Aaron Vargas is the highest profile local news story to go national and even international since Jim Jones. His sentencing last week closed yet another unique chapter in Mendocino County history when he was sentenced to an unexpected nine years in prison for shooting to death a Fort Bragg child molester, Darrell McNeill.
Nine years is not a long sentence for deliberately killing someone, but several factors made it unexpected in the Vargas case. First, the DA had reduced the charges from first degree murder to voluntary manslaughter. There were a great many people in not only the Fort Bragg area but in all areas of the country who felt that Vargas did the community a favor by abruptly ending the serial child abuser’s long, predatory career.
The fatal episode happened about three on a cold morning in February of 2009. By seven everybody was talking about it. McNeill had sexually abused Vargas from the time he, Vargas, was 11 years old. and after a night of drinking Vargas went to McNeil’s house and shot McNeil in front of McNeil's wife, Elizabeth. He prevented Mrs. McNeill from either leaving or phoning for help. When McNeill was dead, Vargas disassembled replica antique of a cap and ball revolver, and the police were summoned. At no point did Vargas attempt to flee.
Fort Bragg is a tight-knit community, with a seamy “underbelly,” and everyone, it seemed, knew that McNeill was a child molester, that he’d abused Vargas and other young boys for many years. The consensus was that McNeill got what he had coming, and it was high time.
These basic facts were well known, but many of the details weren't revealed until last week's sentencing.
From the shooting to the sentencing, the case gained national, even international attention. The story was on the front cover of a Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, featured on Good Morning America, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and ABC’s 20/20. However, with community sentiment running so high in Fort Bragg, the local media — with the usual exception of the AVA — did not cover the story in any detail.
The trial was set to go forward just a few weeks before the recent primary election; it is widely assumed that incumbent DA Meredith Lintott, a former Fort Bragg resident fully aware of community sentiment heavily for Vargas, reduced the charges against Vargas from first degree murder and kidnapping to voluntary manslaughter, and did it not in the interests of justice but to garner votes. Ms. Lintott, who recently declared bankruptcy, has of course denied that the downsizing of the charges was politically inspired.
The defendant, it should be said, is an entirely sympathetic young man. There is nothing artificial about him. He is modest and soft-spoken, thoughtful but still bewildered at his misadventure. When he says it was as if he'd been possessed by McNeil, and you see him try to explain why he'd come to feel that McNeil had to be stopped, you both understand and approve. Aaron Vargas was clearly the victim, and he just as clearly acted in self-defense and in the broader interests of the safety of Fort Bragg children.
The sentencing began last Monday morning. Many people came forward to testify for Vargas. Late Tuesday morning Mindy Galliani, Vargas’s younger sister, was called. She has been a vocal proponent for her brother’s vindication and had hoped for his release on time served and probation. Closer to the case than anyone else, Ms. Galliani seems to have been the last to know about the molestation and abuse. She said Aaron never told her about the abuse before shooting McNeill.
On the verge of tears, she said, “I could see how sad and hurt he was, but he never told me why.”
He'd never told anyone.
Ms. Galliani said she’d seen a change for the better come over brother since the truth has come out and she and he have started an international awareness non-profit, to help others who suffer from abuse.
“He’s back, now,” she said. “The wall is gone, that wall Darrell built around him.”
South Coast attorney Tom Hudson had come out of retirement to defend Vargas. He'd solicited testimony conducive to getting his client placed on probation rather than sent to prison. He asked Galliani about Vargas’s prospects for the future.
She said, “He wants to get help, to get his life back that Darrell took from him.”
“Have you talked to him about what will be expected of him on probation?”
“Yes, and he understands what he needs to do.”
“Do you think he’s serious about it?”
“Yes. He couldn’t be more serious.”
Assistant DA Beth Norman took over the questioning. “So your goal is to get other victims to come forward?”
“Yes. Our goal is to change our society, to encourage other victims to talk about what has happened to them.”
“Are you aware that he’s been in fights in jail?”
“Yes. He’s in a hostile environment — an environment you don’t understand unless you’ve been there.”
“But you understand certain things trigger his anger?”
“He has PTSD,” Galliani exclaimed. “Should we lock up everyone with PTSD — all the vets?”
Ms. Norman didn’t answer. She said, “Now, you said Aaron’s going to get help?”
“Yes, he wants to continue to get alcohol treatment, counseling. The thing about Aaron is, he’s hard to lose his temper. He’s just a very mellow person — it took 20 years to lose his temper with Darrell.”
Aaron Vargas took the stand.
Hudson said, “For two days we’ve been talking about you. The thing I want to focus on is whether you think you are ready if Judge Brown puts you on probation.”
“Definitely,” Vargas said.
“Kinda like my sister said. I want to get my life back. For my family and all the people here supporting me. I knew from day one I needed help with the alcohol problem.”
“Are you prepared to take it seriously? You know you would never ever again be able to take alcohol or illicit drugs? You’ve had relapses. How can we be sure it won’t happen in the future?”
“I’m going to go to AA continually.”
“Is there hope that the absence of Darrell McNeil will make it a clearer playing field?”
“Can we trust you to stay with it?”
“I want to be the best person I can be for my daughter and get back in control of my life.”
“I have all sorts of regrets. For that day, for previous days, and for previous years. But I have all sorts of phone numbers now to call for help.”
“Do you see today that there were other options?”
“If you are put on probation will you be able to find work?”
“I’ve always been able to find work, but I think the alcohol treatment will have to come first.”
“We’ve talked a lot about what triggers your anger — will you be able to handle those triggers?”
“Yes. That’s what Dr. Syrett [we're unsure of the spelling of the doctor's name] and I have been working on.”
