UKIAH, Calif. – UKIAH, Calif. (AP) — A man who said he had been sexually abused by a family friend since he was a child was sentenced to nine years in prison Tuesday for shooting the victim with a Civil War-style pistol and watching him die.
Aaron Vargas, 32, showed little emotion as his punishment was announced in the vigilante killing.
His sister Mindy Galliani noticed his lips were trembling — a sure sign he was about to cry.
"It's not over. We're going to appeal," Galliani said after her brother shuffled away, hands and feet shackled. "It's clear that the justice system still doesn't have an understanding of childhood sexual abuse."
Initially charged with murder, Vargas, of Fort Bragg, Calif., pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter in the death of 63-year-old Darrell McNeill and could have faced up to 10 years in prison.
Lawyers and supporters of Vargas asked for probation.
But Judge Ronald Brown said he imposed the harsh sentence because he believed Vargas had gone to McNeill's house with the intent to kill him. He also said he could not condone the use of violence to solve problems.
"The circumstances support the conclusion the defendant intended to kill the victim, and the method was intended to make the victim suffer," Brown said.
Vargas testified that McNeill began molesting him when he was 11 and kept stalking him into adulthood. After the February 2009 killing, about a dozen men, including McNeill's stepson, came forward to say McNeill had molested them.
Hundreds of Vargas supporters asked the judge for leniency, saying Vargas needed therapy and was not a threat. The Mendocino County courtroom was packed Tuesday, with many people wearing buttons saying, "Free Aaron Vargas."
Prosecutor Beth Norton, however, said Vargas lacked impulse control and had problems with drinking that led to three DUIs. She also stressed he had shot his alleged abuser to death rather than turning him over to law enforcement.
"There is an angry, violent aspect to Aaron Vargas," she said. "The risk here is too great."
Defense attorney Tom Hudson countered that his client was owed a second chance.
"Aaron Vargas has never had a chance to show he can be a regular human being without Darrell McNeill pestering him," Hudson said. "Humanity needs us to give him that chance."
The lawyer said the lives of other men who came forward alleging abuse by McNeill had been disrupted by alcohol and drugs. One killed himself. the lawyer said.
Co-workers testified that McNeill looked for Vargas at his workplace, and family members said McNeill tracked Vargas down when he moved, calling him at home up to a dozen times a day even after he and Selena Barnet, his longtime girlfriend, got engaged and had a child.
McNeill even insisted he wanted to baby-sit the child, Barnet testified.
Vargas "was defending himself and his daughter, because the system failed," Galliani said in court.
Vargas testified he had a drinking problem and needed help. During his 16 months in jail, he had been seeing a therapist and attending anti-alcohol abuse meetings, he said.
"I have all sorts of regrets for that day, previous days and previous years," he said.
Psychiatrist Donald Apostle said Vargas showed signs of sustained trauma.
"It was a secret shame," Apostle said. "It devoured him."
Vargas was unable to break McNeill's control, and the alleged abuse continued into his adult years, Apostle said.
"It was almost like a learned helplessness," he said before recommending probation for Vargas. "He's been in prison his whole life. He needs help, not more punishment."
Court records state that three days before the shooting, Vargas met and talked with other men who allegedly had been abused by McNeill. Vargas spent the next few days trying to deal with his feelings.
On the night of the shooting, Vargas' blood-alcohol content was about .15 — nearly twice the legal limit, according to court records.
Vargas testified his memory of the night was faulty. He said he recalled McNeill denying the accusations before Vargas yelled back that McNeill wasn't going to hurt anyone anymore. Then the gun went off, Vargas said.
The victim's wife, Elizabeth McNeill, was just a few feet away. She said Vargas kicked and cursed at the dying man while stopping her from seeking help.
Despite the violence, she later attended a fundraiser for Vargas' defense. In a letter to prosecutors, she said "something having to do with Aaron's childhood sexual abuse caused Aaron to snap, and do what he did."
Vargas' family will consider an appeal and work to get him treatment while establishing a nonprofit in his name to help victims of childhood sexual abuse.
Growing up, Galliani hadn't understood what made her outgoing, fun-loving brother withdraw and turn to drugs. Only after McNeill's death did she understand how deeply Vargas had been affected by him.
"It was like I saw my 12-year-old brother again," she said. "That anger was gone from his eyes. He was just sad. Now he's more at peace. He's opened up. He's back."