Rogue Element

How an anti-government militia grew on a U.S. Army base.

The New Yorker/May 26, 2014

By Nadya Labi

In June of 2011, Isaac Aguigui and his wife, Deirdre, learned that they were going to have a boy. Aguigui, then twenty years old and a private in the Army, spoke excitedly with friends about becoming a parent. Deirdre, twenty-three and a sergeant, sent her father a text announcing, “It’s a boy,” repeating the final word eight times to punctuate her glee. They picked out a name, Kalvin James, and when Deirdre adopted an orange tabby they named it Hobbes, evoking the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.”

The two had met in 2009, as cadet candidates at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School for West Point, at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Deirdre tutored Aguigui in math; he was gregarious and handsome, with black hair and angular features. “She was elated she’d found the right guy,” her father, Alma Wetzker, said. When Wetzker met Aguigui, he was charmed. “I sensed a kindred spirit who thought a lot like me,” he said. The relationship wasn’t against the school’s rules, but it was contrary to its spirit of discipline: barracks are gender-segregated, and cadets must be single. After Aguigui’s roommate accused him of sleeping with Deirdre in his bed, they quarrelled, and Aguigui was kicked out. Rather than give up on military life, he enlisted in the Army. Deirdre, who had enlisted a few years earlier, dropped out of school to marry him.

Aguigui went to basic training, and then to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, for advanced instruction in military intelligence; Deirdre deployed to Iraq. When she returned, in December of 2010, the couple moved into a two-bedroom apartment on base at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Distance had frayed their relationship, and proximity didn’t seem to help much, either. Still, their prospects had improved by the summer of 2011. Deirdre had been promoted to sergeant, four ranks above her husband. And Kalvin, conceived during a period of reconciliation, seemed to signal happier times. Deirdre turned their second bedroom into a nursery, buying a mahogany crib and a high chair. On July 4th, the couple went to a concert by the Zac Brown Band, a country group, and Deirdre called her husband’s childhood friend Matthew Asimakoupoulos. “She was telling me how good she and Isaac were doing,” he recalled. “They were getting back together. She sounded happy.”

In July, when Deirdre was five months pregnant, she complained on Facebook of terrible heartburn. “I feel like I swallowed a fire ball,” she wrote. A few days later, her parents got a phone call from Aguigui. “He said he went to lie down and Deirdre went to watch TV in the other room,” Wetzker recalled. “When Isaac got up, Deirdre was unresponsive. He tried to wake her up and rushed her to the E.R. They worked on her for about an hour and tried to save the baby, but it didn’t work.” Aguigui told another soldier that doctors believed a blood clot had killed Deirdre; she had suffered an embolism in Iraq. But, in an audio diary that he kept, he made an entry three months later in which he blamed himself. “I’m feeling lonely, sad, confused, angry, frustrated, pissed at the world, pissed at myself,” he said. “I keep thinking about the night she died and I get angry that I didn’t know C.P.R. What kind of fucking soldier doesn’t know C.P.R.?”

At Deirdre’s funeral, Aguigui was withdrawn, avoiding her parents. “You could tell he was devastated,” Asimakoupoulos said. “He didn’t want to be around people. I think he was trying to cope with it in his head and get through it.” But grief didn’t prevent Aguigui from visiting the Army office in charge of death benefits two days after Deirdre’s death. As the spouse of a soldier who died on active duty, he was entitled to about half a million dollars. Within days, he got an initial payment of a hundred thousand.

Fort Stewart, in southeast Georgia, is the home of the 3rd Infantry Division, which led the invasion of Iraq, in 2003. It is the largest military installation in the East, more than three times the size of Atlanta. Separated from the neighboring town of Hinesville by security checkpoints, it combines suburban living and Army discipline; inside the gates are low-slung brick buildings that wouldn’t be out of place in a strip mall, set off by grassy fields, a Burger King, a commissary store. Aguigui belonged to a squadron of five hundred soldiers, of whom about eighty were stationed at Fort Stewart—the rear guard for the soldiers who had deployed to Mosul, Iraq. On the base, new privates mingled with soldiers returning from difficult tours of duty.

After Deirdre’s death, Aguigui was relegated to the barracks for single soldiers, known as a center for drinking and easy hookups. He threw a keg party and broke down in tears in the middle of it. He went to the Temptations strip club, across the border in South Carolina, and the higher-end Platinum Plus. He ended up dating two strippers, and, they later said, gave them thousands of dollars to help pay bills. At after-parties with the strippers, he smoked a synthetic marijuana called Spice; he snorted bath salts and cocaine and took Ecstasy. As Aguigui’s friend and fellow-soldier Sergeant Michael Schaefer told me, from a jail in Columbia, where he was serving time for robbery, “He started going crazy.”

Aguigui became close to Private Christopher Salmon, nicknamed Phish, who had been caught committing travel-voucher fraud in Iraq and was assigned extra duty as punishment. His wife, Heather, was pregnant, and she had recently been discharged from the Army for prescription-drug abuse. The two men sat together, smoking Spice and talking about their deepening antipathy toward the military and the government. At first, Heather was skeptical of Aguigui; she had met him before Deirdre died, at a beer-pong party off post, and overheard him arranging to meet a girl at the barracks. But after Deirdre’s death she felt sorry for him—and, she said, “he was my husband’s best friend.” She suggested inviting him to dinner at their home, a white four-bedroom row house on the base. “He came to my house and never really left,” she said. “One night turned into a week, a week turned into a month.” He took over the couch, and then moved into his own room.

Shortly before Deirdre’s death, Aguigui had accidentally fired a handgun as he tried to unload it, and he was given a demerit known as an Article 15. (The term refers to Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice; soldiers who violate it can have their rank reduced or be assigned punishment duties.) Aguigui, who already held the lowest possible rank, was restricted to the barracks for two weeks and got forty-five days of “corrective training tasks”: scraping gum off sidewalks and cleaning out dumpsters.

