Thursday, 18 July 2024


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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LAKE COUNTY – After a warm and sunny weekend, cooler temperatures return as a low-pressure system moves towards the Pacific Coast Tuesday.

High temperatures climbed over the daytime average on Sunday, with many areas of the county reaching into the low 90s and cooling a few degrees Monday, according to the Western Weather Group.

Average daytime highs should reach the mid-80s, according to the Old Farmers' Almanac.

Daytime temperatures are expected to be much cooler Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service in Sacramento, with highs in Lakeport only expected to reach the mid- to low-70s with overnight lows in the mid-40s.

A low-pressure system is moving in to Pacific Northwest, but is expected to stay in far Northern California and Oregon, although some high-level clouds may move across Lake County skies on Wednesday, forecasters said.

Wednesday is forecast to be the coolest day of the week, with daytime highs barely reaching into the 70s, with overnight lows remaining in the mid-40s.

Temperatures are predicted to remain in the mid- to upper-70s throughout the weekend with sunny to mostly sunny skies.

For up-to-the-minute weather information, please visit the Lake County News homepage.

E-mail Terre Logsdon at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at and on Facebook at .

Mitch and Carol Beare are opening the new Grocery Outlet store in Clearlake, Calif., located in the old Rite Aid building on Olympic Drive. Courtesy photo.

CLEARLAKE – Clearlake’s requests for a Grocery Outlet have been answered with a new store, set to open this summer around the end of July.

The 20,000-square-foot building that once was Rite Aid, located in the Burns Valley Mall on Olympic Drive, is going to be completely remodeled, said Grocery Outlet Inc. spokesperson Sheena Stevens.

“There were a lot of local requests for a store in Clearlake,” said Stevens. “We’ve been keeping an eye on the real estate for when good property would become available and it made sense.”

Dale Neiman, Clearlake's city administrator and head of the redevelopment agency, confirmed that Grocery Outlet had been looking at real estate in Lake County for a while.

Grocery Outlet's Lakeport and Ukiah locations reportedly do very well, and the chain has more than 130 locations spread across the western United States, the company reported.

Expect a hometown feel to the new store, thanks to the new owners and longtime Lake County residents, Mitch and Carol Beare.

Carol is from Lakeport and Mitch came over from Sonoma County. They met while they both worked at a Chuckie Cheese venue, so working together as owners of the new store will be familiar ground.

After getting married in 1985 they had six children, several of which will be working at the new store.

The Beares plan to hire as many people as they can.

Typically, a new Grocery Outlet store employs 20 to 30 people, said Stevens. They also will utilize both the adult and youth work experience programs at Lake One-Stop Inc. as well as programs through some local high schools.

“One of our goals is to have the best service, and the cleanest store,” said Carol Beare. “And, as business grows, we can hire even more people.”

Those interested in employment with the new store may apply online at the corporate Web site,

To find out more about the work experience and on the job training programs at Lake One-Stop, visit 55 First St. in Lakeport or 4477 Moss Ave. in Clearlake, or check them out on the Web at

E-mail Tera deVroede at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow Lake County News on Twitter at and on Facebook at .

MIDDLETOWN – A crash that occurred late Friday near Middletown resulted in major injuries to a 3-year-old child.

The California Highway Patrol reported that the crash occurred at 11 p.m. Friday on Spruce Grove Road North south of Noble Ranch Road in clear conditions.

Ruben Gaona Cornejo, 21, of Santa Rosa was driving a 2004 Chevrolet pickup north on Spruce Grove Road approaching Noble Ranch Road at an unknown speed when, according to the CHP, his vehicle veered off the left side of the road and struck a power pole.

His 3-year-old daughter sustained severe head trauma and cuts as a result of the collision and was flown by air ambulance to Children's Hospital & Research Center of Oakland for treatment, according to the CHP.

Gaona Cornejo, along with his passenger, 18-year-old Brenda Cruz of Santa Rosa and a 3-week-old female, were not injured in the crash, the CHP reported.

Eyewitnesses at the scene had reported seeing two vehicles chasing each other before the pickup allegedly hit the pole. The CHP report noted the investigation into the crash is continuing.

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THE GEYSERS – A 3.2-magnitude earthquake shook The Geysers area early Monday morning.

The quake occurred at 4:39 a.m., and was centered one mile east of The Geysers, four miles southwest of Cobb and five miles west northwest of Anderson Springs, at a depth of 2.5 miles, according to the US Geological Survey.

The survey received 13 shake reports from 10 zip codes, with reports coming from Middletown, Calistoga, St. Helena, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Cloverdale, Healdsburg and Windsor.

