So Aaron Vargas is going to state prison for killing the Fort Bragg businessman that he and a dozen other Mendocino Coast men said had molested them over the past two decades.
Tuesday’s sentencing left no one happy, least of all a circle of Vargas’ family and friends who waged a futile campaign to win the 32-year-old father’s freedom.
Superior Court Judge Ron Brown said to free Vargas would send the wrong message in a troubling case that’s received national attention.
Brown is right in that for whatever reasons, and whether intentional or not, the simple fact remains that an intoxicated Vargas shot Darrell McNeill in the stomach and then watched him die.
Newspaper accounts of the emotional sentencing hearing reported that Judge Brown said he felt the killing was intentional. Brown said evidence showed that Vargas shot McNeill “in the gut to make him suffer, kicking him and not letting (McNeill's wife) call for help.”
For his part, Vargas admitted taking an old cap and ball revolver with him the night he confronted McNeill, the man he said began sexually abusing him when he was just age 11. Vargas said the sex didn’t end until he was an adult in his late 20s.
Vargas testified that he only intended to warn McNeill to stay away from him, his family and other men who said they too were victims.
"I wanted to scare him," Vargas said. “I wanted to tell him to stop touching me, and anyone else, anymore."
Vargas’ family rallied supporters to his cause through a campaign that spread nationwide. The notoriety subsided after county prosecutors decided to back off from trying Vargas for murder, in part because nearly a dozen men or their family members had come forward with sordid tales of more sexual abuse committed by McNeill.
Brown on Tuesday sentenced Vargas to nine years, with credit for more than 18 months he has already served in county jail.
Whether the nine-year prison term is just is certain to be debated for years to come. Vargas family almost immediately said they will appeal Brown’s sentencing.
Sadly I don’t think it matters what message Brown’s decision sends, or how many years Aaron Vargas actually spends in prison.
The harsh truth is that when it comes to sexual abuse of children, communities, law enforcement, church leaders and public figures across the U.S. and around the globe still tend to look the other way.
Further I think the troubling truth of the Vargas case was woven through the testimony of Santa Rosa psychiatrist Donald Apostle, who was among those advocating probation for Vargas.
Seeing Aaron Vargas set free always seemed an impossibility in my mind. But a few quotes attributed to psychiatrist Apostle jumped out in the newspaper accounts I read about his sentencing.
Vargas, said Apostle, has been “stuck in time by a dark, shameful secret that prevented him from maturing and functioning normally.”
Stuck in time. Never able to mature or function normally.
Strikes me as a hellish life that won’t quit.
And I can understand why Vargas’ family and friends are chilled by the court’s decision to lock him up for several years with some of the most violent people anywhere.
Consider one more assessment offered up by the psychiatrist about Vargas:
“I think he’s been in prison his whole life.”