Angry that he had to serve the punishment just after his wife’s death, Aguigui complained of the military’s “ridicule and restrictions.” He claimed that the Army had killed his wife, by prescribing her drugs that had caused a fatal blood clot. As he and Salmon talked late into the night, Aguigui began to spin fantasies of striking back. On leave in September, he visited the High Mountain Hunting Supply shop, in central Washington, where Asimakoupoulos worked. He spent thirty-two thousand dollars on fourteen guns, including high-powered rifles, and other military hardware. At Fort Stewart, he began boasting about conducting “active shooter situations”—scenarios in which a killer attacks in a confined area to maximize casualties.

In a series of letters from prison, Aguigui described an early life that was constrained but idyllic. The son of an Army combat engineer from Guam, he grew up on Army bases across the country. When he was thirteen, his family—his parents, Edward and Annette, and his four siblings—moved to Cashmere, Washington, a quiet town surrounded by apple and pear orchards. After Edward retired from the Army, he learned that two of Aguigui’s cousins had been placed in foster care, and so the family adopted them. Edward landed a job in construction, and Annette homeschooled the children. Sundays were devoted to church.

“I guess you could call my upbringing ‘lovingly restricted,’ ” Aguigui wrote. Edward had worked as a drill sergeant, and he was firm with the children. They weren’t allowed to date, or to play violent video games, and Aguigui didn’t drink or use drugs. The siblings were close, but Aguigui, bright and outgoing, craved more interaction. He joined a swim team at a local high school—“I always did look at public school with a sense of longing,” he wrote—and another at the Y.M.C.A. He frequented a youth group at the Free Methodist Church in the nearby town of Wenatchee. “He was a role model,” his grandmother Gloria said. “He was a very good kid, very intelligent, very respected by his elders.”

Aguigui said that he felt “born to be a soldier.” At eleven, he got a Marlin .22 rifle, and he later went to shooting ranges with his grandfather, a Vietnam vet. When he was sixteen, he built a fort on wooden posts in the back yard, using scrap material from construction sites. With an old Russian rifle by his side, he camped there on a cot, burning charcoal in a pot during the winter. “I imagined myself a militiaman keeping watch over my family’s house,” he told me. Guerrilla fighters fascinated him: “Something about a partisan’s struggle against oppression always appealed to me.”

In his teens, he got involved in politics through the state’s Republican Committee chairwoman, who helped him secure a spot as a page at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the summer of 2008. Although he acknowledged Barack Obama’s ability as a speaker, he wrote that he disapproved of the President’s “socialist policies” and objected to his campaign playing the “race card.” “This country is so focused on black vs. white that they forget how many other races there are out there,” he complained.

During his senior year, he fell in love with a girl, and his mother warned him, “If you can’t abide by the rules of this house, then you need to find somewhere else to live.” Aguigui impetuously packed up his belongings and crashed with his friend Matthew Asimakoupoulos. “He was very respectful around people, calling everybody ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am,’ and was great with my parents,” Asimakoupoulos said. “He got up, made the bed, and made sure everything was fine so he didn’t bother anyone.” Then his mother called to tell him that a package had arrived from West Point: his acceptance to the prep school.

He met Deirdre Wetzker there a few months later. Like Aguigui, she was one of seven children. Growing up in a cerebral and socially awkward Mormon family in the Midwest, she struggled to fit in. “Deirdre was my most difficult child,” her father said. “We didn’t have a good relationship when she was growing up, because there are certain things a teen-ager shouldn’t be doing. She always wanted people to like her, and that doesn’t always work.” To keep a close eye on Deirdre as she entered her teens, the Wetzkers homeschooled her. She refused to go to church, and her parents were distressed. Finally, the family agreed that it made sense for her to live with an uncle in Oregon.

After getting a G.E.D., she worked as a massage therapist in Salt Lake City, and decided to go into the military when she couldn’t keep up with the bills. Proficient in French after years of study, she was sent to the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, California. After a year and a half learning Arabic, she was encouraged to apply to the prep school.

In November of 2010, Aguigui arrived at Fort Stewart for his first assignment as a soldier. “You’re going to be proud of me,” he told his grandmother. “When I come home I’m going to get a property and we’re going to raise pigs and chickens.” Deirdre’s experience of the military was less idealized. In Iraq, a mortar attack near her living quarters injured several people in her unit. Soon afterward, she developed the embolism, in her femur; put on medical leave, she joined her husband on the base.

Fort Stewart was a base for some of the most deployed units in the Iraq war—the last stop before flying overseas. “You go around Fort Stewart, you talk to any of the soldiers,” Private First Class Alyssa Rangel, a friend of Deirdre’s, said. “It’s always ‘We’re ready for the call of duty.’ ” But that readiness came with a disregard for ordinary constraints. “I would hear about the parties from my son,” Brett Roark, the father of Aguigui’s fellow-soldier Michael Roark, said. “There’s an atmosphere of ‘Let’s throw a party—it may be our last party.’  I’d ask my son, ‘How can you not be there on a Monday morning for muster?’ He’d say, ‘My sergeant’s got it taken care of.’ ”

In the Army, Aguigui compensated for his early abstinence. “There would be these huge parties off post at one of the local hotels, where we would drink, party, and get away from the Army life style,” Rangel said. “At times, with Isaac, it would be, like, ‘Dude, slow down.’ ” At Fort Stewart, he began accruing drug and alcohol violations. Still, he impressed his mates as a promising soldier. “He never seemed to be in a bad mood,” his friend Michael Schaefer said. “He would listen to people and talk to them. He’s one of them types who get along with everybody.” After passing a rigorous background test, he worked in military intelligence, training to provide assessments of the enemy’s capabilities.

