Man Kills Alleged Long-Time Abuser
A 32-year-old man shot a former neighbor, 63, in the California town of Fort Bragg, then lingered as the older man died. The killing, which took place a year ago, has resulted in local support--for the shooter, that is, who claims that for years he was subjected to sexual assault at the older man's hands.
According to Aaron Vargas, the man he shot--Darrell McNeill--molested him for years, starting when he was 11 and continuing into Vargas' 20s, a Feb. 21 article in the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Though the assaults stopped, the article says, McNeill allegedly continued to hound Vargas. Finally, Vargas stood up to him, but the confrontation ended with Vargas shooting McNeill with a hair-trigger revolver, even as the older man's wife looked on. The article says that Vargas' March 22 trial will hinge on whether the gun was fired accidentally or deliberately, but aside from the DA and police, few are calling for hard time for Vargas. To the contrary: many among Fort Bragg's 7,000 residents, including McNeill's wife, say that the law should take Vargas' history with McNeill into account and deliver a light sentence. Many in the logging town, located not far from Mendocino, believe Vargas' claims about sexual abuse--in large part because about a dozen others have also come forward to say that they, too, were assaulted by McNeill, who was once a Scout leader as well as a Big Brother.
For the police, however, the first responsibility is to their duty as investigators. The Mendocino County DA, meanwhile, is looking to charge Vargas with fist degree murder: if convicted, Vargas could get life.
"Should that guy go to prison for standing up for himself? No way," resident Katie Taylor, 18, told the Chronicle. "The old guy was a creep and deserved what he got."
"They shouldn't even take Aaron to trial," opined Deb Evans, 50, adding, "We don't like pedophiles in this town."
"I thought we lived in a safe community, and my children never went more than a block away from home by themselves before they were 12," Vargas' mother, Robin, told the Chronicle. "I didn't know the real danger was really just 25 feet away."
Though parents may teach their children not to take candy from strangers, it is thought that relatives or family friends are responsible for most cases of child sexual abuse. The article placed the number of children assaulted annually at 20,000; half of those are the victims of acquaintances. Though more cases come to light than used to, sexual abuse against children may still be an underreported crime; as for incidents in which a victim kills his or her abuser, "My guess is it's pretty rare, at the very least," Lisa Jones, a researcher, told the Chronicle.
Even to their closest friends and family, child molesters can be virtual Jekyll-and-Hydes, with the darker side going unnoticed, and unsuspected, for years. "I know the man I was married to, but this other man who abused kids, I didn't know," Liz McNeill, the shooting victim's widow, told the press. "I call them Darrell One and Darrell Two--but I have no reason not to believe Aaron."
Mrs. McNeill said that Vargas should be punished--but not with life in prison. "I do think Aaron needs to spend some time in jail, but not a lot," she said. "I can understand being driven to the edge, but I do not condone what he did. He just needs help." Added Mrs. McNeill, "I've known him most of his life, and I still love the kid."
The issue of whether Vargas was looking for revenge or just seeking to impress McNeill with the gun and get him to leave him be will play a crucial role in the trial. Vargas told McNeill that "he was lucky" to have his wife is here," which may indicate that what Vargas had in mind was a stern warning; the revolver Vargas brandished a cap--and-ball style pistol like those used in the Civil War--may easily have gone off without Vargas intending for it to discharge, because such guns have hair triggers. On the other hand, such guns are not easily loaded, and it took some preparation for Vargas to have the gun ready to fire when he confronted McNeill--which might argue that he was planning on firing the .44 caliber slug that killed the older man.
The shooting followed what has been described as "a few quiet words" between Vargas and McNeill as the men stood in the door to McNeill's trailer on the evening of Feb. 28 last year. "After he shot Darrell, he told him something to the effect of, 'You're not going to hurt anyone again,' and then he told me all about how Darrell abused him as a child," McNeill related. "I was shocked at all of this. He told me he wasn't going to hurt me, but I was never scared. I knew he wouldn't."
Police placed Vargas under arrest later that same evening. Vargas was at his parents' house, having gone there after the shooting. "He came over and told me he'd shot Darrell, and I knew something traumatic had happened," said Robin Vargas. "And he told me Darrell had molested him and was still on the prowl to molest others. My world went upside down in a few seconds," Vargas' mother added. "I sat down and held him in my arms, and my heart has ached ever since."
Vargas claims that McNeill first assaulted him during the course of a fishing trip when Vargas was 11. Vargas' life exhibited a pattern that is not unusual in such cases: family members look back to note that Vargas was a happy youth before that trip, but that he was subsequently very different: less outgoing, and struggling in school. As a young adult, problems continued to plague him--Vargas ended up with a record for drunk driving and a work life consisting mostly of odd jobs. "We knew something wasn't right all those years, but we never put things together," Mindy Galliani, Vargas' older sister, said. "Now it all makes sense."
McNeill, a local businessman, was regarded as a fixture of the community; City Councilman Jere Melo described him to the Chronicle by saying that McNeill "seemed like a good citizen."
Vargas was in his twenties when he finally put a stop to the abuse, according to Galliani. But McNeill continued to pursue him--even after Vargas got engaged. Then Vargas and his fiancée had a baby daughter, and McNeill began to ask if he might visit--and if he might be allowed to baby-sit. "It was like a sick obsession. He knew his control over Aaron was slipping away, and he just didn't want to let go," Galliani said, adding, "I don't think Aaron went over to Darrell's that night to actually kill him, but I'm sure he wanted to scare him. He wanted to be left alone, and for him not to hurt other kids."
That McNeill might harm others--perhaps Vargas' own daughter--was evidently brought home to Vargas when he and two others--McNeill's stepson, now 46, and his son, 34--compared notes, with the stepson alleging that McNeill had also assaulted him. Three days later, Vargas confronted McNeill, with fatal consequences.
Local police may not have acted on prior reports that O'Neill had molested children. "Darrell was very smart about what he did, very persuasive, real friendly," 46-year-old Todd Rowan told the Chronicle. Rowan says that O'Neill assaulted him over a four-year period, between the ages of 15 and 19. "He'd pick out guys like me who were loners or vulnerable, and have us over to drink beer and smoke pot. Then when you were stoned, he'd go at you." Rowan, too, finally put a stop to the abuse, but his life bore the traces of the abuse: Rowan had substance abuse issues and attempted suicide. He finally took his story to local police, but they did nothing, he says.
"I went through hell because of that man," Rowan told the Chronicle. "I'm now with a great woman and I'm clean and sober, but it's still hard to talk about this." Added Rowan, "Look, up here this is a redneck town. Nobody would believe you about this stuff. But enough is enough after what happened with Aaron, so I'm talking now. Maybe if we'd all talked more back then, it would have never to come to all this."
Nothing happened either, says McNeill's former wife, Jenny Cotilla, when she went to authorities to report that McNeill had abused his stepson. Authorities must follow a gag order imposed by a judge last summer. But Vargas' lawyers have a copy of the report Rowan filed with local police.