The Georgia Militia Murders
Can the military be held responsible for the actions of a few rogue soldiers?
Michael Roark had been stationed at Georgia’s Fort Stewart Base for four months when he replaced the Army with a new love: his girlfriend Tiffany York. Finished with boot camp, the formerly enthusiastic 19-year-old’s attitude began to change. He complained that his superiors were picking on him. His father, a veteran himself, told his son, “You signed up for a certain period of time, you need to stick it out.” But Michael was determined to move on with his life. He pushed to get discharged so that he and 17-year-old Tiffany could move to the West Coast—she wanted to be by family; he wanted to be a motorcycle mechanic. Four days after Michael was released on December 2, 2011, his body and Tiffany’s were discovered by two fishermen in the woods outside Fort Stewart.
The story of the murders is tailored for a thriller, complete with drugs, guns, and a maniacal plot to overthrow the U.S. government—based almost entirely on a video game. The young couple, Georgia state prosecutors charged, was killed by Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, Sgt. Anthony Peden, Pvt. Christopher Salmon, and Pfc. Michael Burnett. The four were Michael’s fellow soldiers at Fort Stewart. They were also part of FEAR, an anti-government militia. In July, Aguigui, the group’s ringleader, pleaded guilty charges including malice murder and criminal gang activity and was sentenced to life in prison. Just a few weeks earlier, the Army, which had been investigating Aguigui since his pregnant wife’s death two years earlier, charged him with her murder as well. (He hasn’t yet entered a plea in that case.)
Knowing that Isaac Aguigui, now 22, will be in prison for the rest of his life is not enough for his victims’ grieving families. Roark’s father told The Daily Beast that a colonel suggested to him that the Army had deliberately not discharged the FEAR militia members in order to monitor them. Last month, after Aguigui was sentenced, his victims’ families filed a wrongful death claim against the Army, arguing that in investigating Aguigui’s wife’s death, the Army had become aware that Aguigui was violent, stockpiling weapons with the money he received from his wife’s insurance policy, and actively recruiting soldiers to join his anti-government militia. If Aguigui had been charged with his wife’s death sooner, or even discharged sooner, they claim, Michael and Tiffany might still be alive.
Aguigui was a charismatic figure at Fort Stewart, though one with a penchant for anti-government rants. Shortly before his wife’s death, according to court documents, he started actively recruiting troubled or disillusioned soldiers for his militia through a process he called “the awakening.” Aguigui would make them read a magazine article about Rainbow Six Patriots, a then-upcoming video game about U.S. soldiers attacking the government in an effort to return the United States to greatness. Those who liked the game’s concept were welcomed into the militia.
The inner circle of the FEAR militia (which stands for Forever Enduring, Always Ready) sports tattoos of the Greek letters alpha and omega, signifying the beginning and the end. The same symbol is engraved on some of their guns. And they had big plans, prosecutors say: They were to move headquarters to a compound in Washington State, where they would set up a security company as a front for their criminal activities. Those planned criminal activities included bombing a major dam, poisoning the state’s apple crop, and infiltrating the drug trade between Canada and Washington. Their ultimate goal, prosecutors say, was to assassinate President Obama and seize control of the U.S. government.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil-rights organization, has been pushing the military to get tough on extremists since 1985, following a number of incidents that included members of the military providing paramilitary training and stolen firearms to neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups and the murders of black civilians. A decade later, the military began to require commanding and recruitment officers to look for Swastika tattoos and other indicators of radical affiliations. But in 2005, at the height of the Iraq and Afghan wars (and with all factions of the military desperate to fill quotas), recruitment officers started turning a blind eye to some of these clues, according to SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok.
The SPLC began collecting incriminating photos and comments posted by soldiers on the website New Saxon, which is kind of like a Facebook for white supremacists, and sending them to the Pentagon. In a 2006 article entitled “A Few Bad Men,” the SPLC alleged that thousands of extremists had managed to make their way into the military. In the fall of 2009, the Pentagon changed its policy from banning only “active participation” in extremists groups to prohibiting any advocacy of supremacy or other efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.