After Deirdre’s death, Aguigui began connecting with other disgruntled soldiers, targeting those who were in trouble or emotionally vulnerable. “I noticed that the vast majority of soldiers on extra duty have a deficiency of some sort,” Aguigui told me. He befriended Roark, a nineteen-year-old private who was waiting eagerly to be called to Iraq. When the call didn’t come, Roark complained to his father—“I want to go be a scout, and I’m stuck here washing dishes”—and began to collect demerits. He was disciplined for fighting and reckless driving, and at one point his handgun was confiscated. Aguigui treated Roark as his errand boy, giving him his debit card to pick up groceries, drugs, and guns.

As Aguigui built a network, he made friends with a soldier named Michael Burnett, who was helping to fix the squad’s computers. Burnett was a striking presence: six feet six, handsome, and full of fiery ideas about overthrowing the government. “He gave off the impression of being everybody’s big brother,” Aguigui wrote. Burnett was going through a difficult divorce, and was raising a one-year-old son. He and Aguigui began smoking together in the pit favored by soldiers of the rear guard, and after Burnett received an Article 15 for possessing an unregistered handgun the two spent more time together.

Burnett and Aguigui talked about cars and girls—“dude stuff”—and about politics. Aguigui invited Burnett to dinner several times, and he persisted when Burnett declined. Burnett pitied him for his loss, and shared his dislike of the Army, so in October of 2011 he came to a barbecue at the Salmons’. He began hanging out there on weekends and after work, and Heather obligingly babysat his young son. “Isaac is extremely smart and charismatic,” Burnett said. “At first, you don’t see the charisma. He doesn’t show that until you’re close to him. At one point in our relationship, it was like he was my little brother. But he was manipulating everyone, including myself.”

Aguigui showed Burnett an article in a video-gaming magazine called Game Informer, which served as a kind of manifesto. The article, about a game called Rainbow 6 Patriots, began with the words “Americans are angry,” in red letters. In the game, an élite counterterrorist unit, Team Rainbow, fights a coalition of domestic militias called the True Patriots. The game’s creative director, David Sears, says in the article that the True Patriots’ leader intends to become a martyr, believing that “people will look at him as the founding father of a new country in which people have embraced the civil liberties that are granted to them in the Constitution.” The counterterror officers are presented as the game’s heroes, but a number of scenes show an affinity with the militia’s populist rage. In one, a real-estate investor watches TV as his wife approaches, wearing a silky robe. Abruptly, intruders fling the door open, shove his wife aside, and knock him out. He wakes up to one of the intruders wielding a knife. “Very nice place you’ve got here,” he says, as a baby wails in the background. “You really did cash in on everyone else getting foreclosed, didn’t you?” The investor is strapped into a vest lined with explosives and told that he has to detonate himself in Times Square.

Burnett sympathized with the militia in the game. “We’ve been fighting a war for over ten years with no political gain,” he told me in a recent interview from a prison in Savannah. “I have friends who went to Iraq and Afghanistan who have been killed or wounded by roadside bombs and terrorists blowing themselves up, and nothing has changed.” He feared that the government might turn on its citizens, in which case “you need to be able to protect yourself.” Aguigui told Burnett that he had tried to join a militia in Washington but was rejected—perhaps, Burnett suggested, because of his heritage as a Pacific Islander. Burnett gave Aguigui a maxim, inspired by a line of Thomas Jefferson’s: “Any good government must be overthrown every ten years.”

After extra duty one night, Aguigui remembers, Salmon told him that “the leader of the resistance in the game was identical to how he envisioned me.” When Aguigui responded, “We could do this,” Salmon told him, “I’ll follow you to Hell, brother.” Aguigui told me that this was when his network of disaffected soldiers started thinking of itself as a militia. “That was the moment it all began,” he said. “We weren’t out to change the government, we were out to destroy it.” Aguigui named his group FEAR, which stood for Forever Enduring Always Ready. “I believe most Americans share my beliefs; they’re just afraid to show it,” he explained. “The only way to overcome all fear is to become something everyone else fears.” He referred to key members of the group, like Burnett and the Salmons, as the Family.

In October, Aguigui made a late-night entry in his audio journal, elaborating his vision for FEAR. The militia would have “no rank structure.” It would be like “a bike club”—a community. “Can you imagine going to Costco and buying, like, ten dozen fucking everything, and coming back with trucks?” he said to Heather, who told me that she listened with half an ear as she did household chores. Aguigui added that his father had agreed to drill the militia on weekends, and that there would be an élite platoon called 666. “The militia is not allowed to know what the Triple Six does,” he said. “Only that it is an honored platoon to be a part of.”

With Salmon’s help, Aguigui devised a scheme to buy ninety acres in Washington State and build a compound for the militia. Around the base, Aguigui spoke openly about his plans. According to one soldier interviewed by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, “The entire S-2 section”—the intelligence group in Aguigui’s squadron—“had knowledge of Aguigui’s plans and many were willing to be a part of it.” For Aguigui, the thought of commanding an army inspired Biblical raptures. “We’re the first and last word,” he said. “The first word is my word, ‘They’re going to die.’ My word is the order ‘Go.’ ” The last word, like the trumpet of the Archangel Gabriel, he suggests, would be “the sounding of Phish’s or one of his agents’ rifles.” Aguigui said that he was stoned, but he seemed high mostly on power. “I have a minuteman militia that’s being built. I have guns. I have money,” he said. “I’m the fucking boss. You don’t want to fuck with me. I’m nuts. I’m the nicest murderer you’ll ever meet.”

At his most devious, Aguigui would claim to be schizophrenic. After Deirdre’s death, he told me, he spent weeks repeatedly watching the same three movies—“Sucker Punch,” “V for Vendetta,” and “Rampage”—until a voice emerged in his head. “I created Gray, the first voice, who taught me to play a game of alternate realities to occupy my dying mind,” he wrote. Then another voice emerged, “the distillation of all of the anger, confusion, hurt, hatred, and betrayal that I felt.” Aguigui said that Heather named the personality Loki, for the Norse god of mischief. He explained that Gray would act as the referee between Aguigui, the good, and Loki, the bad.