A 3.3-magnitude quake was reported near The Geysers on June 1, as Lake County News has reported.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at and on Facebook at .

LAKE COUNTY – As part of the work of the official canvass for June 8's primary election, Lake County Registrar of Voters Diane Fridley will hold conduct a public manual tally of a portion of the ballots.

The count will be held on Wednesday, June 23, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Registrar of Voters Office, on the second floor in Room 209 at the Lake County Courthouse, 255 N. Forbes St., Lakeport.

Fridley reported that she and her staff will conduct a public manual tally of a minimum 1 percent of randomly selected precincts or 10 percent of randomly selected precincts if the votes cast in a contest or contests with a margin of victory is less than one half of one percent (0.5 county) tabulated by the county’s optical scan voting system.

The selection of the precincts to be included in the manual tally, and any additional random selection of precincts which may become necessary to comply with the escalation requirements of the 10 percent manual tally, will be randomly chosen on the same date prior to the manual tally, Fridley reported.

Fridley invited observers to view the manual tally of the ballots, but said they must not interfere with the election process.

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LUCERNE – A local man was flown to an area hospital on Monday afternoon after falling out of a tree.

The incident occurred in the 6300 block of Country Club Drive in Lucerne at around 5:30 p.m., and involved a 40-year-old victim, officials reported.

The man was up high in a tree trimming it when he fell out of it and onto a travel trailer about 25 feet below, according to Northshore Fire Chief Jim Robbins.

Firefighters responded with an ambulance and an engine, and reported that the man complained of numbness.

A REACH air ambulance landed at Lucerne Harbor Park just before 6 p.m. to transport the man to the hospital.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at and on Facebook at .

NAPA COUNTY – An afternoon crash in Napa County claimed two lives on Sunday.

The head-on collision occurred shortly before 2:30 p.m. in the area of Highway 121 near Napa Road, according to the California Highway Patrol.

The crash involved a blue Honda versus a white pickup, with the pickup upside down and blocking part of the roadway, causing the road to be shut down, the CHP reported.

The CHP, fire and Napa County Sheriff's officials responded to the scene, where two people were reported trapped.

Shortly after the crash, one death was confirmed. The CHP reported that a second death was confirmed just before 3 p.m.

Caltrans set up a detour around the site as the investigation continued and the coroner came to deal with the fatalities, the CHP said.

Further details on the victims and the cause of the crash were not immediately available Sunday.

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LAKE COUNTY – With the governor seeking to slash social services programs because of the state's serious budget problems, advocates are concerned about the future of programs that aid young adults making the transition from foster care to independent adulthood.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to cut $80 million from the state's child welfare services, which local advocates reported would result in the loss of another $53.5 million.

Those kinds of cuts could hurt the Transitional Housing Program for Emancipated Foster/Probation Youth (THP-Plus).

Several years ago the California Department of Social Services conducted a state survey on youth housing issues for emancipated foster youth.

The agency's research found that 65 percent of the 4,355 youth who emancipated from foster care during the 2000-01 fiscal years were in need of safe and affordable housing.

In 2002, the state Legislature passed Assembly Bill 1119 to assist counties in their efforts to provide housing for this population, which resulted in the creation of the THP-Plus program, the California Department of Social Services reported. Another piece of legislation, Assembly Bill 824, passed in 2005, raised the age limit for participating in a THP-Plus program to age 24.

The state reported that 17 counties statewide – including Lake, which joined the program in 2008 – now participate in THP-Plus, with 100 housing programs established statewide to serve emancipated youth and foster children.

But this year, THP-Plus has been on the chopping block for the first time, with funding proposed to be eliminated altogether in the governor's January budget, according Patti Gorden, special projects coordinator with Redwood Children's Services Inc. in Lake and Mendocino counties.

Schwarzenegger's original cuts would have impacted 1,400 former foster youth living in the state's transitional housing program, Gorden said.

That proposal was pulled back, but Gorden said the THP-Plus program's future status still isn't certain.

Two local young people – part of the nearly one dozen in Lake and Mendocino counties who rely on the program – illustrate the program's importance and the safety net it offers, as well as its goal to help young people transition off of government funding.

One is Tamara Davidson, 18, who entered the program on March 1 with her new baby daughter, and Lawrence Lazaro of Ukiah, who turned 21 not long after he left the program this spring.

Davidson's mother died when she was 14, leaving behind five children.

Noting that she was “out of control,” Davidson said she went through “many, many” foster homes. She was released from foster care when she turned 18 last August, and afterward had been living around Hidden Valley Lake and Clearlake with her baby daughter, born in December.

The young mother had been “couch surfing” and sleeping in her car, and trying to get her diploma so she could get a job.

