In front of a packed California courtroom, Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Ronald Brown sentenced 32-year-old Aaron Vargas to nine years in prison. Vargas faced a maximum of ten years after pleading no contest to voluntary manslaughter this past April for the 2009 shooting of Darrell McNeill, a man Vargas claimed had abused him since age 11.
The judge's decision was a crushing disappointment to Vargas' family and many supporters in his northern California community of Fort Bragg, who had hoped for probation. Local newspapers reported that in sentencing Vargas, Judge Brown said: "I believe the defendant intended to kill [McNeill] and intended him to suffer," and that Vargas' actions "were consistent with an intentional killing."
When Darrell McNeill was shot and killed in the entryway of his home on the evening of February 8, 2009, people in Fort Bragg were stunned. McNeill, a local businessman, father, and husband who had volunteered for the Boy Scouts of America, owned a popular store and was considered an all-around nice guy.
But local residents were never prepared for the revelation that McNeill, 63, may have been leading a secret life, and that what initially seemed like a cut-and-dry case of revenge would test the town's sense of right and wrong.
It all started with a gunshot in February 2009. Mendocino County sheriff's investigators raced to the scene to find McNeill lying on the ground, dead from a single shot to the stomach. McNeill's wife, Liz, told investigators that Aaron Vargas, a man she had known for decades, was the lone gunman. She said she ran into the room after hearing the shot and saw Vargas standing there with the gun.
Vargas, 32, a father and part-time construction worker, had grown up next door to the McNeills and was their son's good friend. Before he fled the scene of the crime, Liz McNeill told investigators, Vargas had revealed to her a deep and dark secret: Darrell McNeill had sexually molested him since he was a young boy.
But there were more surprises around the corner for sheriff's investigators, the McNeill and Vargas families, and the entire town.
"As far as the case goes, it wasn't a whodunit," Mendocino County Sgt. Greg Van Patten said. "It was very clear that Aaron Vargas shot and killed Darrell McNeill. The only question about this case was what was the motive for the killing."
While investigators spoke with Liz McNeill, Vargas arrived across town at the home of his parents, Bob and Robin Vargas.
"He just stood there," his mother said. "He said that he had shot Darrell, and that he wanted to tell me he was sorry and tell me goodbye. And that's when he told me Darrell had molested him."
Vargas Says Abuse Made Him Feel 'Shameful'
Vargas told his parents that the abuse started when he was 11. "It happened many times when I wasn't even conscious ... just be totally gone," Vargas told "20/20's" Chris Cuomo in an exclusive interview in May.
The molestation, he claimed, had never ended, with Vargas feeling inexplicably locked in a pattern of sexual and psychological abuse.
"I just can't believe that I didn't see the signs," Bob Vargas said, "We've seen a little bit of change in Aaron. You know, when he got in his teens. And we just kind of figured it was his teens."
The timing of the shooting, they say, was especially confusing. Vargas was two weeks from getting married and recently welcomed the arrival of a baby girl.
"'Why didn't you come to me?'" Bob Vargas recalled saying to his son, "'Who's going to raise your daughter? Who's going to take care of your family now?'"
Sentiment Shifts in Small Town
Vargas was arrested minutes after the shooting. He was indicted for first-degree murder. He entered a plea of no contest to voluntary manslaughter in April.
Initially, his family said, people who knew him condemned him. But as more of Vargas' story of abuse surfaced and spread through the small town, sentiment shifted.
Vargas told his family McNeill had manipulated him from a young age, taking him on fishing trips and taking advantage of him when he would spend time with Darrell's son, Michael.
As he got older, Vargas told them, McNeill bribed him with drugs and alcohol. He also said McNeill employed Vargas at his business, doing odd jobs such as delivering appliances as a way to keep him close. And, Vargas told his family, he wasn't the only one; there were many other young men who were trapped in McNeill's web of alleged abuse.
McNeill's Alleged Web of Abuse
"[McNeill] was very manipulative, he was very apparently kind," said Tom Hudson, Vargas' defense attorney. "He used his business and his ability to employ these young boys for cash under the table as a manipulating tool. He used his home as a place for these kids to come to and get away from mom and dad who, so that they could do things that their mom and dad and society would never allow, you know, take drugs, drink alcohol, party, those kinds of things, and do sexual favors."
But Vargas' family said his visit at the McNeill home that fateful night was about more than anger and rage. They say it was about stopping the cycle of alleged abuse before anyone else got caught in it.
In the months prior to the shooting, the family said, Vargas claimed McNeill had been stalking him, calling him up to 30 times a day, even offering to babysit for his baby girl. The Vargas family said that all of it, on top of years of abuse, sent Vargas over the edge.
"What Darrell lived to do is to rape these kids," Vargas' sister, Mindy Galliani, said. "And Aaron knew it. Aaron has spent the last 20 years around Darrell and he knows exactly how Darrell works and he knows what a threat he is. And Aaron knew what was going through Darrell's mind when he watched Darrell look at his daughter."
In the "20/20" interview, Vargas said killing McNeill was the last thing he ever wanted to do.
"I didn't go to there to shoot the guy. I went there to warn him off," Vargas said. "He needed to stop. That's for sure. He didn't need to be shot and killed. But he needed to be stopped...He was actually damaging people and it wasn't a game anymore...We weren't going to be little puppets anymore"
But authorities say they believe this is a clear case of premeditated murder.
"We think that we've collected evidence, whether it be physical or oral statements, that leads us to believe that this was a premeditated murder of another human being," Sgt. Van Patten said. "We don't feel that it is right for Aaron Vargas to have come to the decision that, he is the judge, the jury, and the executioner, when it comes to Darrell McNeill."