x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Accused US militia leader was still new to army

The 21-year-old soldier who had never seen combat commanded enough authority to form an anti-government militia with soldiers of greater rank and experience following his orders - including an order to commit murder.

US Army sergeant Anthony Peden, 25, left, and private Isaac Aguigui, 19, are led away in handcuffs after appearing before a magistrate judge at the Long County Sheriffs Office in Georgia.
US Army sergeant Anthony Peden, 25, left, and private Isaac Aguigui, 19, are led away in handcuffs after appearing before a magistrate judge at the Long County Sheriffs Office in Georgia.

SAVANNAH, GEORGIA // Private Isaac Aguigui held the army's lowest rank, served in the military less than two years and never saw combat. Yet prosecutors say the 21-year-old soldier commanded enough authority to form an anti-government militia within the US military with soldiers of greater rank and experience following his orders - including an order to commit murder.

That an untested soldier might possess such power adds another odd twist to an unfolding legal case full of stunning allegations.

Prosecutors in rural Georgia said in court this week that Pvt Aguigui and three fellow soldiers at Fort Stewart killed a former comrade and his girlfriend last December. Their motive, prosecutors said, was to protect a secret plot to assassinate the president and overthrow the US government - and along the way to bomb a park fountain in nearby Savannah, poison apple orchards in Washington state and take over the army post where they were stationed. Authorities say the group stockpiled guns and bomb components that were seized from their homes and a storage locker.

Federal authorities have not said publicly whether they considered Pvt Aguigui and his associates a serious threat. One private group that monitors home-grown terrorism said it had never heard of Pvt Aguigui or his militia group.

"They were never on our radar screen," said Mark Potok, an expert on militia and hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "You'd think the whole thing would be a joke except for that two people died and that they apparently spent 87,000 dollars on guns."

Among the other details that emerged this week: authorities say Pvt Aguigui funded the weapons purchases using US$500,000 (Dh1.8 million) in life insurance benefits from the 2011 death of his pregnant wife - a death that authorities call "highly suspicious". And in a videotaped interview with military investigators, a prosecutor said, Pvt Aguigui called himself "the nicest cold-blooded murderer you will ever meet".

Pvt Aguigui was due back in court yesterday along with two fellow soldiers for arraignment on charges including malice murder, felony murder and illegal gang activity in the December 4 slayings of Michael Roark and his 17-year-old girlfriend, Tiffany York.

The three are being prosecuted by the state. The army filed murder charges against them in March, but dropped them August 15.

A fourth Fort Stewart soldier pleaded guilty to reduced charges on Tuesday and told a judge Pvt Aguigui ordered two older, more experienced soldiers to commit the killings.

Michael Burnett, the soldier who cut the plea deal, said Anthony Peden, a 26-year-old sergeant and veteran of two tours in Afghanistan whose army record lists 16 medals and commendations, shot the teenage girl twice at Pvt Aguigui's command. Burnett also testified Private Christopher Salmon, 26 with one Iraq tour on his service record, put Roark on his knees and shot him in the head.

The prosecutor Isabel Pauley said Pvt Aguigui targeted troubled soldiers for his militia, which he called F.E.A.R. - Forever Enduring Always Ready. Whatever the young private lacked in rank and combat experience, he had something else: roughly $500,000. Ms Pauley said he received the life insurance and benefit payments after his wife, army Sergeant Deirdre Aguigui, died.

Prosecutors say Aguigui bought $87,000 worth of semi-automatic assault rifles, other guns and bomb-making materials. Pvt Aguigui would give Roark money to buy weapons for him, the slain soldier's father said.

"They were using Michael and other kids as straw buyers, giving them money to go buy guns," said Brett Roark, citing conversations with prosecutors. "He wasn't a member of the gang."

Pvt Aguigui grew up with six siblings in a military family in the state of Washington. Their father, according to a short alumnus profile on his high school's website, retired after serving 20 years in the Army. Articles from Aguigui's hometown newspaper, The Wenatchee World, say Aguigui was home-schooled. His father, Edward Aguigui, did not return a phone message seeking comment.