Monday, 15 July 2024

REGIONAL: Man sentenced to prison for shooting alleged molester

MENDOCINO COUNTY – A Fort Bragg man charged with killing another man who he accused of sexually molesting him received a nine-year prison sentence on Tuesday.

Judge Ronald Brown gave Aaron Joseph Vargas, 32, the sentence following a two-day sentencing hearing that concluded Tuesday, according to the Mendocino County District's Office.

Vargas had pleaded voluntary manslaughter with use of a gun on April 6. Officials reported that the maximum possible sentence was the middle term for both, totaling 10 years in state prison, with the minimum possible term was probation with state prison suspended.

In the case, which has drawn national attention, Vargas was accused of driving to the Fort Bragg home of Darrell and Elizabeth McNeill on Feb. 8, 2009, where he shot 63-year-old Darrell McNeill with a muzzle loader revolver, killing him.

Vargas then remained at the trailer for 40 minutes, to ensure Mr. McNeill died, and prevented Elizabeth McNeill from calling law enforcement for help, according to the district attorney's report. Law enforcement contacted Aaron Vargas later that evening at the home of his parents in Ft. Bragg where he was placed under arrest for murder.

The Mendocino County District Attorney's Office charged Vargas with first degree murder and the use of a gun, with a possible exposure of 50 years to life, and was charged with the false imprisonment of Elizabeth McNeill while he waited at the trailer for Darrell McNeil to die.

At a pre-trial conference on April 6 that preceded the trial scheduled for April 12, a plea agreement was reached between Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Norman and defense attorney Thomas Hudson to a charge of manslaughter with a gun, which allowed Vargas to argue for a grant of probation, and the prosecution to argue for a sentence of state prison if it was deemed appropriate, officials reported.

In allowing a plea to manslaughter rather than murder, the district attorney’s office considered numerous factors including the defendant’s lack of prior violent record, his high blood alcohol level on the night of the shooting, his disclosure of having been molested by the victim while the defendant was a child, and Vargas' strong support in the community.

Officials said all of these factors were considered when the prosecution agreed to allow the plea to manslaughter, and agreed not to ask for the maximum term of state prison for the manslaughter charge, but to request no more than the middle term sentence of 10 years for the manslaughter with a gun.

The two-day sentencing hearing, held Monday and Tuesday, included the testimony of the widow, Elizabeth McNeill, the defendant’s fiancée and family, and two psychiatrists who had examined him.

Vargas himself testified that he believed he was no longer a threat to the community, and would seek counseling if released.

Norman confronted him about failing to have any actual treatment program in place, and about being involved in a fight while in jail awaiting trial. At the end of the hearing she argued that she felt Vargas continued to present a danger to the community if released, as he was still engaging in violent behavior, and that the callous nature of the crime required that the sentence be the middle term of 10 years state prison.

Hudson argued that Vargas was prepared to start a term of probation, that he was receiving some counseling already in the jail, and that he had extensive support in the community if he were granted probation.

In fact, community members have been advocating on Vargas' behalf. After other molestation allegations against McNeill reportedly came to light, support has grown for Vargas' release, according to media reported.

At the end of the hearing, after a break, Judge Brown returned to the bench and read from a prepared multiple page ruling, stating that he believed that the plea agreement was appropriate in light of McNeill's molestation of Vargas, and the emotional issues Vargas was experiencing at the time of the offense.

Brown then proceeded to emphasize the importance of the legal system and the fact that the court could not condone the killing of a person by another person outside the process of the law.

He stated that, as a judge, he had sentenced persons convicted of child molestation to prison, and that the legal process provides people the opportunity to confront their accuser, and for the accuser to present a defense.

Brown noted that, by killing McNeill the night before Vargas was supposed to go to the police department with his fiancée to report the molests, he had denied all the victims their process of law.

In prosecuting molesters, many penalties are imposed, including public stigma, long criminal sentences and confrontation, Brown said.

He found that the callous nature of the criminal act, that Vargas stated on the night of the offense that he had “gut shot” the victim so he would suffer, and that he waited 40 minutes after shooting him, without allowing the widow to render aid, combined to justify the imposition of the six years state prison middle term for the crime.

Brown further found that the manner in which the gun was used – with only one shot – was somewhat mitigated, so he sentenced Vargas to three years in state prison, for a total of nine years state prison, with credits for the 16 months he has been incarcerated awaiting sentencing.


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