Ms. Norman said, “Aaron, you understand the concern here, if the court returns you to the Fort Bragg community? Part of it is to understand what makes you start drinking and kill somebody. What was it that got you to that point? That’s crucial.”
Norman talked about some of the people Vargas had been hanging out with the night of the shooting, his long series of DUIs and other alcohol-related offenses. Then she talked about the shooting itself at McNeill’s trailer east of central Fort Bragg. She pointed out that what Elizabeth McNeill had said happened contradicted his testimony.
She said, “On 20/20 you didn’t remember anything at the trailer.”
Vargas said, “I was on TV. I was nervous.”
“Do you remember telling Liz you were glad you gutshot him because he’d have to suffer?”
“Do you remember kicking him?”
“What’s the next thing you remember?”
“Handing her the phone after the call.”
“You were there 40 minutes. That’s all you remember?”
“I tried to explain to Liz the things that happened to me in my childhood.”
“Then you went to your mother’s house?”
“So you understand that you can’t drink?”
“And you can’t use marijuana?”
“What are you going to do when you get angry?”
“I’ve learned to talk it out.”
And you understand that if something happens to you, you need to call law enforcement?”
“And for treatment?”
“I’m going to go to AA.”
“Do you have a sponsor?”
“Is there a program that you want to do?”
“I don’t know, but I’m certainly open to that.”
“I have no more questions,” Norman said.
There were no more witnesses and Ms. Norman began her closing argument.
“I appreciate," she began, "the people who have spoken for the last few days, but the prosecution is focused on the future of Fort Bragg. Releasing Aaron Vargas into the community is a danger, and it should be a concern to the court. When circumstances arise in front of him he will be the judge, the jury and the executioner. There is a violent, angry aspect in Aaron Vargas. If he has not bought into the program, he will go out and drink with his friends. He has to take responsibility and I’m really disappointed he hasn’t picked a program. So I think the mid-term is appropriate. We’re not here to ask for 21 years.”
Mr. Hudson for the defense.
“It would be a disservice to send Aaron Vargas to prison for a crime he did not start but only stopped. When you are molested at 11, 12, 13 years of age, and controlled the way he was, you can’t just wake up from it. And any of the 10 to 15 people we’ve uncovered still suffer. The peril to all these kids is so obvious, it just rings bells. My client’s brother, just in recent weeks, has come forward and said he was molested as well. And Mike McNeil, another victim, (McNeil's stepson) is in jail as we speak on another alcohol charge. Aaron Vargas has learned he has some control over his life. The puppeteer, Darrell McNeil, is no longer pulling the strings. I don’t think we should be putting him in jail for eight to 10 years. There has to be a different option. Aaron’s never had a chance before to show he can be a decent human being because Darrell McNeil was always there trying to control him. He’s never — ever — since he was 11 years old had a chance without that factor. I just say we don’t know that he can’t make it. And I would urge your honor to give him that chance. All these people see something in him that’s worth retrieving. We can meet any kind of probation that you want to keep from the anxiety of worrying if this will work. I think it’s time to take a chance on him.”
Probation Officer Tim King had the report and sentencing recommendations in front of him. He said the report recommended prison and probation.
“Aaron Vargas was molested as a child, very severely. And yet Mr. Vargas went on with a relationship with McNeill for many years. None of the others went on to have an adult relationship with Mr. McNeill. They told McNeill to leave them alone and he did. Mr. McNeill’s gone. When Aaron Vargas killed him, he was prevented from ever telling his side of the story, and I’ll submit it on that.”
Judge Brown called a ten-minute recess to consider the testimony.
When he returned he said, “The defendant was charged with murder, but the parties have agreed to voluntary manslaughter with a firearm, which is considered a strike without the option of probation unless the court finds unusually mitigating circumstances. It’s my understanding the plea was based on the lack of a significant criminal record. The defendant had been molested. He has the support of friends and family, and a mental condition that mitigates but does not excuse the crime. To begin, I note that voluntary manslaughter requires the intent to kill. The probation report considers as factors, taking an unusual gun, gut-shooting the victim, kicking him, and refusing to let the victim’s wife call for help. Probation also suggests that the defendant would be a risk to the community. Defense emphasizes the circumstances were unique, that the defendant was being stalked, and threats were made that his child would be molested. The forensic report suggests that he was reaching for the gun when it went off. But I find that the defendant did intend to kill and did it in such a way as to make the victim suffer. We will never know if the victim could have responded to the charge of molestation. Justice must strike a balance between interests of the individual and the safety of the community. In the opinion of this court, I do not find the request for probation to be in the interest of justice. So the probation is denied. He had two felonies, one included evading the police. It is troubling he contacted his abuser days before he was to go to the police. I therefore find the mid-term appropriate and impose six years, with an additional three years for the use of a firearm, for a total of nine years. I am directing the Sheriff’s department to deliver him into the custody of the Department of Corrections. Please remain seated until the defendant has been removed from the courtroom.”
Outside on the Courthouse stairs, Mindy Galliani told a reporter from Ukiah TV, [Probation Officer] “Tim King needs to lose his job. He suggested that Aaron had a consensual relationship with his abuser and that he killed him in order to keep that a secret. That is outrageous, it is insulting and he should not be working in the probation department. The Sheriff's department also suggested that it was consensual. I think people should lose there jobs there, or be retrained. The system failed all these kids and it failed Aaron. So I am going to regroup and see what I can do to get Aaron free and to change the system. We are definitely going to appeal. We were not surprised by the sentence. I don't have much faith in our justice system. I was hoping for the best. I hoped Judge Brown would see through the probation evaluation of the case and the prosecution's side of the case. And that he would do the right thing by Aaron. I don't think that he did. All we can do is appeal. And we will.”