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by Freda Moon, April 6, 2010
It took one year, one month and 17 days for Mendocino County District Attorney Meredith Lintott to offer a plea deal to Aaron Vargas, who was arrested on Feb. 8, 2009 and charged with first-degree murder, false imprisonment and threatening in the shooting death of 63-year-old Darrell McNeill.
On Tuesday afternoon, Vargas pled no contest to voluntary manslaughter before a Ukiah courtroom crowded with out-of-town media and local supporters. Though a conviction for voluntary manslaughter can carry a sentence of up to 21 years, the DA’s office has agreed to recommend a maximum sentence of 10 years, including time served. Additionally, Vargas may be required to pay a restitution of $200 to $10,000 to McNeill’s family.
The plea agreement is a major reversal for the DA’s office, which had been aggressively prosecuting the case. It’s also something of a vindication for Vargas, 32, who had been facing 50 years to life in prison for shooting McNeill with an antique cap-and-ball 38-caliber revolver at McNeill’s trailer home in Fort Bragg, then waiting for the older man to die before letting McNeill’s wife call the police.
Vargas’s supporters have been passionate in their defense of Vargas, arguing that he was sexually abused by McNeill beginning when he was 11-years-old, and that he suffered from PTSD as a result. The DA’s office had been contesting Vargas’s PTSD defense, and planned to call psychologist Emily Keram—famous for her testimony defending Osama bin Laden’s driver Salim Hamdan—as an expert witness, were the case to go to trial as scheduled, on April 19.
During Tuesday’s plea hearing, Assistant District Attorney Beth Norman told Judge Ronald Brown that her office had taken the feelings of McNeill’s family into account in making their decision to offer a plea in the case and that Liz McNeill, Darrell’s widow, supported the resolution. Norman also said that other factors, including community support for Vargas and Vargas’s lack of a felony criminal record (he has a history of DUI arrests), had been considered.
A hearing is scheduled for April 20th for the judge to hear the facts of the case ahead of sentencing.