By Jonathan Kaminsky and David Beasley
(Reuters) - The U.S. Army private accused of being the ringleader of an anti-government militia in Georgia was a suspect in the death of his wife months before prosecutors say he and three fellow soldiers murdered two people to keep their clandestine group secret, authorities said.
Isaac Aguigui funded the anarchist militia FEAR, or Forever Enduring Always Ready, with up to $500,000 in life insurance benefits he collected after his wife's death in July 2011, prosecutors said.
Aguigui and three other soldiers stationed at Fort Stewart in southeastern Georgia near Savannah have since been charged with murder and other offenses stemming from the December 5, 2011, shooting deaths of a former soldier and his teenage girlfriend.
Aguigui, 21, and two others were scheduled to appear in court in Long County, Georgia, for a hearing on Thursday. A third co-defendant reached a plea deal with prosecutors on Monday.
The accused militia members had plotted to assassinate President Barack Obama and to attack their Army base and a dam in Aguigui's home state of Washington, Assistant County District Attorney Isabel Pauley said during those proceedings.
They also discussed poisoning the apple crop in Washington state and had purchased $87,000 worth of weapons to carry out their planned attacks, she said.
Prosecutors said the group crossed the line from conspiracy to actual violence when they killed Michael Roark, 19, and Tiffany York, 17, whose bodies were found in a wooded area near the base, in a bid to keep them from exposing the militia.
One of the four accused killers, Private First-Class Michael Burnett, pleaded guilty on Monday to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and agreed to testify against his three co-defendants.
As part of the plea deal, he would be spared the death penalty so long as he cooperates.
WIFE'S SUSPICIOUS DEATH
Months before the two slayings in December, military authorities were investigating Aguigui's role in the death of his wife, also a soldier at Fort Stewart, according to Sergeant John Kruse of the police department in Wenatchee, near Aguigui's northwest Washington hometown of Cashmere.
Kruse told Reuters on Wednesday he inquired about Aguigui with the Army Criminal Investigation Command when a member of Aguigui's family approached the police sergeant with concerns she had about her relative. At the time, Kruse said, Aguigui was on leave from the Army and visiting his old neighborhood.
In addition to confirming the relative's claims that Aguigui was under investigation in connection with the suspicious death of his wife, Kruse said he also confirmed with a local gun merchant that Aguigui had recently purchased 15 firearms, several of them semiautomatic rifles.
Kruse said he informed the FBI about his findings and that Aguigui was interviewed by FBI agents before he returned to Fort Stewart.
Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman Chris Grey said the agency has an ongoing investigation against Aguigui but declined to comment further. The FBI declined comment.
Pauley, the Long County prosecutor, also has said the death of Aguigui's wife, Deirdre Wetzker Aguigui, was regarded as suspicious. None of the authorities Reuters contacted revealed any of the circumstances known about her death.
She was 24 years old and five months pregnant when she died in July 2011, said her father, Alma Wetzker, reached by telephone at his home in Minnesota. He declined to speculate about his daughter's death while it was under investigation.
He said the couple met at the U.S. Military Preparatory Academy in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.
"Isaac is a natural leader and he has tremendous capacity to do whatever he wants to accomplish," Wetzker said, adding that his daughter "never would have gone along with what they're accusing Isaac of."
His late daughter was an Arab-language linguist for the Army who had served in Iraq and was promoted to the rank of sergeant shortly before her death, he said.
(This version of the story has been corrected to change suspect's age from 19 to 21 in 4th paragraph)
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington, and David Beasley in Atlanta; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)