A killing unlocks a devastating secret

Twenty days before his planned storybook wedding in Yosemite National Park, Aaron Vargas got drunk on beer and vodka and pocketed a loaded revolver. Then he drove to a remote trailer and shot Darrell McNeill to death in front of the man’s horrified wife.

McNeill’s death shocked residents of this small city on the rugged Northern California coast, and so did Vargas’ motive. But what came next might have been the biggest surprise of all.

Assistant Dist. Atty. Elizabeth Norman describes McNeill, who was unarmed when he was killed, as “a little old man with Parkinson’s disease, who was in his little trailer home in his stockings, pants and T-shirt.”

But Elizabeth McNeill, Darrell’s widow, tells a different story in court documents: “My husband had a secret life that was unknown to me.... I believe my husband sexually molested Aaron when Aaron was a child and may have also molested other children in Fort Bragg.”

Since Vargas, 32, pulled the trigger on that Sunday night 16 months ago, at least a dozen other alleged victims have come forward in a sexual abuse saga that some say stretches back as much as a century. Among them: McNeill’s stepson, a young man who eventually killed himself and another who tried to commit suicide.

At first there was disbelief that the genial youth leader could have preyed on the town’s children. But as stories of the alleged victims began to trickle out, residents of Fort Bragg, a struggling former logging town of 6,855, did the unexpected.

They rose up to support the accused murderer — a young man with a history of alcohol abuse who faced 50 years to life in prison for taking the law into his own hands.

“You’ll never hurt anybody again,” Vargas said before pulling the trigger, according to court documents. He kicked the body as it bled on the trailer floor. He wouldn’t let Elizabeth call 911 until after he was certain that her 63-year-old husband was dead. He told her what McNeill had done to him for nearly 20 years.

Vargas recently pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. The reduced charge could put him in prison for up to a decade — or allow him to walk free on probation. He is scheduled to be sentenced this week in Ukiah by Judge Ron Brown.

“He would try to get me to go to his house and drink and do drugs.... He would try to get me in the back rooms of the empty houses we worked in.”

– Jailhouse letter from Vargas to fiancee Selena Barnett

Vargas was two months shy of his 12th birthday when McNeill asked Bob and Robin Vargas if their happy-go-lucky boy would like to accompany him and his son, Michael, to Oregon for a two-week fishing trip. The McNeills lived next door to the Vargas family in a Craftsman bungalow. McNeill was a Boy Scout leader and volunteered with the Big Brothers. He owned a furniture store and was respected in the community.

The boy returned home from Oregon and gradually became more subdued, said his sister, Mindy Galliani, 31. He withdrew from friends and failed every subject in school for the first time.

“He was very quiet and withdrawn and sad and angry, and he’d want to sit in his room a lot,” Galliani said.

McNeill first molested Vargas on the Oregon trip, according to interviews and court documents, although the family would not find out about the abuse until the night McNeill was shot to death.

Vargas still does not talk in much detail about what he says he endured from McNeill, nor does his family. But Galliani said McNeill gave her brother drugs and alcohol, molested him intermittently over two decades and stalked him until he died.

Psychologist Kevin T. Kelly asked Vargas when trouble began after the August 1989 fishing trip.

“I was arrested in eighth grade,” Vargas responded, according to Kelly’s report. “And I took the Rorschach then. I was getting straight Fs. My Mom wondering how I had changed. Then I just met the wrong friends and basically quit school. I didn’t ask for help. I don’t like to ask for help.”

Vargas’ family and friends describe him as a loving, giving but deeply troubled man who has suffered from the abuse since it began. He has not been able to keep a job, they say, for more than a few months at a time.

“Over the years,” he told Kelly, “I had a drinking problem, drug problem and a problem driving my motorcycle too fast and that I didn’t care that I was drunk on a motorcycle.”

But until that chilly February night, Vargas never hurt anyone but himself.

“I’ve been a weak coward completely collapsing on the inside letting some old pervert control my life letting him go on to do the same to others.”

