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Many in Aaron Vargas’ community of Fort Bragg, Calif., don’t want him to go to jail, even though he is pleading no contest to charges that he killed former Boy Scout leader Darrell McNeill.
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TODAY contributor
updated 4/8/2010 10:06:35 AM ET 2010-04-08T14:06:35

Usually, when someone who’s been a mainstay of a community gets shot and killed in his own home, there’s a public outcry to bring his killer to justice. But not in the idyllic Pacific Coast town of Fort Bragg, Calif., where the citizenry has risen up in support of the man who pulled the trigger.

Aaron Vargas has been in jail ever since Feb. 8, 2009, when police say he shot and killed Darrell McNeill, the man he alleges sexually abused him when he was just 11 years old. After the shooting, 12 other men came forward to say that McNeill, a former Boy Scout leader and popular member of the community, had also abused them. Some had reported the abuse but law enforcement officials took no action.

When the truth came out, the town rallied behind the 32-year-old Vargas. Citizens held demonstrations demanding that he be freed from jail. T-shirts supporting his cause are being sold, with the proceeds going to his legal defense. Cars sport bumper stickers supporting him. Even McNeill’s widow is defending Vargas.

“They understand the situation, and they know Aaron to be a very kind and gentle person and that he doesn’t deserve to be locked up,” Vargas’ sister, Mindy Galliani, told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday in New York.

‘He’s a victim’
The Mendocino County prosecutor, who initially wanted to push for first-degree murder and 50 years in prison for Vargas, has changed her mind after the outpouring of support for him. This week, Vargas was offered and accepted a deal in which he was to plead no contest Thursday afternoon to voluntary manslaughter.

TODAY
Aaron Vargas will plead no contest to killing Darrell McNeill, in exchange for a light sentence.
In exchange, he will receive a relatively short sentence — perhaps as little as the time he’s already served, and certainly no longer than six years. Sentencing will be in two months.

Galliani thinks her older brother should be released immediately.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me to punish someone who has been put through hell for 20 years,” she said. “He’s a victim, and he’s not a danger to the community. He’s a very kind and caring person. Why torture him anymore? Why continue the abuse? Leaving him in jail is continuing the abuse.”

Years of abuse
Galliani said that Vargas was a happy child until McNeill took him on a fishing trip to Oregon when he was 11. McNeill began abusing Vargas on that trip and the boy became withdrawn and unhappy.

“I saw drastic changes in Aaron. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I knew something was really wrong with him. He was in so much pain,” Galliani said. “He withdrew from his friends, from the family. He was sad and angry. You could just see it in his eyes. He was in pain.”

TODAY
Former Boy Scout leader Darrell McNeill abused Aaron Vargas starting at age 11, Vargas alleges.
The abuse allegedly continued into adulthood. As an adult, unable to shake off McNeill’s control, Vargas continued a sexual relationship with him. Four years ago, he broke it off, but McNeill wouldn’t leave him alone, calling him incessantly and stopping at his house in an effort to reestablish the relationship.

Galliani has said that after Vargas got engaged and became a father, McNeill offered to baby-sit his daughter. Afraid that his daughter would become the predator’s next victim, Vargas confronted him.

“I believe that McNeill had mental control over Aaron. It was like he was holding him mentally captive for 20 years. Aaron could not escape him. He was a scared little boy around McNeill,” Galliani told Vieira.

“I think Aaron became a parent and it put into perspective what was done to him and how horrible it was. And I think he felt his child was in danger and his child was going to be next.”

Fateful confrontation
Vargas has not said whether he intended to kill the 63-year-old McNeill, or just scare him a year ago February when he went to McNeill’s trailer home to confront him. Vargas brought with him a .44 caliber replica of a Civil War cap-and-ball revolver. He had the gun out when McNeill answered the door. After a brief exchange of words, the gun went off, the bullet striking McNeill in the chest.

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McNeill’s wife, Liz, was home at the time. According to police, as McNeill lay dying, Vargas told her not to call 911. He waited a half hour for McNeill to die.