“These are people who followed a charismatic leader who turned out to be slightly insane and wound up in a situation where two people were murdered,” Potok says of the FEAR militia members.
Before he set his sights on overthrowing the U.S. government, Isaac Aguigui attended the U.S. Military Academy Prep School in West Point, New York, where, according to her obituary, he met his future wife, Deirdre, in 2009. Their relationship, against the academy’s rules, reportedly got Aguigui kicked out. But a year later they were both stationed at Fort Stewart, the largest military installation east of the Mississippi, spanning five Georgia counties and training up to 50,000 reserve soldiers each year. Isaac served as an intelligence analyst and Deirdre as a linguist.
After returning from a deployment from Iraq at the beginning of 2011, Deirdre became pregnant; five months later, she was found dead at their home with small cuts on her wrists. Aguigui told Army investigators at the time that he and his wife had sex only a few hours before her death, pointing to handcuffs and a variety of sex toys that were strewn across their bed. But Army criminal investigators later discovered that Deirdre had kicked her husband out the house for infidelity and drug use and concluded that the scandalous bed scene was likely staged. A friend told investigators that Aguigui had said he’d be “better off if she was gone.” Fellow soldier and ex-girlfriend Samantha Thacker confirmed that she received a text message from Aguigui about eight hours before Deirdre’s death reading, “We’ll have plenty of money. All I need is your body whenever I want it.”
The initial military autopsy on Deirdre came back inconclusive as to the cause of her death. But a medical examiner who took a second look for the Georgia Bureau of Investigations this past April reportedly concluded that Deirdre had been either choked or smothered to death.
Aguigui received $500,000 in insurance benefits from his wife’s death, which he almost immediately began using to fund his militia, Georgia state prosecutor Isabel Pauley said in court. While on bereavement leave in his hometown of Cashmere, Washington, he purchased $32,000 worth of military-grade assault rifles and accessories and other weapons. He continued to buy about $28,000 more similar weaponry over the phone through November 2011—right before the murders of Tiffany and Michael. In September 2011, Wenatchee police sergeant John Kruse in central Washington reportedly received a tip from a Washington relative of Aguigui’s who was concerned about his semiautomatic shopping spree and suspicious about the circumstances of Deirdre’s death. After confirming Aguigui’s purchases, the Wenatchee police notified the FBI and the Army’s criminal-investigation division and discovered that there was already an investigation being conducted into Deirdre’s death.
When Aguigui came back to Fort Stewart, Pauley said, he notified his FEAR troops that it was time to change up their process for purchasing weapons. He gave members of the militia his credit- and debit-card numbers so they could continue stockpiling, this time illegally. One of the people entrusted with access to the money was Michael Roark.
On August 27, 2012, a soldier named Michael Burnett pleaded guilty to manslaughter and illegal gang activity in connection with the deaths of Roark and York. At his hearing, he detailed his recollection of the events leading up to December 5, 2011, the night Michael Roark and Tiffany York were murdered. Recently divorced with custody of his young son, Burnett had become friends with the FEAR crew through Chris and Heather Salmon. Heather had been discharged from the Army for drug abuse and other misconduct, including firing a weapon at her husband after an argument. She volunteered to babysit for Burnett, and he started spending time at their house, which was essentially the FEAR militia headquarters. (Heather, who has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against her, was reportedly the group’s chief financial officer, called “Mamma Ray” by members of the family.) At first, Burnett testified, his friendship with the men of the group consisted of going shooting together, “just guy stuff.” Then he was introduced to what Aguigui called “the manuscript”: the article about the Patriots video game.
“It just progressed from there to going out and buying more guns,” Burnett said in court. “They talked of doing radical things ... things that I didn’t agree upon like hurting innocent people. I did think that the government needed a change and I thought we were the people to be able to change it,” he told the judge. “If I could have stopped this from happening I would have.”
The night of the murders, Burnett recalled in court, he’d just returned home from picking his son up at the Salmons’ when he got a call from Anthony Peden telling him to come back over to the headquarters. This was around 9:06 p.m. “The decision had already been made to murder those two,” Burnett said.
