LUDOWICI, Ga. — Two Army soldiers pleaded guilty Thursday to fatally shooting a former military colleague and his teenage girlfriend to protect what one defendant described as an anti-government militia group formed by disgruntled troops at neighboring Fort Stewart.
Pvt. Christopher Salmon remained stoic in the courtroom as he accepted a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole and offered an apology to the victim's families. Sgt. Anthony Peden sniffled, dabbed at tears and barely spoke as he also pleaded guilty to malice murder charges but refused to accept the same punishment. He will be sentenced by a judge at a later date.
"I'm sorry I killed your son and I'm sorry I did nothing to stop the murder of Tiffany," Salmon said as he turned to face the families in the courtroom. "And I hope someday you will all be able to find peace."
The plea deals in Long County Superior Court allow both soldiers to escape a possible death sentence if they were convicted at trial. They're among five soldiers who were charged with the Dec. 5, 2011, slayings of 19-year-old Michael Roark and his girlfriend, 17-year-old Tiffany York. Hunters found the couple dead in the woods near Fort Stewart, where Roark had been discharged from the Army just days before his death.
Salmon, 27, told the judge Thursday that he and the other accused soldiers all belonged to a group of soldiers who had been in trouble with the Army, held anti-government views and grew from being "a small killing team to a full-blown militia." He said the group stockpiled weapons and planned to start a private security business as a front for its operations.
Salmon said Roark had access to the group's bank account and was suspected of taking money. One night, members discovered text messages that made them fear Roark planned to expose the group to police. Salmon said he and Peden, along with Pvt. Isaac Aguigui and Pfc. Michael Burnett, lured Roark and his girlfriend into the woods with a ruse that they were going shooting.
York didn't got out of the car before Peden shot her twice in the head, Salmon said. He said they forced Roark to get on his knees and answer questions about the group's bank account as well as a storage locker he rented before Aguigui gave Salmon a signal to kill him too.
"I shot him in the head," Salmon said. "I started to walk away and somebody told me I needed to shoot him again. So I did."
Roark's mother, Tracy Jahr, glared at Salmon through tears as she was allowed to take the witness stand to give a victim-impact statement. She said she didn't believe his apology.
"I hope you suffer," Jahr said. "And I hope your days don't have any sunshine in them, because you took mine from me."
Peden, 28, will be asked to give his own account of the crime at this sentencing hearing. No date has been set. The murder charge carries an automatic life sentence, but Judge Robert Russell must decide whether Peden will ever be eligible for parole. Peden's attorney, Burt Baker, said at a previous hearing that his client suffers from post-traumatic stress linked to his service in Afghanistan.
York's mother, Brenda Thomas, said Peden needs to receive the same sentence as Salmon and know he'll never again be free.
"He's looking for hope," Thomas said as she left the courthouse. "I have no hope that my Tiffany will ever come home to me."
Prosecutors say Aguigui led the militia group and funded it with $500,000 in insurance and benefit payments the soldier received after his pregnant wife died in July 2011 — about five months before Roark and York were slain. Aguigui pleaded guilty to murder charges in the couple's slaying last summer. A military judge also convicted him last week of killing his wife, Sgt Deirdre Aguigui, and their unborn child. Aguigui is serving life without parole at a Georgia prison.
Burnett was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter charges in August 2012 when he agreed to testify about the militia and the slayings of Roark and York. Prosecutors say he'll be sentenced last. Salmon's wife, Heather Salmon, has also been charged with murder in the case, though she wasn't present when the couple was killed. She has pleaded not guilty.