“After he shot Darrell, he told him something to the effect of, ‘You’re not going to hurt anyone again,’ and then he told me all about how Darrell abused him as a child,” McNeill told The San Francisco Chronicle. “I was shocked at all of this. He told me he wasn’t going to hurt me, but I was never scared. I knew he wouldn’t.”

Liz McNeill would also learn that among her husband’s victim was her own son — McNeill’s stepson.

“I think he went there with the intention to scare him to leave him and his family alone,” Galliani said. “Whether or not the gun went off accidentally, that will be discussed at the next hearing.”

Vigilante justice?
People are calling it a case of vigilante justice, a man taking action when the authorities did nothing.

TODAY
Aaron Vargas’ sister, Mindy Galliani, said that imprisoning her brother would be “continuing the abuse.”
“I still wouldn’t put that label on it,” Galliani said. “Aaron wasn’t seeking revenge. He’s not a vengeful person at all. It’s really not a case of vigilantism. The post-traumatic stress disorder that he has and the harassment and the stalking and the risk of his child being abused, that’s not vigilantism to me — that’s just a desperate man who’s trying to protect his daughter and himself.”

It’s not that complicated, she said. “I think he just wants people to know that he’s been through hell and he hit his breaking point. He feels for all the other victims. He feels for the McNeills. He just wants help. He’s crying out for help.”

What’s most sad is that none of it had to happen, she said.

“He probably never would have been abused in the first place if something would have been done when it was first reported, and other victims would have been spared, also,” Galliani said.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Town supports killer of alleged molester

  1. Transcript of: Town supports killer of alleged molester

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Back now at 8:09 with a murder case that has shaken a California community to its core. A man is accused of gunning down his former neighbor who he says abused him for years and now the town is rallying around the shooter. We're going to talk to his sister in a moment, but first, NBC 's Lee Cowan has the details.

    LEE COWAN reporting: It's picture postcard perfect. How could anything go wrong here? But behind the picket fences of Fort Bragg , California , lay one town's dark secret .

    Ms. MINDY GALLIANI (Brother Shot and Killed his Alleged Molester): I had no idea that our neighbor was, you know, the kind of guy that would rape kids.

    COWAN: Mindy used to live next door to a Boy Scout leader named Darrell McNeill . She trusted McNeill , just like her brother, Aaron Vargas , trusted him. But last February, Aaron , now an adult, drove to this remote trailer and shot McNeill point-blank with a pistol. Was there ever a time that you looked at your brother as a murderer?

    Ms. GALLIANI: No. When I look at Aaron , I see -- I see a sad little boy that needs help.

    COWAN: The crime was shocking for his family; not as shocking as his motive. Aaron alleged that McNeill had molested him for years starting when he was just 11 and continued stalking him even after he became a parent.

    Ms. GALLIANI: I think Aaron thought that his child was going to be next and I think he just snapped.

    COWAN: Suddenly, Aaron didn't seem the monster and the community felt betrayed.

    Ms. ANNA MARIE STERNBERG (Resident): I'm full of grief and anger and guilt.

    COWAN: Because you thought you should have seen it somehow?

    Ms. STERNBERG: Yeah, somehow.

    COWAN: As the story starting spreading around town, so too did the rumors that Aaron might not be McNeill 's only victim. At least 12 other boys, now men, came forward with similar accusations. But there was no one left to prosecute, but there were no tears, either.

    Group: Free Aaron!

    COWAN: In fact, there were almost cheers. Demonstrations and yard signs started sprouting up. There were bumper stickers , even T-shirts , all supporting Aaron . You think it was justified?

    Mr. RICHARD MASSINGALE: Definitely.

    COWAN: Richard Massingale says his brother, James , told him that he was stalked by McNeill , too. So damaged him that he committed suicide . In Richard 's eyes, Aaron is a hero.

    Mr. MASSINGALE: I think he ought to get an award. I'm sorry.

    COWAN: Letters started pouring in to the district attorney's office begging for leniency. Most surprising, even McNeill 's own family didn't want Aaron punished too severely. Although McNeill was never charged with child molestation, his wife, Liz , told the DA , `I believe my husband had a secret life .' And continued, `I do not believe that a state prison sentence would be appropriate.' If it all sounds a bit like vigilante justice , Aaron's attorney makes no apologies.

