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Town rallies around accused killer of molester

Fort Bragg, Calif., has an accused killer in its midst — but the community supports Aaron Vargas, 32, who is pleading no contest to killing a former Boy Scout leader that he alleges molested him for years, starting when Vargas was 11.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

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.

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.”

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 confrontationVargas 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.

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.

“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.