Last week, I sat down with Mindy Galliani, Aaron Vargas's sister, at the Vargas family home in Fort Bragg. Mindy has been working virtually full-time on her brother's case. Here, she talks about what Vargas might have been thinking when he shot Darrell McNeill, what she’s learned about McNeill since her brother’s arrest, who she feels should be held accountable for the killing and about the DA’s handling of the case.
Why does the trial date keep getting pushed back?
MG: The first couple of times it was the DA's office who requested it. They said that some of their experts, some of their people, weren't available and then this last time it was actually our attorney that requested it because our psychiatric expert wasn't available...It looks like it'll happen this time.
Have you talked to your brother recently? He'll have been in jail for a full year on Feb. 8. How is he handling his time there?
MG: He calls me every week...It's been hard. He's adapted somewhat, like anyone else would. But he has moments when it’s really tough and he feels like he can't handle another day. He does a lot of reading. He does some writing. He writes a lot of letters to people...My family sends him lots of books, so I know he's read several of Derrick Jenson's books. Derrick is a victim of abuse.
Has the DA's office offered a deal and has there been any discussion about possibly taking one, if offered?
MG: They did at one point offer a deal of second degree murder but it could have given [Aaron] a lot of time in prison. I don't remember exactly how much time but I think it was over 15 years. There really wasn't much discussion at all because we all felt definitely no. We thought that he would get a much better result with a jury trial than the deal they were offering.
For your family, what is the best case scenario in this case and is there much hope that that'll happen? Or that there will still be a plea deal made in this case?
MG: The best case scenario would be an acquittal. There is always hope. They can offer a deal all the way up until right when the jury is out with a verdict.
If your brother were acquitted, what message would that send? What precedent would it set?
MG: There was a case that just happened recently where a woman from here killed her abusive husband and she didn't have to serve any time...I hope that our justice system is progressing enough to where we understand the complex psychological issues behind these cases and we can have compassion and mercy on these people who are victims of abuse.
But is there any danger in people seeing a case like this and feeling that it's alright to take the law into their own hands?
MG: I don't really think so because I think people know—you know we're taught—that it's not acceptable to take the law into your own hands and hopefully people won't see Aaron's case as a case of taking the law into his own hands. It's a case where someone was abused for twenty years and he was pushed to his breaking point...I think Aaron just got to a place where Aaron lost it. He didn't make a conscious decision to take the law into his own hands.
Looking back at Darrell's history, what do you think could have been done differently to prevent this situation?
MG: I think that when the abuse was reported, that something should have been done at that point. I don't think it's ever an acceptable answer for law enforcement or for anyone to say that there's nothing they can do. There's always something you can do. So I'm hoping that they will learn from this case and now maybe they'll be more—now that this happened with Aaron's case, that if someone comes to the police and says I was abused, that this man or women is abusing kids, they won't just say there's nothing they can do.
As far as you know does the DA’s office accept the abuse as fact?
MG: I believe that they do accept that. I know that someone at the Sherriff’s office did tell a reporter that it was consensual, which was pretty shocking to us. But it has been my understanding that they do acknowledge that he was abused by Darrell.
I've heard it suggested in the community that, having been married to Darrell McNeill for over two decades, Liz McNeill had to have known about the abuse. What are your thoughts on that?
MG: It's really hard to say, and I haven't talked to Liz about that. It's possible she did see signs. I think she was more shocked by what Aaron did than she was by finding out about the abuse. She seemed to accept that he was abused pretty easily. She didn't doubt that it happened. I haven't had a conversation with her about anything that might have given her the slightest hint that that was going on.
If she knew—or if others knew—what’s their responsibility?
MG: They're all responsible. Everybody that knew is responsible. If you know someone is abusing a child and you do nothing, you're responsible, too. It's not acceptable for anyone to just turn their back on it and not do anything. We all have a responsibility.
You're very actively involved in advocating not only for your brother, but on broader issues of child sexual abuse. What are your thoughts on legislation like Jessica’s Law, which restrict the rights of sex offenders in the name of public safety?