    Mr. TOM HUDSON (Attorney): If it's vigilante justice , it's vigilante justice , but it isn't murder.

    COWAN: And now the DA has agreed and accepted a plea bargain this week to voluntary manslaughter. Aaron could be sentenced to nothing more than time already served.

    Unidentified Woman: This is a fair resolution of the case.

    COWAN: A free man perhaps, still shackled by his past. For TODAY, Lee Cowan, NBC News, Fort Bragg, California.

    VIEIRA: Aaron Vargas ' sister, Mindy Galliani is with us now. Mindy , good morning to you.

    Ms. GALLIANI: Good morning.

    VIEIRA: There was a point where the DA wanted to push for a 50-year sentence for your brother. He wanted that to be a murder trial. Now, as Lee just pointed out, he may get out with just time served . You don't want him to serve one more day in jail though. Why is that?

    Ms. GALLIANI: It just doesn't make sense to me to punish someone who's been put through hell for 20 years. He's the victim and he's not a danger to the community. He's a very kind and caring person. So why torture him anymore, why continue the abuse. And putting him in jail is continuing the abuse.

    VIEIRA: He says the abuse began when he was 11 years old. You didn't know at the time what had happened to him, except that he changed.

    Ms. GALLIANI: Right. I saw drastic changes in Aaron when we were children. I just -- I didn't know what was wrong but I knew something was really wrong with him. He was in so much pain.

    VIEIRA: And he went from a happy kid to a very troubled, a very troubled soul.

    Ms. GALLIANI: Yeah. He withdrew from his friends , from his family. He was just sad and angry. And ye could just see it in his eyes. He was just -- he was in pain.

    VIEIRA: Well, you said to Lee that you think that he -- Lee Cowan -- that you think that he snapped and that's what led him to McNeill 's home with a gun. Tell me more what you -- what you believe happened.

    Ms. GALLIANI: I believe that McNeill had mental control over Aaron . It was like he was holding him mentally captive for 20 years. Aaron could not escape him. He was that scared little boy around McNeill . And I think Aaron became a parent and it put into perspective what was done to him and how horrible it was and then I think he felt that his child was in danger and that his child was going to be next. And I think as a parent the instinct to protect your child .

    VIEIRA: Do you think he went there that day with the intent of killing him?

    Ms. GALLIANI: I think he went there with the intention to scare him, to leave him and his family alone.

    VIEIRA: But he did fire that gun.

    Ms. GALLIANI: Whether or not the gun went off accidentally, that will be discussed at the next hearing.

    VIEIRA: Would it matter to you if he made the decision in the moment to kill the man, if it was vigilante justice ?

    Ms. GALLIANI: I still wouldn't put that label on it. Because Aaron wasn't seeking revenge, he's not a vengeful person at all. And it's really not a case of vigilantism. The post- traumatic stress disorder that he has and the harassment and the stalking and the risk of his child being abused. That's not vigilantism to me. That's just a desperate man who's trying to protect his daughter and himself.

    VIEIRA: I know that you've spoken to him, he is in jail currently. What message does he want to get out about why he did what he did?

    Ms. GALLIANI: I know he would be very hurt to be labeled as a vigilante. I think he just wants people to know that he's been through hell and that he hit his breaking point, and he feels for all the other victims, he feels for the McNeills . And he just wants help. He's crying out for help.

    VIEIRA: And the fact that the suspected molester's own family, including the widow, has pleaded with the judge for leniency, what does that say to you? What does that mean to you?

    Ms. GALLIANI: It says to me that they understand the situation and that they know Aaron to be a very kind and gentle person and that he doesn't deserve to be locked up.

    VIEIRA: Since his arrest, we've discovered at least 12 other people have come forward and said they, too, were molested. Some said that they reported this to police years ago...

    Ms. GALLIANI: Right.

    VIEIRA: ...and nothing was done. Do you think if something had been done, maybe your brother would have been spared the torment he went through?

    Ms. GALLIANI: Yes. He probably would have never been abused in the first place if something would have been done when it was first reported and other victims would have been spared also.

    VIEIRA: All right. Well, Mindy , we appreciate you being here very much.

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