As Loki, Aguigui would buy guns and drugs, and check and recheck his bank statements. “He wouldn’t make sense when he was Loki—he would talk crazy,” Adam Dearman, a military policeman who joined the group, said. Burnett suggested that Loki was a kind of aspirational alter ego. “It’s this person he wants to be on the outside that he knows he can’t be,” he said. “Loki shows no weakness.” But it’s unclear whether Aguigui really believed he was Loki. “He would try to say this character would come out and he would have no idea it happened,” Heather said. “I think it was a mind game.”

Among members of the Family, Aguigui bragged about killing someone who had stolen one of his shotguns, but he later said that it was a fiction, intended “to keep the Family in line.” More often, he employed a softer, almost confessional leadership style. “He’d say, ‘Do you think we could do this?’ ” Burnett said. “He’d say, ‘I could never lead without you guys’ help.’ ” Aguigui adopted different personas with different members. He made Roark his “do-boy,” as one member said, protecting and taunting him in the manner of an older brother; they went running together and visited shooting ranges. He treated Phish as his closest companion, and he offered Burnett admiration and a tight social circle. With Heather, he talked frequently about Deirdre; he confided that he was bisexual, asking her not to tell Phish, who would disapprove.

The group became a haven for troubled soldiers. Dearman had returned from Iraq suffering P.T.S.D. and suicidal thoughts; Aguigui got high with him and kept him company. “We all became really, really close,” Dearman said. Members shared their fears in talk-therapy sessions, and Aguigui instituted a Head Check, during which they talked through disagreements. “If we were having an emotional problem, we’d sit down and talk about it,” Dearman said. “That’s what we were all there for. You have a problem, we’ll fix it.” Aguigui devised an emblem for FEAR, an overlapping alpha and omega that resembled an anarchy symbol, which he engraved on weapons and had tattooed on his right shoulder. In November, Burnett and Dearman got tattoos, too. “In the Army, if the person beside you is wearing the same unit patch, you know you can rely on that person,” Dearman told me. “When we got the tattoo, it gave us a sense of unity.”

Aguigui began to use the Rainbow 6 article to evaluate potential recruits, in an initiation process that he called Awakening. New members brought in practical knowledge. One of them was Sergeant Anthony Peden, a sniper, who practiced shooting with members of FEAR. Like others, he had returned from Iraq depressed—“You could tell he was emotionally not right,” Burnett said—and was going through a bitter divorce. His truck had been repossessed, so he often stayed with Burnett to get around. Peden taught Aguigui to make bombs with PVC pipe, nails, and gunpowder. Burnett told investigators that he saw the two working on a bomb in a bedroom at the Salmons’ house.

As Aguigui began using harder drugs, he became more aggressive. He came up with the idea of splitting FEAR into a white cell and a black cell, to mirror the divide between himself and Loki. The white cell would be responsible for “legit” operations, including medical teams to support the militia; the black cell would perform illegal activities, including assassination and theft. Burnett and the Salmons went to Mission Essential, in nearby Hinesville, and spent sixteen thousand dollars on sixteen guns, including a Taurus revolver known as the Judge.

Aguigui’s most audacious plans recalled the fantastical violence of Rainbow 6 Patriots. At one point, he considered bombing a popular fountain in Forsyth Park, in downtown Savannah. He talked about blowing up a dam in Washington and poisoning the state’s apple crop, in order to sow economic unrest. The memory of Deirdre became a lodestar for the group. Aguigui imagined a congressional hearing into her death, and announced that he would kidnap his Army supervisor and force him to attend, wearing an explosive vest. His larger goal was to overthrow the U.S. government, and give the country back to the people on July 17, 2031, the twentieth anniversary of Deirdre’s death.

Since Barack Obama was elected President, militia groups have proliferated in the United States. In 2010, Daryl Johnson, then a senior domestic-terror analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, found that the number had more than tripled in the past three years, from eighty-five to more than three hundred. The times are conducive to extremist anger: there is a black President, a sputtering economy, a disappearing white majority, and recurring talk of stricter gun laws. According to one expert, the militia movement, which was largely middle-aged in the nineteen-nineties, has recently attracted a surge of younger adherents through social-networking sites.

It can be difficult to distinguish between active militias and disgruntled citizens who happen to have guns; the D.H.S. definition specifies paramilitary training and anti-government beliefs. In practice, many of the groups are typified by resistance to taxes and to gun laws, and a conviction that individual rights are being encroached on. “The fundamental notion is that the rest of the world has already been taken over by the New World Order,” Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League, told me. “They believe our government is collaborating with this evil tyrannical global entity and trying to strip us of our freedoms, starting with our arms.” A common fear is that the government will use a natural disaster as an excuse to declare martial law and round up militia members into concentration camps.

Many groups mimic the structure of the military, assigning ranks and arranging members in battalions and field forces. It’s unusual, however, for active-duty soldiers to belong. “A typical militia group is largely a group of wannabes,” Pitcavage said. There are exceptions: Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was an infantry gunner in the Gulf War. In 2009, the D.H.S. suggested that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan posed a risk. “Right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge,” one study predicted, and warned of “the willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups,” because they are “disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war.”

Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent who infiltrated right-wing militias, told me that members have a penchant for talk over action. “These groups sit and brainstorm—‘Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?’ ” German said. “It’s not about the act. It’s about the reaction they’re trying to provoke.” Johnson agrees that most militias are fundamentally defensive. “They’re hunkering down, waiting for things to happen and reacting,” he said. “They commit firearms and explosives violations. They’ll build an improvised device and test it.” Violence is most likely when suspicions overtake the group, and a first violent act tends to lead to others. “If any of these people get paranoid to the point where they start acting out on what they fear, you have a real problem, because you’ve got somebody who’s armed to the teeth,” Johnson says.

