New details are emerging about the four U.S. soldiers accused of plotting to assassinate President Obama and overthrow the U.S. government.
The bizarre story began unfurling on Monday after Pfc. Michael Burnett, dressed in his Army uniform, testified in a southeast Georgia court against his fellow militia members. Prosecutors accused the group F.E.A.R. (Forever Enduring Always Ready) of buying $87,000 worth of assault rifles, bomb materials, and semiautomatic weapons in a plot to bomb a park in nearby Savannah, poison apple orchards in Washington state and blow up a dam with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the government and killing Barack Obama. The group also stands accused of murdering former U.S. soldier Michael Roark and his girlfriend Tiffany York after they learned of the group's plans. In a plea bargain, Burnett plead guilty to manslaughter and illegal gang activity on Monday in connection with Roark and York's murder. Here's what we've learned about the group so far.
The four U.S. soldiers implicated in the crimes, Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, Sgt. Anthony Peden, Pvt. Christopher Salmon and Burnett, are all active members of the U.S. Army. According to Burnett, the group's rationale behind killing the president was "to give the government back to the people," according to CNN. "The government needed a change, Burnett told the court. 'I thought we were the people who would be able to change it.'" According to Long County Prosecutor Isabel Pauley, “This domestic terrorist organization did not simply plan and talk. Prior to the murders in this case, the group took action” and had the “knowledge, means and motive to carry out their plans.” The Associated Press reports that the group courted current and former soldiers "who were in trouble or disillusioned." Prosecutors said they had no idea of the size of F.E.A.R.'s membership.
The alleged ringleader of F.E.A.R. is Pvt. Aguigui, who funded the militia with $500,000 in insurance and benefit payments from the death of his wife just one year ago. Aguigui called himself "the nicest coldblooded murderer you will ever meet," according to a video interview with military investigators. The AP notes, "he used the Army to recruit militia members, who wore distinctive tattoos that resemble an anarchy symbol."
Aguigui's father, Ed Aguigui, spoke with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Bill Morlin, saying he was unfamiliar with his son's world views:
“I served my country for 20 years and I honor that, take pride in that,” Ed Aguigui said when asked about his son’s alleged antigovernment activities. “I don’t know what my son’s views are, and where they came from ... It's all tragic.”
While his father was apparently rather tight-lipped about his son's background, the suspect's grandmother added more details about his upbringing:
Gloria Aguigui, of East Wenatchee, Wash., said her large family is from Guam. Annette Aguigui, the suspect’s mother, homeschooled Isaac and his five brothers and sister while their father spent a career as a U.S. Army combat engineer. “When they were little kids, they weren’t even allowed to have guns,” Gloria Aguigui [said]. “Isaac never got into trouble, and was always helping out. I have no idea what happened.”
On Monday afternoon, Gawker's John Cook pointed out a strong resemblance between Aguigui and man of the same name identified in a Reuters photograph as a page for the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Court's Jurisdiction
Following yesterday's story, many astute commenters wondered why the case wasn't being handled within the military since the accused men are active duty. According to CNN, "All four soldiers had also been charged by the military. But as their case proceeded through the civilian courts, the Army dismissed its charges, according to Fort Stewart spokesman Kevin Larson." The military has an ongoing probe within the Criminal Investigative Division but no one else is being tied to the crimes at this point, according to Larson. Apparently, Burnett pleaded guilty to manslaughter and agreed to testify against the three other soldiers in order to avoid a death sentence
Signs of a Broader Problem?
Larson pushed back against the idea that this is indicative of a larger problem at Fort Stewart and nearby Hunter Army Airfield, saying it "does not have a gang or militia problem." He told CNN: "Any suspicions of gang activity are actively investigated by CID, (which) recognizes the obvious concerns with the combination of gangs and military-type training," said Larson. "That is why CID monitors and investigates gang and extremist group association with criminal acts in the Army so closely. We believe the reason we are able to maintain a low gang criminal threat status is because of the awareness of and focus on the threat."