FORT STEWART, Ga. — A pregnant Army soldier struggled violently against handcuffs on her wrists and suffered blows to the head before she died from a lack of oxygen, likely caused by someone keeping her in a chokehold, a Georgia medical examiner said Tuesday.
Sgt. Deirdre Aguigui was found dead on July 17, 2011, at her apartment on Fort Stewart. The military charged her husband, Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, with murder in April and conducted a two-day hearing to determine if there’s enough evidence to try him in court-martial.
A military autopsy on the 24-year-old woman was unable to determine a cause of death. But investigators got a second opinion from Dr. James Downs, a Savannah-based medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation who agreed to look at the case earlier this year.
Using records and photos from the previous autopsy, Downs noted Deirdre Aguigui had a large, deep bruise above her left ear and more bruising on the inside of her lips and left cheek. Both wrists had raw scrapes and bruises that appeared to match a pair of handcuffs found on the couple’s bed.
Downs said he concluded the woman was choked or suffocated by essentially ruling out other possible causes of death. Her heart appeared healthy, she showed no signs of allergic reaction and lab tests found no traces of poisons in her blood.
“If you put everything together, I think you would reasonably end up where I am, which is asphyxiation,” said Downs, adding he could understand why military doctors hesitated to reach a similar conclusion. “I certainly can see somebody being not willing to make that call and leave it undetermined.”
When Isaac Aguigui’s Article 32 hearing, similar to a civilian grand jury, opened Monday, Army investigators testified the young soldier received more than $500,000 in life insurance and benefit payments after his wife died. Witnesses testified the couple had been fighting and considering divorce because of the husband’s infidelity and drug use. An old girlfriend confirmed Isaac Aguigui sent her a text message hours before his wife died that said: “We’ll have plenty of money. All I need is your body whenever I want it.”
Civilian prosecutors in neighboring Long County say Aguigui used some of the money to buy guns and bomb components for an anti-government militia group he formed by recruiting other disgruntled soldiers. He and two other soldiers face the death penalty on civilian murder charges in a double slaying a few months after Aguigui’s wife died.
Aguigui’s defense attorneys Tuesday suggested the wounds on his wife’s wrists and other injuries came from them having rough but consensual sex. Chief Warrant Officer Justin Kapinus, an Army criminal investigator, testified Monday that police found the handcuffs on Aguigui’s bed along with an array of sex toys and leg restraints. He said Aguigui told investigators his wife liked being restrained with handcuffs and they had sex a few hours before he found her dead on a couch. Kapinus said he suspects the bedroom scene was staged because it looked “too excessive.”
“If someone was into bondage and rough sex, could that account for the bruises?” Capt. William Cook, one of Aguigui’s lawyers, asked Downs.
The medical examiner said it was possible. But he said the wrist wounds seemed severe for someone willingly wearing handcuffs.
“In your report you said it’s consistent with somebody violently struggling against the constraints?” asked Maj. Jaclyn Grieser, an Army prosecutor.
“That’s correct,” Downs replied.
The hearing’s presiding officer, Maj. John McLaughlin, will report to Fort Stewart commanders whether there’s enough evidence to try Aguigui in a court-martial.
Aguigui was jailed months after his wife’s death for a different crime. On Dec. 5, 2011, fishermen found the bodies of former Army Pvt. Michael Roark and his 17-year-old girlfriend, Tiffany York, in the woods of rural Long County near Fort Stewart. Both had been shot in the head just two days after Roark was discharged from the Army.
Investigators arrested Aguigui and three other soldiers — Sgt. Anthony Peden, Pvt. Christopher Salmon and Pfc. Michael Burnett — and charged them with the deaths about a week after the bodies were found.
Burnett struck a plea deal with civilian prosecutors and testified last summer that Aguigui led an anti-government militia group he’d formed inside the military called F.E.A.R. — short for Forever Enduring Always Ready. Civilian prosecutors say the group talked of bombing a park fountain in nearby Savannah, poisoning apple crops in Washington state and even killing the U.S. president.
Burnett said Roark and York were killed because Roark had just left the Army and the couple knew too much about the group.