Why did Aguigui and his inner circle kill Michael? There are a few theories. Some reports suggest that Aguigui may have believed Michael was using his money—to which he’d been given access to purchase weapons—for personal items. Burnett said that Michael was a witness to a previous murder that Aguigui had committed, though that claim has not been backed up with any facts. Michael’s father, Brett Roark, and his attorney Brian Brook think the explanation is simple: Michael Roark was leaving the Army and taking with him detailed knowledge of the FEAR militia’s criminal activities and destructive plots. Aguigui could no longer control him.
“A loose end is one way that Isaac put it,” said Burnett at his guilty-plea hearing.
Burnett said that he tried to plead with his friends to reconsider, but they were resolute. “Isaac ordered me to come along and then he threatened to kill my son,” Burnett said. They’d already called Michael to come over and go night shooting with them. He brought Tiffany, and they drove separately off the base and into Long County, far off the beaten path, according to Burnett.
Once they’d stopped driving, Burnett said, Peden and Chris Salmon approached both sides of Michael’s car. As Tiffany started to get out, Peden shot her, checked her pulse, then shot her again, according to Burnett. Michael was told to get on his knees. He was shot twice in the head. The gun used to kill Michael and Tiffany belonged to Burnett, who kept his weapons at Peden’s house, away from his child. Burnett said Peden took it and chopped it up into a bunch of pieces after the shooting. It was at Peden’s house, Burnett said, that Aguigui instructed everyone who was at the scene of the crime to take off their clothes and burn them.
Five days after the murders, Aguigui, Burnett, Peden, and both Salmons were arrested. (Neither Chris Salmon nor Peden has entered a plea responding to the charges against them. If convicted, they each face the death penalty.) In recordings obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Isaac Aguigui goes from indignant to confessional in a matter of 20 minutes while being interrogated by a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent. Aguigui broke down when the agent told him that his FEAR “family” members had made statements, pointing to him as the mastermind behind the anti-government plot and the murders.
“You ever think how Dr. Frankenstein thought when Frankenstein ripped his first person in half?” Aguigui asks the GBI agent. “‘Dear Jesus, what have I created?’ And all he wants to do is go back to that moment before he brought it to life.”
When the agent asked what the monster was, Aguigui replied, “I think it’s me.”
On September 11, 2012, five men were indicted on charges that include violating the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act. At the guilty plea hearing of one of them, Randall Dearman, Georgia state prosecutor Isabel Pauley described the group’s activity as “far more sinister and troubling” than traditional street gangs like the Bloods or the Crips, because nearly everyone involved was a soldier.
Dearman’s brother, Adam, was a military officer stationed at Fort Stewart and another member of the FEAR militia’s “family.” He was also the leader of the group’s criminal arm known as “the black cell,” according to prosecutors. He and Heather Salmon had allegedly been in negotiations to purchase the land in Washington State—with Aguigui’s money—that would become the organization’s compound and terrorism headquarters.
The night of the murders, according to court records, Adam was in North Georgia visiting his younger brother Randall for his birthday. Adam received a phone call instructing him to come back to Fort Stewart and remove the bodies of Michael Roark and Tiffany York, as well as Michael’s car, from the crime scene. Adam and Randall—who was neither a member of the military nor the militia—headed down to Long County in separate cars the day after the murder. On their way, the Dearmans were approached by a man whose car they’d broken into earlier. Adam shot the man. He was arrested and was unable to make it back in time to move the bodies of Michael and Tiffany before they were discovered by two fishermen that morning. A walkie-talkie—a device that signaled the militia’s growing paranoia—was found near Michael’s head.
With the rest of the inner circle already indicted for murder, an incarcerated Adam instructed his friend Timothy Joiner, another active-duty soldier, to pick up his brother Randall from North Georgia and begin committing crimes—mostly breaking into cars and stealing things like stereos that they could sell—in order to make money to get him out of jail.
