The Devil and Aaron Vargas

Warning: This post includes discussions of rape, child molestation, murder, and suicide.

These are the facts: In Fort Bragg, California on 8 February 2009, Aaron Vargas drove to Darrell McNeill’s trailer and shot him, once, with an antique pistol after an argument. McNeill took half an hour to die while Aaron and Liz McNeill, Darrell’s husband, watched. Aaron wouldn’t allow Liz to call the police, but assured her that he wouldn’t harm her. Then he disassembled the pistol, left the parts on the counter, and left.

Jury selection for Aaron’s murder trial is scheduled to start on 12 April.

Here’s where the story gets interesting: A lot of Fort Bragg residents want Aaron acquitted. This includes not only Aaron’s own family, but also Liz McNeill, the woman who watched her husband die after Aaron told him he was “never going to hurt anybody again.” This weekend, Aaron’s supporters protested on Main Street, taking advantage of the crowds attending the Whale Festival to publicize the cause.

Some people don’t even think that Aaron should be taken to trial, while others believe that he should serve a light sentence. He is being heralded as a hero who  has done the town a tremendous service. People wear “support Aaron” buttons and their cars are adorned with bumperstickers for the cause.

This is a case which has already attracted national attention. I’ve had a few people from out of the area ask me about the case once they find out that I am local, and I’ve read numerous reports about it in a wide variety of publications. The Aaron Vargas trial makes for some compelling journalism: Man killed in a town of 7,000, town, including leading members like the Fire Chief, lines up to support the murderer.

McNeill was a Boy Scout Leader. He was a Big Brother. And, according to the stream of reports which has emerged in the wake of his murder, he abused the children in his care. Darrell McNeill was a child molester. He molested not only Aaron, but numerous other young men in Fort Bragg. At least one of whom filed a complaint, which was ignored. McNeill’s own ex-wife reported him and no action was taken. One of the children raped by Darrell McNeill committed suicide as an adult.

Aaron Vargas has a daughter. According to his fiance, Selena Barnett, prior to the murder McNeill was visiting their home and offering to babysit their daughter, then nine months old. Some people have suggested that Aaron only meant to intimidate McNeill on 8 February and that the killing was an accident, the gun taken as a tool to frighten McNeill rather than as a murder weapon. That something went wrong during the argument or that Aaron didn’t mean to fire the gun at all.

In the wake of the murder, a flood of reports of abuse has come in, including some from victims willing to speak out on the record, like Todd Rowan, who said “I went through hell because of that man.” Others have spoken out anonymously about their abuse, some in the comments on the site set up for Aaron’s supporters.

Meanwhile, prosecutors argue that Vargas clearly committed first degree murder and should be charged with such, extenuating circumstances aside. A San Francisco Chronicle article on the murder says:

And Vargas was not a boy when he shot McNeill – he was a man who, even if he was molested as a child, had had sex with the older man while he was an adult.

This statement shows a shocking disregard for how patterns of abuse work, and for the escalating circumstances which might have led Aaron Vargas to do what he did. If your abuser rapes you when you are an adult, it’s still rape. And it’s fairly clear that any sexual contact between Vargas and McNeill, at any age, was nonconsensual. That means that it was rape. Aaron Vargas was raped, repeatedly, and was afraid to discuss it with friends and family, let alone to report it. When you have a nine month old daughter and your rapist is visiting your home and offering to babysit, that’s bound to create considerable emotional strain. Aaron Vargas was a powderkeg.

The Chronicle article also includes this quote:

“They shouldn’t even take Aaron to trial,” 50-year-old Deb Evans said. “We don’t like pedophiles in this town.”

Contrast that with this, from Todd Rowan:

“Look, up here this is a redneck town. Nobody would believe you about this stuff,” said Rowan.

This speaks to a fundamental disconnect which occurs not just in Fort Bragg, but in other towns large and small all over the world. Especially in small towns, however, an insular attitude tends to prevail. McNeill’s abusive behaviour was known to many people in Fort Bragg, including law enforcement, and no action was taken. It was not until Aaron Vargas took a bold and desperate step that the town closed ranks behind him; after Vargas was accused of murder, members of the town stepped forward to condemn McNeill. In part, this stems from a response to perceived interference from outsiders, with some residents of Fort Bragg preferring to be allowed to settle their own affairs. It’s also an angry reaction to law enforcement’s neglect of the reports about McNeill; why, Aaron’s supporters argue, should they support a system which failed so many of Fort Bragg’s children?

Deliberately ignoring evidence of child molestation is unfortunately extremely common in the legal system. Organisations have also been known to engage in deliberate coverups of information about child abuse and molestation by their members. As, in general, among the population. Bystanders rarely take action when it comes to abuse of people of any age. “It’s not my business.” “It doesn’t concern me.” “It looks abusive from the outside but maybe something else is going on.” “It will cause conflict and I want to avoid that.”

The question I have about the Aaron Vargas case is not whether or not he was right to do what he did, or what kind of sentence I think he should serve for killing Darrell McNeill. The question I have is why McNeill’s activities were tolerated for so long, and why a culture of silence continues to surround rape and child molestation in Fort Bragg and other towns. Aaron Vargas should never have been driven to a point of such extreme desperation that he thought the only solution was to drive over to his rapist’s house with a gun.

Image: Sinking Feeling, Wendell, Flickr