Is it “consensual” when an adult male engages in sex with an older man who began molesting him as a boy? That explosive question is ricocheting around the country in the wake of statements by a Mendocino County law enforcement investigator during a nationally televised broadcast last Friday about Fort Bragg’s Aaron Vargas case.
Sheriff Sgt. Glen Van Patten’s on-air suggestions that the 2009 shooting death of businessman Darrell McNeill at the hands of Vargas may have been the result of a “lover’s quarrel” has enraged Vargas’ supporters just two weeks before his sentencing.
Van Patten said investigators believe Vargas and McNeill had engaged in sex for at least “two to four years” before the killing.
Van Patten’s notion that a child sexual abuse victim could voluntarily become his molester’s lover when he grew up sickened some viewers, and nationally known abuse experts.
“In my opinion Van Patten needs to be fired,” declared the wife of a Dallas, Texas police officer.
Another angry viewer in Seattle wrote www.theava.com, “Sgt. Van Patten is treating this as a sexcapades with Vargas and McNeill.”
Iowa resident Susan Huseman wrote, “To have a law enforcement officer say on national television that a victim of child-sexual abuse was consensually involved with his abuser is an outrage.”
Yet even Aaron Vargas during his exclusive interview with ABC’s 20/20 acknowledged he knows some people think he’s a “fag” for engaging in extended sexual relations with a friendly neighbor who began abusing him when he was 11-years-old.
Vargas told viewers that no matter how hard he tried to keep his distance from McNeill, the cycle of abuse would begin again and he would somehow be lured back.
Vargas said sometimes the sex happened only a couple of times a year, usually on fishing trips with McNeill. There was always a lot of drinking involved.
Other times, including in the weeks leading up to the shocking killing, Vargas said, “He’d call almost daily.”
Vargas said the fear that McNeill might actually molest his infant daughter finally drove him to a drunken confrontation, and the fatal shooting.
Sex abuse cases stagger communities, and raise troubling questions about how we view victims and perpetrators.
Experts say typically a lot of sexual abuse cases taper off within 3-4 years, largely because the perpetrator loses interest or the victim finally figures out how to stand up to the aggressor.
But that’s not always the case, according to Dr. Richard Gartner. Gartner is a widely known Manhattan expert in sexual abuse, and a former 20-year director of the clinical psychology program at Columbia University.
Gartner in a telephone interview said he’s become aware of the national notoriety surrounding the Vargas case, but he said his knowledge of the case was too general for him to discuss any specifics.
However, Gartner said what Vargas says happened between he and McNeill over the past 20 years is “not that unusual.”
“Young victims are groomed in these issues by people who they see as mentors,” said Gartner.
Gartner said as victims become more isolated because of their shame and a growing fear of discovery, “they feel branded.”
“In their tormented state, sometimes sex is a small price to pay,” said Gartner.
Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist, told 20/20 that McNeill’s tight hold on Vargas could have easily continued into his adult years.
“You take someone who is vulnerable, and you get them formative, and you attach to them all through their development, and you get in their DNA,” said Welner.
Welner said, “And that’s how you have people, who even in adulthood are doing things totally unacceptable to them. And yet at the same time they’re powerless to break away from it.”
McNeill’s secret life involving a dozen or more young Fort Bragg men including his own step-son only came to light after Vargas killed him.
Vargas told the nation that he regrets killing McNeill. “It’s not up to me to decide someone’s fate.”
He said he still struggles with the reasons why.
“Sometimes, I guess people can take control over you in ways that you would never imagine,” Vargas told television viewers.
Vargas killed a man, intentionally or not. He must pay the price for that action no matter how much sympathy his case stirs.
Yet somehow I can’t escape the conclusion that thanks to a cold, calculating perpetrator, Aaron Vargas will always be a victim. That in the end Aaron Vargas’ punishment may be far greater than his sins no matter what the outcome is in the courtroom next month.