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by Freda Moon, June 3, 2009
At the end of June, Aaron Vargas will stand trial for a crime that would normally be seen as inexcusable: He is accused of driving to Darrell McNeill's trailer home on Fort Bragg's Farrer Lane, shooting his former neighbor with a .44 caliber black powder revolver and then waiting nearly a half-hour for the man to die—all while McNeill's wife, Liz, waited nearby.
But very little about Vargas's case—neither the story of his life nor public reaction to his crime—is normal. Following the February shooting, McNeill's death has had the unusual effect of eliciting empathy for a murderer and revulsion for his victim. That's because, in this case, the dead man's sins weigh heavy on the community's conscience. They are sins that are only now surfacing, one after the next, revealing child abuse that appears to span decades and includes the sexual molestation of not only Aaron Vargas, but McNeill's own sons and a growing list of other local boys—now adult men—with whom Darrell McNeill crossed paths during his 63 years.
Though far from normal, the story is not unfamiliar. As any jailer knows, even in prison child molesters are hated. Fearing for their lives, pedophiles are often segregated from the general population; even rapists and murderers have children, after all. And if the town's response to Vargas's crime is any indication, Fort Bragg shares in the prison ethos that child sexual abuse is the most abhorent crime of all.
A Facebook account started by Vargas's sister, Mindy Galliani, to advocate for her brother has over 500 “friends.” Galliani posts petitions, links to stories on the case, fundraising requests, upcoming court dates and letter writing campaigns—including one targeting the Fort Bragg Advocate-News for not reporting on Vargas's molestation as part of the paper's case coverage. In April, Vargas's preliminary hearing drew dozens of his supporters from Coastal Mendocino to an early morning court date in Ukiah. The next month, a benefit at Fort Bragg's Episcopal Church earned nearly $8,000 for Vargas's legal defense and drew more than 200 people, each of whom paid $15 to spend their Friday evening over a plate of spaghetti in a dark, cavernous church hall. Both McNeill's wife, Liz, and son, Mike, were in attendance.
Meanwhile, an online petition asking that the District Attorney's office pursue treatment instead of jail time for Vargas has more than 1,000 signatures. Prosecutor Jill Ravitch refused to specify how many letters the DA's office has received, saying,“What do you want me to do, sit here and count them?” When asked the same question, Assistant District Attorney Beth Norman—always more politically savvy than her counterpart—said her office has accumulated “a large pile of letters” and 67 pages of e-mails regarding the case.
The Vargas family hopes to meet with Mendocino County DA Meredith Lintott to discuss the case, which they feel she misunderstands. They've started a second online petition—now with 160 signatures—to press the issue. Vargas's defense attorney, Tom Hudson, is also asking that the Vargas family be heard. He says that on May 5 he sent a written request that both the Vargas and McNeill families meet with the DA. He says he hasn't received a response.
Norman disputes Hudson's characterization. “It's absolutely misinformation,” Norman said. “We've been open with him. We've been meeting with him. He knows, legally, what our issues are and he knows what our limitations are.” Norman says she's met with Hudson twice and spoken with him several times. During those conversations, Norman said, she told Hudson that Lintott has decided—for “professional, ethical reasons”—to hand daily responsibilities for the Vargas case to Norman, her ADA. “Because of her living in Fort Bragg for an extended period of time, she has distanced herself from this case. She's known both sides.”
Ultimately, the Vargas family probably doesn't have to meet with DA Lintott to know her view of the case. It's often said that actions speak louder than words—and, in that way, the DA's office has been unambiguous. When his jury trial begins at 10am on June 29th, Vargas faces charges of first degree murder with a gun, false imprisonment and dissuading a witness. If convicted, he'll spend 50 years to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.
Hudson says he has offered a plea in the case, which he declined to detail and to which he says he has received no response. “It has neither been accepted nor rejected,” he said. But cases can be settled at anytime up to the moment the jury returns a verdict and Hudson continues to push back against the murder charge. “This is not a murder case,” Hudson said. “They can think what they want, but this is a manslaughter case.” Hudson will soon send a psychologist's report to the DA's office that he expects will bolster his argument.
Hudson says that after he made his request for the Vargas and McNeill families meet with DA Lintott, Jill Ravitch invited Liz McNeill for a meeting. During their conversation, Liz McNeill told Ravitch that she didn't want Vargas to receive jail time for killing her husband. According to McNeill, she told the prosecutor, “The less time, the better.”
But Ravitch and Norman have made a point of being unswayed by public opinion. In a recent interview, Ravitch declined to comment on the case. “I have certain ethical rules that I abide by.” she said. “Paramount is that I try my case in the courtroom and not in the press.” Speaking in the abstract, Norman takes it a step farther, “Regardless of what a community may think caused the guy to do something, the question is still what caused it. That's what makes it premediated or not premeditated—not a popularity contest in the community. It's not how many people in town like him or don't like him.”
“Your life experience alone does not excuse your conduct,” Norman continued. “There are a lot of people who have been through a lot of traumatic life events that don't kill anyone, so it really depends on what is going through a person's head at time of the crime.”
Vargas's next court date is a pre-trial hearing set for this Thursday, June 3, at 1:30pm. Ravitch has said she has a scheduling conflict and may or may not be able to appear. This much is clear: The Vargas family would be unwise to hold their breath waiting for a meeting with Meredith Lintott.