LUDOWICI, Ga. — Saying his mind was scarred by combat and numbed by heroin, an Army soldier told a southeast Georgia judge Thursday that he shot a teenage girl twice in the head because he thought he saw "the glint of a gun" as she opened her car door.
Sgt. Anthony Peden, 28, was sentenced to life in prison nearly a month after he pleaded guilty to murder charges in the December 2011 slayings of 17-year-old Tiffany York and her boyfriend, former soldier Michael Roark. Prosecutors say the couple was led to the woods near Fort Stewart in Georgia and slain by a group of soldiers to protect an anti-government militia group they had formed inside the military.
Peden's account sought to minimize his role. He said he wasn't close to the soldiers who led the group and the night of the slayings was told only that they planned to collect money from the couple. He said someone handed him a gun, and after they drove out to the woods he saw Roark exit his car and get into a struggle with one of the other soldiers. Then the car's passenger door began to open.
"I saw what I thought was the glint of a gun," said Peden, who sniffled and cried throughout his sentencing hearing. "I fired twice at Tiffany York."
Three other defendants who previously struck plea deals to avoid a possible death sentence had said Roark was suspected of taking money from the group and they feared he and York planned to expose the militia to police. They said Peden shot the girl before she could get out of her car, while Pvt. Christopher Salmon shot Roark on his knees.
Unlike Salmon and Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, who prosecutors say ordered the killings, Peden got a life sentence that includes a possibility of parole after he serves at least 30 years in prison. It's a shred of mercy he received not for his story about the slayings, but because of his prior military record.
As an Army cavalry scout, Peden deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq between 2006 and 2011. His attorney, Burt Baker, said Peden suffered multiple brain injuries from explosions he survived and had post-traumatic stress fueled by friends he saw die and numerous men Peden himself killed in combat. At the time of the slayings, Baker said, Peden was using heroin to ease his pain.
York was killed, the defense attorney said, because Peden "wasn't able to turn off the killer instinct from his training."
Prosecutor Isabel Pauley said the district attorney agreed to possible parole for Peden after she confirmed many of Baker's claims about his military service. Salmon and Aguigui, both sentenced to life without parole, never served in combat.
York's mother, Brenda Thomas, said her family consented to the plea deal that might someday make Peden eligible to regain his freedom.
"I genuinely feel he's got remorse for what happened," said Thomas, though she said she can't yet bring herself to forgive him.
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 in the couple's slaying last summer and was convicted by a military judge in March for killing his wife and their unborn child.
A fourth soldier, Pfc. Michael Burnett, pleaded guilty to reduced charges of manslaughter in 2012, when he agreed to testify against the other soldiers. He still awaits sentencing. 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.