In February, 2010, the anti-tax advocate Andrew Joseph Stack flew a single-engine plane into an I.R.S. building in Austin, Texas, killing a manager and himself, and injuring thirteen others. “Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man,” he wrote in a suicide note, “take my pound of flesh and sleep well.” In 2012, Schaeffer Cox, the twenty-eight-year-old leader of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, was convicted, along with another member, in a plot to kill or kidnap state troopers and a Fairbanks judge. A vocal proponent of the Second Amendment, Cox had won thirty-seven per cent of the vote in the Republican primary for the state legislature in 2008. This past November, twenty-three-year-old Paul Ciancia opened fire at Los Angeles International Airport, killing one Transportation Security Administration officer and wounding five others. His duffelbag reportedly contained a one-page manifesto referring to himself as a patriot and stating his intention to kill “TSA and pigs” in order to “instill fear in their traitorous minds.” More often, though, violence occurs when extremists turn on their comrades, fearing that they have become government informants, or end up in shoot-outs with police at traffic stops. “The way you react to normal stimuli changes,” German said. “You get pulled over because your tags have expired and you’re thinking, This is it. They’re onto me. Your reaction is to fight to the death.”

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks incidents of domestic terror, said that the profile of militias has changed. “It’s not like it was forty years ago, when Klan plots were worked out in smoky rooms full of white men,” he told me. “The vast majority of domestic-terror plots come from lone wolves or very small cells, which make them vastly more difficult to uncover.” For the most part, law-enforcement agents stop militants before they commit violence. But it is difficult to tell militants who talk tough from those who will act, especially without violating constitutional rights. “Law enforcement needs to have probable cause before launching an investigation,” Johnson said. “But McVeigh didn’t commit crimes before he lashed out. He went from selling bumper stickers to bombing a federal building in less than two years.”

When Aguigui bought his cache of weapons in Washington, a relative reported the purchase to the local police. “She knew that Isaac’s wife had died, and was concerned,” Sergeant John Kruse, of the Wenatchee police, said. The police referred the matter to the F.B.I. in Spokane and to the Army C.I.D. in Tacoma. The F.B.I. investigated the purchase—which was legal in a state that has avidly embraced the Second Amendment—and relayed misgivings to its counterparts in Georgia and at Fort Stewart. But the authorities appear to have decided that Aguigui belonged to the great majority of militants who do no harm, and so they looked away.

As a private, Aguigui earned a base salary of less than fifteen hundred dollars a month, but he gained a reputation for almost heedless generosity. “He handed me five thousand dollars to go buy my car, no questions asked, and large sums of money for drugs,” Dearman said. “He’d hand me a debit card and tell me to go shopping for my daughter’s Christmas presents.” In the summer of 2011, Heather began helping Aguigui to manage his money. By then, she said, he had barely two hundred thousand dollars remaining, and he continued to spend tens of thousands on guns, drugs, and strip clubs.

Aguigui, looking for income, recruited Dearman to commit crimes as part of FEAR’s black cell. He ingratiated himself with one of Dearman’s buddies, Sergeant Timothy Joiner, who began running errands for the group. In November, Joiner broke into a home in Hinesville and stole firearms, which he turned over to Aguigui. A month later, when Dearman ended up in prison, Joiner and Dearman’s brother committed more thefts, grabbing televisions, a Kevlar vest, and anything else that could be pawned to raise bail money. They were arrested soon afterward.

At Fort Stewart, Aguigui operated with considerable license. Several FEAR members told investigators that he bribed his supervisor, Staff Sergeant Scott Zipp, to excuse him from work; Aguigui, who said that he paid a total of six thousand dollars, arranged for two payments to be videotaped, gathering evidence against the sergeant. (A C.I.D. file noted the allegations, but the Army’s public-affairs office said it found no record that Zipp had been charged with an offense; Fort Hood, Zipp’s current base, declined to make him available for comment.) Sergeant Joiner committed crimes for FEAR, and agreed not to report members’ drug use. And though the Army suspected Aguigui of crimes—including killing his wife—he was allowed to remain on base. At one point, Aguigui admitted to being involved with three other soldiers in a plan to kill local drug dealers. The Army investigated him for conspiracy to commit murder, but the investigation produced no apparent results.

In less than two months, Aguigui bought as much as fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of cocaine, marijuana, and Ecstasy, with help from Jeffrey Roberts, a bouncer at a night club in Savannah. Aguigui invited Roberts to become his head of security. Initially, Roberts was impressed. “I thought, This kid’s got it together,” Roberts said. “A couple hundred thousand in his bank account. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.” Aguigui paid Roberts twenty-five hundred dollars to research starting a night club, and another twenty-five hundred after they shopped for uniforms together.

But, when Roberts saw the guns and the drugs at the Salmons’ house, he thought, “Wow, this isn’t my cup of tea,” he told me. Under pressure to provide more drugs, he sold the group sugar cubes, claiming that they were laced with LSD. The next time he visited, he was summoned upstairs. “A door gets closed,” Roberts said. “There’s Chris. I can tell he’s on something. His eyes are wide open and he’s got a baseball bat in his hand and the whole entire room is covered in plastic. He’s, like, ‘You’re trying to fuck the Family.’ ” Roberts talked his way out and never returned.

Suspicion spread inside FEAR, too. After Heather began auditing the group’s finances, militia members became convinced that Roark, who had unfettered access to Aguigui’s credit card, had stolen between ten thousand and thirty thousand dollars. Aguigui was furious. “The paranoia level in the group began to consume them,” Johnson said.

In late November, Burnett said, Aguigui told him that Roark and his girlfriend, Tiffany York, needed to be killed—Roark because he had stolen from FEAR, and York because Roark had told her everything. “He took steps to put a contract out for someone to do the murders, at five thousand dollars apiece,” Burnett said. “I stepped in and said it was a bad idea.” (Aguigui denied putting out a contract on York.) A few days later, as Loki, Aguigui tortured a stray calico that was perched on Deirdre’s old truck. Saying that the cat was his commanding officer, Aguigui stabbed it, thrust his hand down its throat to try to feel its beating heart, and eventually chopped its head off.