– Jailhouse letter from Vargas to Barnett

Three days before Vargas grabbed his antique replica revolver — a birthday gift from his fiancee — and headed to McNeill’s trailer, the phone rang at the home he shared with Barnett and their daughter Josie, then 6 months old.

It was Michael McNeill, Vargas’ close friend, who was drunk and crying. The younger McNeill had been staying with his father and stepmother in the small trailer, and he’d been plagued by a recurring nightmare. He would awaken with a start, he said in court documents, certain that someone had been fondling him. But no one was there.

“I began to realize then that my dad had used me to get to my friends,” Michael McNeill said in a declaration, “in order to sexually molest them.”

Vargas picked up his friend and the two men drove to the home of John Clemons, Michael McNeill’s half-brother. They woke Clemons, and the men began to talk.

“I asked John if my dad had sexually molested him, and he said yes,” Michael McNeill recounted. Then Clemons looked over at Vargas and said, “It happened to you too, didn’t it?” Vargas nodded.

It was the first time Vargas admitted that he had been sexually assaulted as a child and the first time he learned the extent of McNeill’s alleged crimes. The revelations, said defense attorney Thomas Hudson, were like “this hurricane is going on inside him.”

McNeill had been coming around again, offering to babysit Vargas’ daughter, showing up unannounced at his home with offerings of diapers and calling Vargas dozens of times.

On Sunday, Feb. 8, Vargas told his fiancee that he needed to go fishing to clear his head. He’d been distant since meeting with the brothers, but Barnett had no inkling why. He spent the day drinking and called Barnett from a friend’s house and asked her to come pick him up.

Vargas cried uncontrollably on the ride home, but he still didn’t tell Barnett what was wrong. He gathered kindling and started to build a fire. Then he told Barnett he had to take a walk. The next thing she knew, he was driving off in her Toyota Tacoma. She called his cellphone repeatedly. More than an hour later, he finally answered. He was at Darrell’s house, he told her, and Darrell had been shot.

“I wish I could erase my memory of all thoughts and feelings that man helped create, at least Josie is safe.”

– Jailhouse letter from Vargas to Barnett

Vargas’ defense attorney would later assert that the gun might have gone off during a struggle. Hudson also argued that his client suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and “child sexual abuse disorder.” But sheriff’s investigators were certain that Vargas acted with premeditation.

“I’m skeptical about the multiple defenses,” said Det. Sgt. Greg Van Patten of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office. “I think it’s a premeditated murder.... The question in this case is, is someone justified in carrying out a death sentence if they’re the victim of child molestation.”

Franklin Zimring, a law professor at UC Berkeley, said that deciding on an appropriate sentence will be “a nasty balancing act” for Brown. “It’s not like there’s a long list of these,” Zimring said. “These are head-on collisions between the severity of the criminal harm and the enormity of the long-term mitigating circumstances.”

For Mindy Galliani, the choice is simple.

About two weeks after her parents called with news of McNeill’s death and her brother’s arrest, she began to think about what she could do to keep him from going to prison for life. She quit her job. She launched a website, Next came an online petition urging the judge not to send Vargas to prison. She set up a virtual store where supporters can buy “Free Aaron” buttons and “End Child Rape” onesies.

A former classmate’s mother organized a spaghetti feed and auction that raised nearly $10,000 toward Vargas’ defense; Elizabeth McNeill paid for a plate. Dozens of people waved signs in support of the imprisoned man at rallies in Fort Bragg and Ukiah.

Other victims began to contact Galliani and Vargas’ defense attorney. Todd Rowan, 47, said he plans to speak at Vargas’ sentencing; he tried to kill himself a decade ago “in large part because of the years of sexual molestation,” which began when he was 15.

A comment from one of McNeill’s daughters is posted on Vargas’ website. “Before you can be an abuser, you must be a victim. Who was Darrell’s abuser?” she asks, then describes what she calls 100 years of secrecy and inaction.

“I am a survivor of my grandfathers sexual assault, the same man that molested Darrell,” she says. “Darrell didn’t have a chance. Aaron does, dont let him go to prison.”