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by Freda Moon, April 22, 2009
There's not much dispute about what happened on Fort Bragg's Farrer Lane the night of February 8—the night Aaron Vargas killed Darrell McNeill with a cap and ball .44 caliber black powder revolver.
In this case, almost nobody bothers with the obligatory “alleged” when describing how Vargas knocked on the door of McNeill's Coachmen Somerset fifth-wheel trailer around 7pm that Sunday; how Vargas told McNeill's wife, Elizabeth, “I'm not going to hurt you;” how Vargas and McNeill briefly argued; and how Liz heard Vargas say, “You're not going to hurt anyone else again” just before shooting her husband once in the chest. Vargas then waited 15 minutes to half an hour for Darrell McNeill to die while Liz McNeill waited to call the police.
That most of the facts are agreed upon doesn't make the murder case against Aaron Vargas as clear-cut as one might think. Vargas shot an unarmed man—a local businessman, former Boy Scouts leader and Big Brother—and waited for him to die before disassembling his gun and leaving it behind. Despite this, nearly all—if not every last one—of the 30 or so people who attended Vargas's preliminary hearing at the Ukiah superior courthouse last Friday were there to support Aaron Vargas and his defense. The 9am court date and hour and a half drive from Fort Bragg made the showing all the more striking. If courtroom B is any indication, in this case it's the killer—not the dead man—who has the community's support.
This support has grown as details of Darrell McNeill's past seep through the coastal gossip mill. It's a past, according to the Vargas family and their supporters, that includes the long-term sexual abuse of Aaron Vargas, members of the McNeill family and a number of other local boys and young men, including one former “Little Brother” who committed suicide in 2006. Vargas's defense attorney, Tom Hudson, says he has the testimony of two people who say they reported the abuse to the Fort Bragg police, but it was never investigated.
The Vargas family, meanwhile, has launched a website, www.saveaaron.com, to raise funds for Vargas's defense and to petition community support. Mike McNeill, Darrell McNeill's son, is among those who signed. “Aaron and I are very close friends,” he wrote. “We've known each other since childhood. I know how Aaron felt and I believe he sacrificed himself to save others. I stand behind Aaron 100%.”
But there are two people whose support Vargas doesn't have: Mendocino County District Attorney Meredith Lintott and the prosecutor on the case, Jill Ravitch. The DA's office is charging Vargas with first-degree murder, false imprisonment and threatening, all of which carry special weight—and additional sentences—when committed with a gun. All told, Vargas, who’s 31, is facing 50 years to life in prison. If the DA’s office has its way, he would be in his eighties before he's eligible for parole. Vargas has plead not guilty. The next court date in the case is May 1 in Ukiah.
On April 17, Ravitch called Vargas’s fiancé, Selena Barnett, to the stand for a series of questions about phone calls between her and Vargas the night that McNeill was killed, focusing on one that Vargas answered while still at the McNeill home on Farrer Lane.
Barnett—who has been with Vargas for five years, sharing a house in Fort Bragg and a seven-month-old daughter—said Vargas had been upset that day. He’d spent the day with friends, including Mike McNeill, and had been drinking. When he left the couple’s home that night, Vargas told Barnett he was going for a walk. Instead, he drove off in Barnett’s Toyota pickup. Worried, Barnett dialed Vargas’s cell phone until he finally answered. “He told me that he’d just shot Darrell, and he was sorry, and he was going to prison,” Barnett said.
During Hudson’s cross examination, Barnett described how Darrell McNeill “stalked” Vargas in the weeks leading up to the shooting—a characterization the prosecution objected to, but that Barnett was not alone in making. Barnett said McNeill started “coming around” beginning last August, about the time that Vargas and Barnett’s baby was born. McNeill made offers “quite a few times” to baby-sit for the couple’s daughter, Barnett said—offers that were only extended to her, never to Vargas directly. Barnett said McNeill called and made unannounced visits to the couple’s home more and more frequently in the weeks leading up to February 8, and that she once threatened to call the police if he wouldn’t leave. “Sometimes,” Barnett said, “[McNeill] would call all day long, over and over and over.”
