A former Army medic pleaded guilty Monday to charges that he burned bloody clothes, spent shotgun shells and a cellphone to try to help fellow soldiers cover up a double killing that prosecutors say was linked to a militia group plotting terrorist attacks while operating inside the military at Fort Stewart.
Former Pfc. Christopher Jenderseck of Fargo, N.D., told a Liberty County Superior Court judge he built the backyard bonfire used to dispose of the items last December. He said none of his fellow soldiers told him that he was destroying evidence to cover up a killing, though he figured it out as the fire burned. Still, Jenderseck admitted he did nothing to stop them.
"I was ashamed of myself that I let myself become a part of this," the 26-year-old Iraq veteran told the judge.
Jenderseck was the second defendant to plead guilty in a case that's stunned this military community near the Georgia coast.
Ten people, including eight current and former Fort Stewart soldiers, have been jailed on charges they belonged to an anti-government group that prosecutors say plotted to bomb a park fountain in nearby Savannah, poison apple orchards in Washington state and ultimately assassinate the American president.
Civilian and military authorities began investigating the group last December after fishermen in neighboring Long County found the bodies of 19-year-old Michael Roark, a former soldier who had been discharged from the military just days earlier, and his girlfriend, 17-year-old Tiffany York. Both had been shot in the head at point-blank range and their bodies left in the woods.
Four Fort Stewart soldiers were soon arrested in the slayings. It was months later, during a court hearing in Augusta, when prosecutors revealed the larger terror plots. They said the group called F.E.AR. - for Forever Enduring Always Ready - stockpiled more than $87,000 worth of guns and bomb components. Prosecutors say Roark and York were killed because they knew about the militia group and its leader, Army Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, feared they might talk after Roark left the military.
District Attorney Tom Durden is seeking the death penalty for Aguigui and two other soldiers in the killings - Sgt. Anthony Peden and Pvt. Christopher Salmon. A fourth soldier, Pfc. Michael Burnett, pleaded guilty in August to manslaughter charges. He said Aguigui ordered the killings. He told a judge he witnessed Salmon shoot Roark and Peden shoot York.
Salmon's wife has also been charged, as have three other soldiers and a civilian who prosecutors say committed home burglaries and car break-ins to help fund the group.
But prosecutors said Jenderseck's only involvement was helping the others burn a cellphone, spent shotgun shells used in the killings and clothing the shooters wore that was spattered with blood and brain matter. Investigators later found charred remains of those items in the backyard of Army Sgt. Anthony Peden, who's charged with being one of the shooters.
"Mr. Jenderseck was not present" during the killings, Durden told reporters after court. "Although he was a member of the group, he was not involved directly in the homicides."
That's one reason why prosecutors agreed to let Jenderseck, who had been jailed since mid-September, serve the rest of his seven-year sentence on probation. His defense attorney, Jarrett Maillet, said Jenderseck planned to return to Fargo, N.D., where he enrolled in college after his enlistment with the Army ended in April.
Jenderseck's plea deal requires him to testify against the other defendants in the case and against any new suspects who may be charged later on. However, Durden said Monday he doesn't anticipate any more arrests, though he cautioned he couldn't be certain.
Prosecutor Isabel Pauley told the judge Monday that Aguigui recruited Jenderseck into his militia group last year at a time when he was psychologically vulnerable. Jenderseck had recently finished a tour in Iraq and had plenty of heartache on the homefront. His grandfather had died, his marriage had failed and a soldier friend had committed suicide.
Aguigui, Pauley said, was interested in recruiting Jenderseck because he was a trained combat medic.
"Aguigui questioned this defendant and asked him, 'If I were to bring you someone filled with holes, could you fix him up?'"
Jenderseck ended up getting a tattoo on his right shoulder - the Greek letters alpha and omega intersecting to form an anarchy symbol - that prosecutors say members of Aguigui's group wore. Jenderseck said he had the tattoo covered up with another after the killings because he was ashamed.
His attorney said that while Jenderseck may have been disgruntled with the military when he joined up with Aguigui, he wasn't onboard with carrying out terrorist attacks and knew little of such plots.
"The leader of this group would kind of keep them in the dark and the right hand didn't know what the left had was doing," Maillet said. "What he did know about it he thought was a bunch of talk, and not so much action."