MG: I’m sure it helps but I don’t think it does nearly as much as what should be done...I don’t think that they should have restrictions on where they should live and all of that. I just don’t think they should be living in our society, period. It’s just not acceptable at all, for any reason, for somebody who rapes children to be living in our society because they will do it again. We cannot prevent them from doing it by knowing their address or checking up on them or keeping them away from schools. There’s no way to keep them from doing that once they’re living freely in society so they need to be removed from society and that’s just all there is to it. Otherwise they will do it again. So by letting them live in society we’re saying, it’s okay, we’ll try to keep them from doing this but we know there’s a chance they will—we’re saying our kids aren’t worth protecting, that it’s okay to let them live out in society knowing that they probably will rape a child.
Is there any danger in that? A danger in people being wrongly accused—a danger in throwing away the key?
MG: That’s a fear with any crime that’s committed. There are people who are sentenced to death that are innocent. There’s always people wrongly convicted. But we still convict them. That’s what our system is for is to find out whether they're convicted or not and hopefully the court system won’t convict someone who is innocent. That’s a risk with any crime, but I think that once someone is convicted of raping a child, they don’t have any business living in society.
What does that mean for you? Does that mean a life sentence for sexual crimes, does that mean the death penalty?
MG: I really don’t care too much either way, whether they’re locked up for the rest of their life, whether they’re put to death. I’ve always been against the death penalty and it’s for the reason that sometimes people are wrongly accused, so I don’t have a strong opinion that someone should be sentenced to death because there is that chance that they’re wrongly convicted—hopefully they won’t be—but yeah, I just think they should not be living in society.
In McNeill’s case, he was essentially sentenced to death. Do you think that’s just?
MG: I think whatever it takes to stop the abuse. By any means necessary. Whether it’s locking—see, in this situation, we don’t have to go through the argument “is [McNeill] innocent, is he guilty?” I know he’s guilty. So the whole argument with the death penalty and all of that, and maybe people being wrongly sentenced, that doesn’t apply in this case. When somebody is definitely guilty, which we know he was, yeah it’s just to kill somebody—whatever stops the abuse, definitely.
Do you think in Aaron’s case he was acting out of a desire to protect the public, out of rage? What?
MG: I can only guess, I know that it was something that just all of a sudden hit Aaron. He was getting married; he seemed to be very happy. He had a new baby. So everything was going very well for him. We know that there were events in the days leading up to McNeill getting shot that played into all of this, so I think Aaron did have some sort of a break-down...I think that 20 years of abuse, and everything else on top of it, just built up to that point.
You've said that Aaron was abused for 20 years. That would mean the abuse continued well into adulthood. What does that say about McNeill, about your brother and about this case?
MG: With McNeill it shows you how good he was at what he did, because Aaron wasn’t the only one who was abused into adulthood. Like Aaron’s fiancée said, it can’t go from being molestation at one point to being just a consensual sexual relationship at another point. Once you’re a molest victim of someone, you’re always a molest victim. So it just shows how good Darrell was at what he did; how manipulative he was at what he did. He spent every day going after Aaron or other victims. It was what he lived for—to prey on these victims.
[Editorial note: I spoke with Mindy after the interview and she asked that I clarify that the abuse that continued for 20 years was psychological and emotional. The sexual contact also continued into adulthood, but Mindy says she does not know when, exactly, it ended.]
What have you learned about Darell McNeill since your brother was arrested for his murder?
MG: I’ve talked to Darrell’s ex-wife about him, and she told me about how manipulative he was, about how if you tried to confront him on anything about this he would threaten suicide. An ongoing thing with him was he would make people feel sorry for him all the time. He was just a very manipulative person, and she told me he was very good at what he did. And then I talked to other victims and they explained to me how it could go on past adulthood, and the kinds of things he would say and do. So yeah, I’ve learned a lot about that, because in the beginning I had a lot of questions.
What kinds of things were those that he would say and do?
MG: I know he would tell some of the boys, “well, you know, your friend—who is also a victim—would want you to do this. This is what he and I did.” And he'd tell them all that it was a secret and he would really drill that into them that it’s something that does not get talked about. That’s why one of the victims told me that to this day he feels guilty talking about it, even though he’s a grown man in his forties, because he feels that he’s doing something wrong by talking about it.