Drugs played a major role in the FEAR militia saga. Aguigui wanted to infiltrate and put a stop to the drug trade across the Canadian border. But in the span of just one month, right before Michael and Tiffany’s murders, Aguigui purchased between $10,000 and $15,000 worth of drugs—ecstasy, cocaine, marijuana, etc.—for consumption by the members of his crew. On November 15, 2012, 27-year-old drug dealer and former Navy recruit Jeffrey Roberts admitted to selling drugs in bulk to Aguigui, making him the 11th person arrested on charges related to FEAR. Randall Dearman and Joiner both admit to drinking and using drugs heavily while carrying out the break-ins and burglaries they thought would help get Adam out of jail. Randall said he was so messed up during that time—mostly on a combination of alcohol and Percocet—that he doesn’t even remember all of the crimes he committed.
A few days before Michael and Tiffany were murdered, they went to Florida to visit Michael’s father. The two had only been dating for a month and a half, but the way his son talked about this girl, Brett Roark knew it was serious. The elder Roark says neither of them gave him any indication that they were in trouble. Drawing on his own Navy experience, which includes serving a tour in Beirut during the Cold War, Roark says he doesn’t recognize the institution he once admired.
“I would have thought someone would have put two and two together and said, ‘These are obviously some bad guys here.’ They had a bad thing going on and there was nothing done until after Michael and Tiffany’s murder,” he said. “If Aguigui killed his wife and unborn child, they should have known this guy was capable of anything. This is what kills me.”
Brian Brook, one of the attorneys representing the Roark and York families, finds it “unfathomable” that there were no federal charges brought against the people who killed Michael and Tiffany when it was known that those same people were plotting to kill the president, blow up dams, and poison Washington’s apple supply.
“I’ve never met a federal prosecutor who wouldn’t jump at the chance to prosecute these kinds of criminals,” Brook told The Daily Beast. “You’ve got a terrorist group within the U.S. Army and you have every reason to believe the Army knew about this.”
Michael and Tiffany’s families filed a claim of $15 million for each death, giving the Army the opportunity to settle out of court before officially filing suit. Brook doesn’t expect the Army to settle, but it has six months to either make an offer or deny the claim. Fort Stewart spokesman Kevin Larson declined The Daily Beast’s request to comment on the wrongful death claims but wrote, in an email, “The military legal charges and July 2013 court case against Pvt. Isaac Aguigui resulted from a thorough investigation by the U.S. Army, and civilian legal assistance from state and federal law enforcement.”
The Federal Torts Claim Act allows an individual to sue the U.S. government for wrongdoing committed by someone acting on the government’s, or in this case the military’s, behalf. Timothy Bakken, a law professor at West Point, explains that the Army generally cannot be held responsible for crimes that are committed by soldiers outside of their jobs, such as killing civilians.
There is one exception to that rule, however, which was established by the 1988 Supreme Court case Sheridan v. United States. That precedent indicates that if the plaintiffs can prove the Army knew the members of the FEAR militia were violent and may have had a motive to kill civilians like Michael and Tiffany, then the Army had an obligation to stop them. Bakken says proving this will be difficult, but Brook has no doubt that, once they’d begun investigating Aguigui after his wife’s death, the Army had reason to believe that he was a dangerous man.
“There might not be a duty to fix a bridge, but when you start trying to fix a bridge, your job is to do it in a non-negligent fashion,” Brook said. “Here, they’re trying to investigate the death of Deirdre Aguigui and there is that same duty.”
Monday’s news that a former Navy reservist had opened fire on the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, killing at least 12 people, shook Roark to his core. “Just ripped us all apart again, I’m so tired of it,” he told me.
He believes the Army is making a concerted effort to keep the information gleaned from its investigation into Aguigui’s militia under wraps. “The military doesn’t like to look bad,” he says. “They’re our military; they’re there to protect us. But what is going on under their watch? Are they protecting us or are they protecting themselves?”
“Forever Enduring, Always Ready.” That was the motto of Aguigui’s militia. It seems the alpha and omega, the representations of beginning and end inked on its members, will endure longer than the band of disillusioned soldiers and their diabolical plans. Unless, of course, there are others still out there wearing that tattoo as a badge of honor, secretly plotting to overthrow the government.