Despite these violent displays, Aguigui most often presented himself to the Family as a grieving husband. “They think I might have accidentally killed Kalvin in the process of rolling her and doing C.P.R.,” he said in his audio journal, as Heather listened. “That plagues my soul like a fucking demon every day. I don’t mind killing people, but killing my own blood makes me want to vomit.” Dearman recalled that Aguigui cried frequently about Deirdre. “He would tell me how much he missed her and how he wished he could have spent time with his kid with her,” he said. Burnett said that Aguigui’s apparent anguish was “how he hooked me.”

But the Aguiguis’ union was more troubled than Isaac let on. In the summer of 2010, with Deirdre in Iraq, he returned to bachelor life, partying and spending money extravagantly. Worried that Deirdre was having an affair in Iraq, he began dating Samantha Cox, a seventeen-year-old hostess at a restaurant outside the gates of his base. It wasn’t his first act of infidelity, he conceded, but Cox was the first woman he “saw on a regular basis.” Deirdre believed that he asked people to spy on her. “It spooked her that Isaac had this network of people watching her,” Alma Wetzker said. “She couldn’t spend any time or develop any relationships, even in Iraq, without him finding out what she was doing.”

The couple reunited at Fort Stewart near the end of the year, but their tensions worsened. For some time, Aguigui had pressed Deirdre to experiment with sexual bondage, and she had declined. Suddenly, after a soldier in her unit openly promoted the practice, she became willing. Aguigui took it as evidence of an affair. But, according to Deirdre’s friend Alyssa Rangel, she was simply trying to be an accommodating wife: “Her thinking was ‘Let’s try it and see what happens.’ ” Deirdre was upset by Aguigui’s jealousy, and dismayed by his drug use. “She didn’t like it, period,” Rangel said. “She thought it was irresponsible, especially with him being part of the M.I. field. That can make you lose your clearance so fast.” Finally, she kicked him out of their apartment, and that spring, according to a C.I.D. agent, she asked for a military protective order. She also filed a report alleging that Aguigui was making her have sex with people and in ways she didn’t want. But, once she learned that she was pregnant, she felt that she had to make the marriage work. In June, she allowed Aguigui to come home.

At the time, Aguigui was having affairs with two women at Fort Stewart, according to Schaefer; he complained about Deirdre constantly, saying that the child wasn’t his. (DNA tests later proved him wrong.) Once, after Aguigui argued with Deirdre, he told Schaefer, “I’m better off without her.” When Schaefer said that they should get a divorce, Aguigui changed the subject. “I don’t think he meant that he wanted to divorce her,” Schaefer said. Two days before Deirdre’s death, Aguigui took off with Schaefer for South Carolina. Deirdre was furious. According to the C.I.D., she sent him a text message: “Why do you keep doing this to me? . . . If you take a weekend away, then fucking tell me.” Deirdre’s father said that she called him that day in an emotional state. “She finally realized that she and her baby weren’t safe staying with Isaac,” he said. “She decided to leave.”

Aguigui promised to start driving back, but instead went to a barbecue and played beer pong. As he finally made his way home, he stopped at a vitamin shop to buy a bottle of potassium iodide, which Deirdre was allergic to. When Deirdre died, Aguigui came under suspicion, but in the fall of 2011 a military examiner ruled that the cause of her death couldn’t be determined. Though a quarter of the potassium iodide was no longer in the bottle, an autopsy dismissed iodide as the cause.

Burnett had always thought that Aguigui’s grief was genuine, but he began to believe that Aguigui had killed Deirdre. The violence, actual and imagined, was getting out of hand. “When they started talking about the agricultural destruction in Washington, the things brought up were making me uncomfortable,” Burnett said. He insisted that he drew the line at violence against civilians. “I’m a patriot. The government has failed the people. My goal was to take it out of the politicians’ hands and give it back to Joe and Mary Citizen,” he said. “I’ve never planned to do a terrorist act.” He now regrets how readily he fell under Aguigui’s influence. “I was extremely depressed,” he said. “Isaac finds out your weakness and he feeds into it. Mine was I felt like my family had been taken away. He replaced it with the Salmons and all that.” Dearman, who Burnett says held the cat while Aguigui tortured it, was similarly uneasy about the progress of FEAR: “I wasn’t expecting it to blow up to be what it ended up becoming.”

At about 9 P.M. on December 5, 2011, Burnett told me, he got a call from Anthony Peden, who was at the Salmons’ house. “I need you to come over now,” he said. “It’s an emergency.” Worried that something had gone wrong with Heather’s pregnancy, Burnett roused his son and drove there. “Are you O.K.?” he said when he saw Heather. “What’s the emergency?” Heather told him that Roark, who a few days earlier had been discharged from the Army for repeated misconduct, had mistakenly left his cell phone at her house; on it, she found text messages saying that he was planning to return to his home town, near Seattle. York, his girlfriend, was also leaving, to stay with her father, in California. Burnett didn’t understand what the problem was. “Who cares?” he said.

“Tonight’s the night,” Aguigui said. “We’re going to kill Roark and his girlfriend.”

The group had resolved to kill Roark a week or two earlier, Aguigui later testified. “It started off as a conversation about punishment,” he said. Aguigui believed that Roark had stolen the money, and York had mentioned to Heather that he had rented a storage locker. Aguigui guessed that Roark was stealing weapons, which further inflamed him. Because Roark “couldn’t be trusted to be silent about the operations of the group,” Aguigui said, “it was decided by the group as a whole that he would need to be executed.”

To lure Roark to the Salmons’ house, Aguigui told me, he had instructed Burnett to invite him to go night shooting. When Roark arrived, it became evident that there was a hitch in the plan: he had brought York with him. To buy time, Aguigui told Roark and York to go pick up provisions; they drove to a store called Sunset Novelties and bought some herbal stimulants. After they left, Aguigui debated the girl’s fate with his “four counsellors.” Heather and Burnett argued that she should be spared. Peden said that she was “far too dangerous to be kept alive,” and Salmon agreed. “It was tied,” Aguigui wrote. He cast the deciding vote to kill her.

