FORT STEWART, Ga. — Experts gave dueling opinions Wednesday on what likely killed a pregnant Army soldier whose husband is charged with murder, leaving a military judge to sort out whether she was strangled to death, suffered a sudden heart attack or died from causes that can’t be determined.
The clashing medical testimony could prove pivotal in the court-martial of Pvt. Isaac Aguigui, of Cashmere, Wash. The 22-year-old faces an automatic life sentence if convicted of murder by a military judge, who will decide the case instead of a jury of fellow soldiers. Aguigui also is charged with causing the death of the couple’s unborn child.
Isaac Aguigui told investigators he found his wife, Sgt. Deirdre Aguigui, dead on the couch inside their apartment on Fort Stewart the night of July 17, 2011. She had no fatal injuries, but numerous bruises were found on her wrists, arms, back and head. The wrist injuries appeared to match a pair of handcuffs on the couple’s bed, and the husband told investigators he had cuffed his wife during consensual sex earlier that evening.
Military medical examiners were stumped. Their 2011 autopsy found no proof of an attack, illness, allergy, drug overdose or anything that could explain why Deirdre Aguigui, 24, died. Lt. Cmdr. Lisa Rivera, who performed the autopsy, told the judge she couldn’t even determine if the woman had been killed or died from natural causes.
Dr. James Downs, a Georgia state medical examiner, testified Wednesday that a lack of any other cause indicates Deirdre Aguigui died because something stopped her from breathing. He said more than 20 fresh bruises and scrapes on her body point to some type of violence, and the deep wounds on her wrists appear too excessive to have come from being consensually bound during sex. He concluded she was cuffed and held in a chokehold that would have left virtually no telltale injuries on her neck.
“I am confident to a reasonable degree of medical certainty,” said Downs, who estimated he’s performed 4,500 autopsies. “We know for a fact she is violently struggling against those handcuffs.”
Defense lawyers insisted Downs’ findings were far from conclusive. They called to the witness stand their own expert, Dr. Adel Shaker, who said his best diagnosis would be that Deirdre Aguigui suffered a heart attack so suddenly that it left no chemical traces to be detected by an autopsy. He said her medical records showed a history of an elevated heart rate that would have been made worse by her pregnancy.
Shaker, a former state medical examiner in Alabama and Mississippi, said a drug she was taking for nausea could have triggered an irregular heartbeat that, coupled with other stresses on her body, ended up “stopping her heart instantly.”
Capt. William Cook, one of Aguigui’s Army lawyers, said the divergent medical opinions show there’s insufficient evidence to prove Deirdre Aguigui had been slain at all.
“The defense is not going to be able to solve that mystery for you,” Cook told the judge, Col. Andrew Glass.
Prosecutors rested their case Wednesday during the third day of testimony. An Army investigator testified that after Aguigui received $500,000 in life insurance and benefit payments from his wife’s death, he spent $6,000 or more at strip clubs and bought $30,000 worth of guns and ammunition.
Army prosecutors said Aguigui faced getting kicked out of the Army for unspecified disciplinary infractions at the time of his wife’s death. They say he bought the guns because he planned to start a private security business.
Civilian prosecutors in a different case have painted a more sinister portrait. They say Aguigui stockpiled weapons after starting an anti-government militia group with other disgruntled soldiers. Nearly five months after his wife died, Aguigui and three other soldiers were charged in the December 2011 slayings of a former member of their unit and his girlfriend. Civilian prosecutors say Aguigui ordered their deaths to protect the group. He pleaded guilty to murder charges last July and is already serving life without parole in a Georgia prison.
Deirdre Aguigui’s father, Alma Wetzker, testified that his daughter called two days before her death, saying her husband had gone out of town for the weekend and left her without transportation or money for food. Wetzker said his son-in-law had a drug problem and didn’t seem to be improving.
“I asked her if she was planning to leave Isaac until he got his act together,” Wetzker said. “She said she would talk to him when he returned Sunday.”
By the end of that weekend, his daughter was dead.