Sheriff’s office, according to Levine and a clerk with the sheriff’s office, soon turned over the case to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. “They don’t have the resources to investigate a double homicide of that nature,” Levine said.
Durden declined to discuss the moment when the plot described Monday by Burnett was uncovered. But he has said in other press statements that law enforcement found $87,000 worth of semi-automatic assault rifles and other guns and bomb-making materials in the homes of the suspects and a local storage locker.
Press reports have described FEAR as an anarchist militia, but Durden on Wednesday said he had no evidence that the group was linked to any other known anarchist organization.
And no known contemporary anarchist groups have proposed the kind of horrifying violence alleged in the case against Aguigui and FEAR. “There is a lot of debate within the Occupy movement and anarchist circles about tactics like property damage,” said Will Potter, an author who has covered the anarchist movement since the late 1990s. “These are debates about breaking windows. They are not about killing innocent people or assassinating the president.”
Correction: The three soldiers facing the death penalty were originally identified as non-commissioned officers. In fact, only one is a non-commissioned officer.