Hero or criminal? Aaron Vargas faces a prison term – but townspeople have rallied around him

By Howard Breuer
Updated April 27, 2010 07:00 PM
Credit: Courtesy Mendoncino County Sheriff's Office

After Aaron Vargas endured years of sexual abuse, it seemed inevitable that something would finally have to give. One night in February 2009, he downed beers and vodka, drove to a mobile home in Fort Bragg, Calif., and shot the man he says was his tormentor once in the chest.

“You’re not going to hurt anyone again,” Vargas, 32, allegedly said as 63-year-old Darrell McNeill lay dying.

The fatal shooting in the quaint town flanked by redwood forests and spectacular coastal views has sparked a debate over whether Vargas should be treated like a hero for killing a man who many, including his own family, considered a danger to children, or a criminal for allegedly taking the law into his own hands.

Initially charged with murder, Vargas’s attorney Tom Hudson contends the gun went off by accident during a scuffle, although his client got too drunk to remember. Prosecutors earlier this month agreed to a plea deal for voluntary manslaughter. They cited evidence that McNeill had molested Vargas as far back as when Vargas was 11 years old, along with Vargas’s clean record and the sentiments of McNeill’s family, who have come out in support of Vargas.

Petition of Support

But Vargas can still get anywhere from probation to 10 years in prison at the sentencing hearing, which starts June 14 in Mendocino County Superior Court.

“That boy should be out right now – time served – and should get an award for what he did,” says Richard Masingale, 51, of Fort Bragg, who claims his brother was another molestation victim of McNeill’s. Masingale says his brother had contemplated shooting McNeill four years ago – but killed himself instead.

Vargas’s supporters have collected thousands of signatures for a petition saying he has suffered enough and deserves leniency. Supporters also have rallied in the streets of Fort Bragg, Calif., shouting “Free Aaron,” and “End the Silence,” and carrying signs saying things like “It is time for justice for all the many victims.”

Other Victims

Vargas says he was first molested by McNeill during a fishing trip. His family says McNeill continued to abuse him as a kid, and stalked and harassed Vargas as an adult. Vargas tried to stay away from McNeill, at times even moving to other states, but family and relationships kept bringing him back. In 2008, family members say, the stalking got worse, with McNeill calling Vargas a dozen times a day and showing up at his doorstep with a handful of diapers, offering to babysit Vargas’s newborn daughter, Rosie.

About a dozen people have now come forward to say they, too, were molested by McNeill, and they’re glad he won’t hurt anyone else. McNeill’s family doesn’t dispute that McNeill was a child molester. His second wife filed a police report after her divorce, complaining McNeill molested her son, but she said police took no action because the case was too old.

Despite police complaints over the years, McNeill was never arrested or charged. Authorities now say that, in each case, either the alleged victim couldn’t be located or the statute of limitations had expired.

Family Supports Him

McNeill’s third wife, Elizabeth, who witnessed the shooting, went so far as to attend the first fund-raiser for Aaron’s defense.

“I do believe that something having to do with Aaron’s childhood sexual abuse caused Aaron to snap, and do what he did,” Elizabeth wrote in a letter to prosecutors.

Assistant Mendocino County District Attorney Beth Norman says her office hasn’t yet decided what sentence to recommend – but she’s glad that the case has ended with a felony conviction, which should send the message that “violence is not the answer.”

For more on the Aaron Vargas case, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now