Burnett says that he walked into the kitchen to talk to Heather. “This is a terrible idea,” he told her. “We need to convince him not to do it.” She replied, “The decision is made.” (Heather denied any involvement in the plans.) Burnett repeated his concerns to Phish, who ignored him. Brandishing a pistol, Aguigui threatened to kill Burnett’s son if he didn’t come along. “You don’t have a choice,” Burnett remembers him saying. Burnett was scared: “There are four people in the house capable of killing relatively easily.” He agreed to go, leaving his sleeping son in Heather’s care.

When Roark and York returned, the other members of FEAR—Aguigui, Peden, Salmon, and Burnett—got into Aguigui’s Jeep. Aguigui left his cell phone behind, and, as they drove, he communicated with Roark by two-way radio. He wanted to leave the area—too close to home—so Roark suggested a place near Morgan Lake, outside Ludowici, a small town with only one traffic light. In the car, Aguigui ordered Burnett to shoot York. Aguigui wanted to test him, since “he seemed hesitant about the whole situation.” Burnett refused, and the atmosphere grew tense. Peden intervened, saying, “I’ll do it.” Salmon, assigned to kill Roark, was less resistant. “He seemed excited,” Burnett said. “He was, like, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to do this,’ but he was ‘up’ about it.”

Near a large metal sculpture of a man in a top hat—the mascot of a defunct business—Roark turned onto a dirt road that headed to the lake. His voice came over the radio, “I know a place where we can go.” Roark pulled over, and the others followed. It was quiet in the Jeep as Aguigui handed gloves to Peden and Salmon. Burnett noted Aguigui’s manner—calm, almost nonchalant—and thought, How can I live through this night without getting murdered?

Everyone got out, and Peden walked to the passenger side of Roark’s car. As York opened the door, Peden shot her in the head with the Judge pistol. He felt her pulse, and then shot her a second time. Salmon, pointing his pistol, ordered Roark to get out of the car and onto his knees. “I told him the only reason Tiffany had to be executed was because he had failed to follow instructions,” Aguigui said. As Aguigui interrogated him, Roark revealed the location and the combination of the storage locker. He admitted he’d taken money, but said that it was spent. Peden handed Salmon the Judge, and Salmon pointed it at the back of Roark’s head and shot. As they returned to the Jeep, Peden told Salmon to “double tap.” Salmon walked back and fired a second shot into Roark’s head.

Before getting back in the Jeep, Aguigui later said, they turned their sweatshirts inside out and removed their gloves. Inside, Peden asked for a cigarette, and Burnett silently handed him a Newport, taking another for himself. Aguigui and Salmon, he said, were full of energy. “How do you feel? Wow, you’re part of the club,” Aguigui told Salmon—the club of those who had killed. “I can’t believe I did that,” Salmon said. “It felt amazing.”

At the Salmons’, they stripped and put their clothing in a black garbage bag. They rehearsed alibis. Aguigui emphasized that they should stick together and not do anything out of the ordinary, so the next day they gathered for a barbecue at Peden’s home, off base. Burnett, adopting his customary role, grilled steaks and chicken that Aguigui had bought, while Heather made salads in the kitchen. In the back yard, another FEAR member built a bonfire to burn the bag of clothing, which also contained the spent shells and a cell phone—most likely the one that Roark had left at the Salmons’ house. Aguigui looked on peevishly as his favorite loafers—which, he wrote, he’d “foolishly worn” on the night of the murders—went up in flames.

The day after the killings, a local retiree named Tommy Howard went driving with a friend, a deacon at his church, through a wooded area near the Altamaha River where he’d caught a couple of dozen white perch the day before. He drove his old pickup slowly, with no destination in mind. At nearly seventy, he was happy just to ride around with his friend, retracing paths they’d known since childhood. After about ten miles, he turned onto a dirt road. There, he saw a dark-gray Nissan Altima, with the driver’s door open. On the ground was a pair of black-framed eyeglasses.

Howard thought he’d stumbled upon a pair of teen-age lovers. “You see a car in the woods, you think hanky-panky,” he said. As he drove closer, he saw the body of a young man on the ground, curled up on his right side, his feet near the rear tire. He stopped his truck. “I thought I saw a gun by his hand,” he recalled. It turned out to be Roark’s two-way radio. “Blood done run down his head and it done dried,” Howard said. He dialled the police department, and told his buddy not to touch anything.

The officer who responded found a teen-age girl in the passenger seat with gunshot wounds to her head. The driver had been shot in the head twice. As the police investigated the scene, the girl’s cell phone kept ringing, listing the same contact, “Mom.” The victims were quickly identified as Roark and York.

Officers from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation caught up with Aguigui the next day. He stuck to his story: on the day of the murders, he got off duty at 3 P.M., went straight to the Salmons’, drank, and watched movies with Peden, Burnett, Heather, and her two kids; he hadn’t spoken with Roark for a week. When Heather was interviewed, two hours later, she concurred, adding that she’d cooked a ham for dinner and that they had watched “Red” and a “kids’ movie.” According to the G.B.I.’s files, Heather assured the agent that “all of the individuals she had named as being at her house, were there throughout Monday night, stating that she was a light sleeper, and would have known if someone would have left.” Salmon, Burnett, and Peden all told a similar story.

Still, the G.B.I. agents were growing suspicious. The group’s members had sent disquieting texts, such as “Someone else is going to get it” and “Another one to take care of.” The Army told the agents that it had investigated Aguigui for conspiracy to commit murder. And the A.T.F. advised them of the arsenal that the group had been collecting, raising concerns that it “was planning on doing something radical.” In Roark’s locker, agents found Tannerite explosive, a galvanized pipe with smokeless black powder and wires, and weapons engraved with the FEAR emblem.

