- Associated Press - Thursday, August 30, 2012

LUDOWICI, Ga. — Georgia prosecutors will seek the death penalty against three Army soldiers accused of killing a former serviceman and his girlfriend to protect an anti-government militia group, officials said Thursday during tense court hearings in which one victim’s stepfather was handcuffed as he tried to rush the defense table.

Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, Pvt. Christopher Salmon and Sgt. Anthony Peden — all active-duty soldiers stationed at Fort Stewart — are each charged with 13 counts including malice murder, felony murder and illegal gang activity in the Dec. 4 slayings.

Former soldier Michael Roark and his 17-year-old girlfriend, Tiffany York, were shot in the head in the woods of rural Long County near Fort Stewart in southeast Georgia. Fishermen found their bodies the next day.

“I want them gone. I want all of these individuals to disappear,” said Nicholas Lee York, the slain girl’s older brother, who applauded the decision to seek death for the soldiers. “They took something irreplaceable from me.”

The case took a stunning turn at a hearing Monday when prosecutors told a Superior Court judge the accused soldiers belonged to an anti-government militia operating within the U.S. military that had stockpiled at least $87,000 worth of guns and bomb components. They said the group had a range of plans — from bombing a park fountain in nearby Savannah to poisoning apple crops in the state of Washington — and its ultimate goal was to overthrow the U.S. government and assassinate the president. However, President Obama was not mentioned by name as their target.

Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden cites domestic terrorism as an aggravating factor that warrants the death penalty. However, all charges relate directly to the two killings. No charges have been filed in state or federal court accusing the three suspects of terrorist plots or acts.

“Sometimes some of these things don’t fit neatly into our state laws,” Mr. Durden said after court when asked about the absence of terrorism-related charges. “We’re going forward with what we feel comfortable with.”
Because of the capital charges, the soldiers will need to have new attorneys appointed with death penalty experience. They won’t be arraigned or asked to enter pleas until that happens.

“At this point, there has been no evidence presented to prove anything,” said Keith Higgins, an attorney who represented Pvt. Aguigui in court Thursday.

Pvt. Salmon’s wife, Heather Salmon, has also been charged with murder and other counts. She did not appear in court Thursday, and Mr. Durden said he will not seek the death penalty for her.

Authorities took extra precautions Thursday as the accused soldiers, in shackles and jailhouse jumpsuits, were brought before the judge. They were brought to the courthouse one at a time, with their hearings scheduled an hour apart. Deputies armed with assault rifles walked in front of and behind them.

Relatives of both victims have been seething since Monday’s hearing after a fourth soldier who says he witnessed the slayings testified about them in detail before pleading guilty to reduced charges. Pfc. Michael Burnett told the judge that Mr. Roark, whom prosecutors say was helping the militia buy guns, had just left the Army and was considered “a loose end” by Pvt. Aguigui, the militia’s leader.

Pfc. Burnett said Mr. Roark and his girlfriend were led to the woods. Pvt. Peden shot Miss York before she could get out of her car, then checked her pulse and shot her again. Mr. Roark was forced to kneel on the ground before Pvt. Salmon shot him twice in the head, Pfc. Burnett said.

Mr. Roark’s father, Brett Roark, yelled at Salmon from his seat in the courtroom, calling the soldier a “Piece of [expletive].” Then during Pvt. Peden’s turn in the courtroom later, Miss York’s stepfather bolted from his third-row seat in the courtroom gallery and rushed toward the suspect at the defense table.

“You [expletive] killed my kid!” Wesley Thomas cried out before at least four deputies and officers wrestled him to the floor and handcuffed him.

Brett Roark stood in his seat and yelled to the deputies: “Get off him” and “Let him go.” Both men were led from the courtroom, but neither was charged for the outburst.

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