During Friday’s preliminary hearing, Ravitch dismissed testimony about the molestation as “self- serving” and objected to it as irrelevant. But for McNeill's victims and their families, the abuse is anything but insignificant.
“I personally feel that the boy [Aaron Vargas] did the community a favor,” said Richard Masingale, whose younger brother, James Specie, killed himself in 2006, four days after confiding that he had been sexually abused by Darrell McNeill from the ages of nine to 14-years-old, while in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
“I attribute the loss of my brother's life to that,” said Masingale. “Until he was nine he was a good kid. But after [the abuse], he took another path. He didn't trust nobody in life...My little brother became addicted to cocaine, methamphetamines. He didn't do well with the pressures of everyday life after that.” (Neither Big Brothers Big Sisters or the Boy Scouts were able to confirm McNeill's involvement in their organizations. Neither maintains records that go back to the 1980s. But Dr. Guy Grenny, who has been involved with the Fort Bragg Boy Scout troop for decades, confirms that McNeill was involved sometime before 1986 and members of the McNeill family have said that Darrell McNeill was Species’ Big Brother.)
McNeill, meanwhile, found other boys to abuse.
His former stepson, John Clemons, said that McNeill sexually abused him from when he was 11 until Clemons “got big enough to where I told him if he ever touched me again, I was going to beat the hell out of him.” Clemons's mother, Jenny, divorced McNeill when Clemons was about 14. Then, Clemons said, “when my brother got big enough, he started using my brother to get to my brother's friends. Me, I just stopped bringing my friends around.”
Clemons was among those who attended Friday morning's court date in support of Aaron Vargas. Of his former stepfather, he said, “It doesn't bother me a bit that this happened to him, personally. But I don't like that Aaron's in jail. The system messed up. The Fort Bragg Police, the D.A., whoever. None of this would have happened if Darrell would have been locked up.”
“I have children, I have a son,” Clemons said. “If he ever would have touched my son, I would've killed [McNeill] myself.”
Jenny Cotila, McNeill's second wife and Clemons's mother, said it wasn't until several years after she and McNeill divorced, in the early 1980s, that she found out—through Clemons’s then-wife—that Clemons had been molested. She reported the abuse to the Fort Bragg Police, but she said she was told the statute of limitations for sexual abuse were up—that she would need additional, more recent victims in order to get an arrest.
Cotila said she then went to McNeill's house, rummaged through his things and found sexually explicit photographs of him with another local boy. But, according to Cotila, the FBPD told her the photographs weren't enough to warrant an investigation unless they were coupled with testimony—and she wasn't able to convince the boy to speak to the police. “I was doing everything I think I could do,” she said, “to make the police do something about it.” (The Fort Bragg Police, citing privacy laws surrounding child sexual abuse, say they cannot comment on whether such a complaint was ever filed.)
Cotila, Clemons and Masingale are not alone in feeling that the system—and the community—failed.
“I know that many people could have prevented this over 100 years ago,” reads one comment on the Save Aaron petition that was signed, simply, “Darrell McNeill's Daughter.”
“How many of you knew, and did nothing,” the comment continues. “I will never believe that for so many years this was happening and it now all falls on Aaron. I am a survivor of my grandfather's sexual assault, the same man that molested Darrell. His father loved him in a very sick way, he loved all his children in a very sick way. You learn right from wrong from your parents, with what I know Darrell didn't have a chance. Aaron does, don't let him go to prison.”
Even Liz McNeill, Darrell McNeill's wife at the time of his death, is supporting Vargas's defense. “I've known the kid [Vargas] for years,” she said. “I love the kid. I do not agree with what he did, by any means, but I don't want to see him go to prison for many, many years. I'd like see him get help and counseling for what happened to him.”
Liz and Darrell McNeill were married for 25 years. For 19 of those, the couple ran their furnishing shop, Fort Bragg’s American Home Store, while Darrell also worked as a Century 21 realtor. Liz McNeill was reluctant to discuss her husband or the details of the case, but she said she doesn't doubt that McNeill sexually abused Aaron Vargas. “For the boy to go to that extreme,” she said. “I don't question it.”