Who should be held accountable?
MG: I think Darrell would be the first person. I think the police, since it’s their job to protect and they were told several times, they’re also accountable. And I think that everyone else that knew is also accountable. I think we all have a responsibility and that if we’re going to have a system in place that’s supposed to protect people—you know, we have the sheriffs and police—and if they don’t do that job, what other choice are we left with but to protect ourselves? They can’t tell us, “It’s our job to do this” but then not do it, and then say, “You’re in the wrong because you had to protect yourself.”
But Aaron never did go to the police, did he?
MG: No, and that’s part of how Darrell—that’s part of Aaron being a victim. I don’t know if you know about Stockholm syndrome, but Aaron has a lot of the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome, where a person who is abused will start to bond with and identify with their abuser and have compassion for them and feel sorry for them. And that was the situation with Aaron and Darrell.
Aaron worked for Darrell for years. They were good friends. Aaron did feel sorry for him. He did protect him in some ways. Aaron knew about the other victims. He knew what Darrell was doing, but he never said anything. So, that’s part of why Aaron never did go turn Darrell in to the police.
Part of it is the secret; you’re not supposed to tell. And then the other part of it is Aaron has this internal conflict going on where he’s being abused by this guy, but at the same time, Aaron feels some kind of a bond and sympathy for his abuser, so he’s not going to want to turn him in.
There was that recent case of that girl who was held captive in that backyard for 20 years. She could have escaped—she could have done something. Even when she was found, she tried to lie and protect him. It’s Stockholm syndrome. Aaron’s case isn’t really that much different from that, except he wasn’t held physically captive by Darrell. But Darrell didn’t need to because mentally he was holding Aaron captive. He had control of him; he didn’t have to hold him in his back yard.
Has the DA's office suggested any desire to have the trial moved out of the area?
They brought that up with the gag order. They said that if the whole cause that I started up didn’t slow down they would have to do a change of venue because things being in the press or us having floats in the parades and just getting all that public attention—they brought all that up with the gag order and that was the only time they brought up a change of venue. It was just said that if they couldn’t find a jury they would have to move it, but the judge did say that he would like to keep it in this county.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
MG: I’d like work to be done in the community with the school district and I would like teachers and parents to be trained on the warning signs and symptoms of sexual abuse. I would like more programs for the kids. I would like to know what system the community has in place right now—between the schools, the hospital, the police department, organizations like Project Sanctuary—because everybody needs to be communicating. We really need to step up our programs for awareness and prevention and all that, so this doesn’t happen again. I know this could have been prevented, because Aaron definitely displayed the warning signs when he was a kid, but the school system never brought that up and my parents never received any kind of education in that. So I think the parents and the kids and the teachers and everyone needs to be more educated.
When your brother told your family about the abuse, what was the reaction? Was it shock?
MG: I think it was. I think everyone was just really shocked.
Were there any signs?
MG: Yeah, but we didn’t attribute it to that. Now, when we all look back on it, it seems so obvious, it’s like how could we not have seen it. But at the time, I guess we were so close to it, you don’t see it so clearly, like someone from the outside would. But the thing was, Aaron was working for Darrell and would go on fishing trips with Darrell for all these years, and so it was like, ‘Well, if Darrell abused him, you would think he would never have wanted to be around him—that he would have stayed away from him." But that wasn’t the case. So I guess that was a huge thing that would make you think that everything was fine there. Who would ever think that your adult brother, your adult son, was being abused by this guy that he was out working for and out going on trips with and stuff. So, I think that’s where it doesn’t really make sense. And you think, oh no, that couldn’t be.
How have you found other of McNeill's victims?
MG: We didn’t even have to hire a [private investigator] to find other victims. All Aaron has to do is sit in the jail and wait for them to come in and say, ‘Oh yeah, that guy molested me too," because all the victims are in and out of jail all the time, because they all have the same drug and alcohol problems or domestic violence. It’s all the same thing.