I don’t know Fort Bragg carpenter Todd Rowan, but I admire him. In a few short remarks quoted Sunday in the San Francisco Chronicle, Rowan got to the core of the creepy case involving Aaron Vargas, who’s facing a first-degree murder charge for killing his sexual abuser.
“Maybe if we’d all talked more back then, it would have never come to all this,” said Rowan.
Rowan knows the agony that gripped Aaron Vargas because he too was sexually abused by the same man – Darrell McNeil, a 62-year-old Fort Bragg businessman. So apparently were a dozen other men who have stepped forward and told of their own abuse at the hands of the former Boy Scout leader.
“I went through hell because of that man,” said Rowan about McNeill.
Thanks to earlier in-depth reporting of Freda Moon of TheAVA.com, coverage of the Vargas case is now drawing media attention from around the state and across the nation. In following up on Moon’s work, the Chronicle’s front-page story Sunday focused on widespread community sympathy for the 32-year-old Vargas on the eve of his murder trial. It’s scheduled to begin March 22.
Even McNeil’s wife, Liz, and some family members are supportive of Vargas. Liz McNeil said she doesn’t want Vargas locked up for the rest of his life.
“I do not condone what he did. He just needs help. I’ve known him most of his life, and I still love the kid,” said McNeil.
At first glance the Vargas case seemed an open-and-shut murder. He admitted taking an antique pistol with him to McNeil’s home last February, but said he intended to only scare his abuser so he would stop contacting him. Vargas allegedly loaded the pistol after arriving at McNeil's residence. Prosecutors insist Vargas went with an intent to kill McNeil, and note that he disassembled the murder weapon while waiting 30 minutes or so for his victim to die.
Vargas’ subsequent stories of sexual abuse at the hands of McNeil beginning at age 11, however, have won over the hearts of many in the coastal community. So have the horrid tales from others, including carpenter Rowan.
Rowan said he took his complaints about McNeil to the Fort Bragg police nine years ago, but nothing happened.
Rowan described to Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan a pattern all too familiar in sexual abuse cases.
“Darrell was very smart about what he did, very persuasive, real friendly.”
“He’d pick out guys like me who were loners, or vulnerable, and have us over to drink beer or smoke pot. Then when you were stoned, he’d go at you.”
Although Rowan eventually was able to fend McNeill off, his personal life was marked by years of substance abuse and suicide attempts.
For Rowan, his life has taken a turn for the better. “I’m now with a great woman and I’m clean and sober, but it’s still hard to talk about this.”
Vargas, a 32-year-old handyman, faces an uncertain future. Prosecutors argue that whatever happened in the past doesn’t negate a deliberate act of murder.
Maybe so. A jury will soon decide.
But Rowan’s observations on Sunday about the horrors of sexual abuse cases, and how communities typically react to them, are haunting.
“Look, up here this is a redneck town. Nobody would believe you about this stuff,” said Rowan.