A few days after the murders, Aguigui, worried that the police “were onto us,” prepared to make a run for Washington State, packing a bag and setting it by the door. That night, he was drinking and playing cards when his phone rang: it was his commanding officer. Aguigui ignored the call, but the commander kept trying for hours. When Aguigui finally answered, he was summoned to an “emergency formation” at 0900. He remembers Salmon telling him, “Man, I think they’re going to arrest us.” Aguigui brushed off his concerns.

At morning formation during the week, the soldiers sing “Dog Face Soldier,” the 3rd Infantry Division’s anthem: “I wouldn’t give a bean to be a fancy-pants marine; I’d rather be a dog-face soldier like I am.” That Saturday, they skipped the anthem, and the first sergeant asked several soldiers to help with a detail. Aguigui sensed something was wrong when he heard the names: Aguigui, Peden, Burnett, Salmon. He and Burnett were taken to a room and left alone. As he was checking to see whether the windows would open, he saw black S.U.V.s drive up. “Just stay calm,” he told Burnett. Military police in body armor and ski masks rushed in, their weapons raised.

“The Family rule is ‘You don’t talk, no matter what,’ ” Aguigui told a G.B.I. agent in an early interview. But the camaraderie that the soldiers had built up—complaining about the Army, drinking, doing drugs, and shooting on the range—fell apart under pressure. In questioning, Peden broke first, telling a G.B.I. agent that he was scared that Aguigui would kill him or his son if he talked. Burnett quickly followed, seeming relieved to talk; he gave a detailed account of the murders, and revealed that the group had discussed taking over the ammo control point at Fort Stewart. Dearman also spoke to investigators, and said that when Aguigui “mentioned taking care of Mike and Tiffany” he had decided to go stay with his brother in northern Georgia. (Though Dearman was not involved in the murders, he agreed afterward to come back and dispose of Roark’s car; on the way, he was arrested for shooting someone in an unrelated matter.) Only the Salmons stuck to the planned alibi.

“They’re singing like birds over there and they’re painting a pretty damn bad picture of you,” the G.B.I. agent told Aguigui. “If you’re not this evil mastermind,” he added, “laughing and joking about it and threatening to kill their families if they said anything, by God, tell me.”

“If that’s what you want to hear,” Aguigui replied coolly.

“They’re crying on the freaking floor, blubbering,” the agent continued. “I got tissues used up the yin-yang on them. If you’re going to stand on the truth, tell me.”

Minutes later, Aguigui, sobbing, gave his own account, which largely harmonized with Burnett’s, except that it placed much of the blame on Peden, who, he said, pushed the group to tie up “loose ends.”

“You have to understand there’s things I don’t even get about this,” he said. He imagined Dr. Frankenstein’s reaction when his monster killed its first victim. “ ‘Dear Jesus, what have I created,’ ” Aguigui said. “And all he wants to do is go back to that moment before he even brought it to life.”

“What’s the monster he created?”

Aguigui answered, “I think it’s me.”

Despite grand rhetoric about the threat posed by an illegitimate government, domestic militias in the past two decades have achieved little but small, local acts. Often, they are consumed by their own ethos of suspicion and violence. In those cases—and in the case of FEAR—these spasms may prevent militants from causing greater damage.

That idea is little comfort to the families of Roark and York, who are suing the Army for failing to protect their children. “This gang was in the Army, running around,” Roark’s father, Brett, said. “The Army says they couldn’t arrest Aguigui and the others because they hadn’t broken any laws. But this guy killed his wife and unborn son. And they had information from the feds. There are tons of things the Army could have done.” Fort Stewart’s chief spokesman, Kevin Larson, said that he could not comment on active litigation.

Last July, Aguigui entered a military courtroom at Fort Stewart, his ankles hobbled by chains. He was there for an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing, to determine whether he should be charged with the murder of his wife. According to witnesses, on the day of her death Aguigui returned home from South Carolina, cooked dinner, and then had sex with her. He told an investigator that she had asked to use hand and leg restraints, and that pain aroused her. Afterward, Aguigui claimed, he fell asleep and was awakened by a phone call. He went to the living room, found Deirdre lying on the couch with the television on, unresponsive, and called 911.

On the bed, the investigators found handcuffs, Kama Sutra cards detailing sexual positions, a book on the female orgasm, a sex toy without a battery, and lubricant. The C.I.D. special agent Justin Kapinus believed that the scene was staged. “It looked like the cards were deliberately laid there,” he testified. “It seemed excessive.”

The prosecution highlighted two texts sent the day of Deirdre’s death. In one, Deirdre told Aguigui that she needed money back in her account; in the other, Aguigui texted his girlfriend Samantha Cox, “Baby, you want to know something sexy? I’m not working another day, baby. We’ll have plenty of money. All I need is your body whenever I want it.” A civilian medical examiner revisited the autopsy report and photographs, and determined that Deirdre had died of asphyxiation, most likely from a choke hold. In the past, Aguigui had told neighbors inquiring about loud noises coming from the apartment that he and Deirdre sometimes practiced Army “combatives,” and a neighbor testified that she heard similar sounds on the night of Deirdre’s death. Aguigui was later formally charged with Deirdre’s murder, and in March he was convicted by a military court.

Two weeks after his Article 32 hearing, Aguigui pleaded guilty to killing Roark and York. He described the murders in detail, expressing little remorse. The judge had asked that Peden and Salmon be present, so they could hear that Aguigui was willing to testify against them; they sat in the courtroom wearing orange jail uniforms and chains. “So he turned out to be a rat after all,” an observer muttered. Aguigui was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

On the witness stand, Aguigui looked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with Phish. But he’d sent his former Family member a letter in jail. “I miss you bro,” he wrote. “This all sucks but we have got to keep it together. Yes, they’ve got us this time. But walls cannot contain a cause as strong as ours for long. One day we will all be free again together, and mark my words, my brother, we shall have our just revenge.” He ended by asking Phish to pass a request to Heather. “See if she can send me a copy of The Article, I could use the motivation. I love you, man, keep your head up always. Remember, one day . . . WE WILL RISE.” He signed off with the FEAR symbol and the words “Anarchy, always, —Loki.”

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