FORT STEWART, Ga. - An Army soldier accused of strangling his pregnant wife so he could pocket $500,000 in benefit money was convicted Thursday by a military judge in a case that hinged on dueling medical experts who couldn't agree on how the woman died.
Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, 22, of Cashmere, Wash., was on trial for four days during a Fort Stewart court-martial. He was convicted of murder and causing the death of an unborn child after his wife, 24-year-old Sgt. Deirdre Aguigui, was found dead at their apartment July 17, 2011, when she was about seven months pregnant. The charges carry an automatic life sentence.
The verdict should have little impact on Isaac Aguigui's overall fate. He's already serving life without parole at a Georgia prison after pleading guilty last summer to murder charges in a double slaying that occurred nearly five months after his wife died.
Prosecutors had no problem presenting a possible motive for why Aguigui would want his wife dead. The Army paid him $100,000 to cover funeral costs and other expenses after his wife died, and a month later her life insurance policy paid out $400,000. Evidence showed that hours before his wife died, Aguigui sent a text message to a former girlfriend that read: "We'll have plenty of money. All need is your body whenever I want it."
But evidence of what specifically killed Deirdre Aguigui proved scant. The military's autopsy found more than 20 bruises and scrapes on the body including on her head and back, but nothing fatal. Wounds on both wrists appeared to match a pair of handcuffs found on the couple's bed. But the official cause of death was not determined. The military couldn't decide whether she had been slain or died from natural causes.
Last year, a Georgia state medical examiner offered a second opinion. By ruling out illnesses, drugs or poisons, allergic reactions and other potential causes - and by noting the wrist wounds and other injuries - Dr. James Downs concluded Deirdre Aguigui was strangled while struggling violently against handcuffs behind her back. He said a certain chokehold taught to Army soldiers could kill while leaving virtually no telltale marks.
"That's why this is such a great way to kill someone if you want to get away with it," Army prosecutor Janae Lepir said in her closing argument. "You put this hold on someone and it could leave almost no finding."
Aguigui didn't testify during the trial. The defense's only witness was its medical expert.
Defense lawyers noted in closing arguments that the military medical examiner and three additional specialists who took part in the autopsy were unable to find a decisive cause of death as Downs had. Another medical expert called by the defense said it was more likely Deirdre Aguigui suffered a sudden heart attack, though prosecutors insisted his diagnosis was based on a faulty reading of her medical history.
"All the government has presented here today is one man's theory that is no more possible than any other possibility that no other doctor could rule out," said Capt. Scott Noto, one of Aguigui's Army defense lawyers.
A former Army buddy, Michael Schaefer, testified that a month after his wife's death, Aguigui gloated that he had handcuffed her during sex and strangled her with a plastic bag over her head. Defense attorneys noted that Schaefer, who had spoken to Army investigators and testified previously at a pre-trial hearing, had never before mentioned a confession.
Aguigui told investigators his wife liked to have her hands bound during sex and that she wore the handcuffs consensually.
The judge, Col. Andrew Glass, deliberated about three hours before convicting Aguigui. The soldier showed no visible emotion as the verdict was read.
As the judge heard testimony before sentencing, Deirdre Aguigui's parents said they and their six surviving children are still grieving nearly three years later. When one of their daughters married recently, the family left an empty seat for Deirdre.
"One of the hardest questions for me still is how many children do you have," said Alma Wetzker, the slain woman's father. "How do you answer that? I still don't know."
Last July, Aguigui pleaded guilty in the December 2011 slayings of former soldier Michael Roark and his girlfriend, Tiffany York, who were shot in the head in rural Long County near Fort Stewart. Civilian prosecutors say Aguigui used the money from his wife's insurance policy to fund an anti-government militia group of disgruntled soldiers and ordered the couple killed to protect the group. Records show he bought at least $30,000 worth of guns and ammunition.
Army prosecutors never mentioned the militia allegations and said Aguigui wanted the insurance money and the weapons to start a private security business.