Then she came into the program. “They helped me right away, actually,” Davidson said.

Gorden said the program provides young people like Davidson and Lazaro with a certain amount of money each month for rent, food and utilities.

Over the 24 months of the program the young people are required to pay more of their own way, gradually removing their dependence on the program's resources. Deanna Hamel, THP-Plus coordinator for Redwood Children's Services, said the goal is to get the young people out on their own.

“I feel safer now,” Davidson said, who is thinking about studying to become a nurse.

In Lazaro's case, he entered the program at age 16, entering himself into foster care in Lake County, moving from his home in Willits.

He said his mother had been on welfare her entire life, and wasn't interested in moving up and out of the system.

Lazaro lived in dismal conditions, with seven families members occupying a rundown travel trailer in a Willits trailer park.

He didn't go to school – he stopped attending in the ninth grade and went on independent study – he had few clothes and he had watched as many young men his age went straight to jail.

Lazaro said his friends were mostly drug users; one of them told him one day “not to fall off of a cliff.”


Originally, he had called authorities for help for his mother, who was panhandling. “I really just wasn't in a good place at all” with his family, he said.

Lazaro ended up placing himself voluntarily into foster care, where he formed bonds with his foster families. He attended Upper Lake High School before transferring to Ukiah High.

At age 17, he got into the Transitional Housing Placement Program – or THPP – when he moved to Ukiah. When he turned 18, he went into THP-Plus, where he received additional help and mentoring so he could learn to live on his own, receiving job search and resume building techniques, and learning scheduling.

“They were teaching me to be independent,” he said.

Lazaro went on to get two different part-time jobs and has mentored at summer camps. He said he wants to get his associate's degree and become a case manager with Redwood Children's Services.

“I'm a really strong person now,” he said, adding, “It's really an amazing thing that happened.”

He even traveled to Sacramento earlier this year to speak to North Coast Assemblyman Wes Chesbro about preserving the THP-Plus program.

“I know I have a bright future because of the program,” he said.

“I think it would be horrible” if the program were cut, said Davidson.

THP-Plus program staff relate other stories of young people who, had it not been for the program, wouldn't have been able to finish school or otherwise have a safe place to call home.

“If they do away with this program, we have nowhere for these youth to go,” said Gorden.

Redwood Children's Services cites studies including one that showed that only 10.8 percent of youth who “age out” of the foster care system without continued support will complete high school, which is a number that's less than half the rate for their peers of the same age and race. In addition, only 2 percent of that group would ever graduate from college.

The John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes reported that former foster youth were 2.8 times more likely to be arrested and 70 percent more likely to be incarcerated.

Advocates also point to a 2009 study conducted by the University of Washington's School of Social Work, which found that caring for young adults until the age of 21 will represent a return of $2.40 on every government dollar spent in California.

Gorden said there is a hopeful piece of news on the horizon in the form of AB 12, the California Fostering Connections Act.

AB 12 – which would begin no later than July 1, 2011 – would and extend foster youth support to the age of 21, according to the bill's language.

Introduced in October 2008 by Assembly members Jim Beall Jr. and Karen Bass, the two-year bill continues to work its way through the Legislature.

It's set to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 22, according to the State Legislative Counsel.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at and on Facebook at .



LAKE COUNTY – The beautiful weekend weather saw more than just people out on the lake.

Lucerne photographer captured these two grebes dancing across the surface of Clear Lake near Lucerne on the evening of Saturday, June 12.

See more of Keas' photos at

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SACRAMENTO – The Board of Forestry and Fire Protection last week voted unanimously to approve the 2010 Strategic Fire Plan.

The plan is the result of a cooperative effort by both the board and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – or Cal Fire – to establish the levels of statewide fire protection services for California’s State Responsibility Area (SRA) lands.

A map included in the plan show Lake County has being in the “very high” zone for fire hazard severity.


“This collaborative effort ultimately benefits the residents of this state,” said Board Chairman Stan Dixon. “It is incumbent upon state government to take constructive action on significant issues of concern that affect the property and livelihoods of Californians.”


“The importance of developing a single, comprehensive strategic fire plan in concert with the Board was clear to me from the beginning,” said Chief Del Walter, director of Cal Fire. “That is why I requested three seats on the steering committee to represent Fire Protection, Resource Management Programs and the Office of the State Fire Marshal. I am very pleased with the effort and accomplishments of all who participated in producing this document.”


This is the first statewide fire plan developed in concert between the board and Cal Fire.

This new plan recognizes that fire will occur in California and works to answer the question of “how do we utilize and live with that risk of wildfire?”


To view the 2010 Strategic Fire Plan for California visit

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07.18.2024 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm
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