With a population of just over 2,000, Shiner, Texas is a lot like the small town I grew up in, except that it’s even smaller. And that’s why a story about a father who beat a man to death after catching him molesting his daughter caught my eye.
Here’s the thing about small towns, for those who aren’t familiar with them: We like to maintain a myth that everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Everything is completely fine and bucolic and wonderful. We have our Apple Fairs and May Queens and Beer Festivals and whatever else it is, depending on regional livestock preferences and food products. We have parades where the Queen of the Redwoods (Peach Orchards, Hops, etc) holds court from the back of a flatbed, surrounded by girls in long dresses and sashes.
Small-town America is an image that we cleave to, hard. We work to present ourselves in a very specific way to the rest of the country, and the world, as the lingering stronghold of mom and apple pie.
When these blackberries ripen, I will make a pie, which, yes, I will cool on my windowsill.
Consequently, no one wants to talk about the bad and dark things that happen in small towns, and trust me, there are bad and dark things. Intergenerational politics snarl through and around everything and people commit terrible atrocities against each other and everyone knows about it and no one says anything.
Because they’re afraid. They don’t want to ruin the small-town image, but they also don’t want to destroy business relationships, future prospects, social connections, political networks. Speaking out requires isolating yourself by making yourself stand out as the one who is willing to raise a ruckus, and it rarely happens.
There’s also a sense of wanting to keep things “in the family” when you live in a small town, which means you don’t want outsiders coming in to deal with it. Many rural communities are too small to have their own police force, which means that when crimes occur, the sheriff is called in. And crimes may be tried in a county seat or a neighbouring large town, not within the town itself; either because the town has no courthouse facilities, or because they aren’t equipped for something like a rape trial, or because the trial is relocated because everyone knows you can’t have an unbiased trial for a major crime in a town of, say, 2,000.
Which means that when you are being victimised, you sometimes feel like you have nowhere to go. No one to trust, and no assurance that action will be taken if you report it. You’re all alone in a terrifying landscape.
That’s what happened to Aaron Vargas, who was repeatedly molested as a young child. He grew up in the small town next to mine; though he was a few years older than me, we knew each other from around, as one does in rural communities. At age 32, he drove to the home of his childhood molester, shot him, and watched him die on his kitchen floor before driving back to his parents’ house and waiting for the police to come get him.
Aaron did it because no one had take action about his molestation when he was a child, although people were aware of it. And he also did it to protect his young daughter, because he didn’t want another generation to experience what he did.
You still see cars around town with “Save Aaron” bumper stickers and the tagline “End the silence,” a reference to the suffocating multi-generational silence that allowed Aaron and other young boys to experience years of molestation at the hands of a “pillar of the community.” Needless to say, little has changed culturally; molestation still occurs, and people still don’t say anything about it, and this entrenched, toxic culture persists.
Smell the pretty flowers! Don't talk!
Aaron went to trial and was sentenced to time in prison for his crime; he undeniably shot his molester in front of a witness, and his molester undeniably died, and it was clearly premeditated. He had his day in court and a jury determined that despite the circumstances, he still needed to be punished. Not everyone in the community agreed.
In Shiner, Texas, a man heard his daughter screaming during a family party and when he raced to help her, he found an acquaintance in the act of sexually molesting her. So he hit the molester multiple times in the head, and the molester died. He maintains it was an accident, and investigators appear to find his claims consistent with their findings at the scene.
The sheriff’s department declined to press charges in the case, arguing that it was an act of self defense, and referring it to the Grand Jury, which will get to decide whether it wishes to bring charges. The specific situation here is clearly different than that in the Aaron Vargas case (though some are already connecting the two); if anything, this was a case of manslaughter, because the man clearly did not intend to kill the victim in the defense of his daughter. But the circumstances are painfully similar.
As in Fort Bragg, the residents of Shiner are having a mixed reaction to the case. Some are publicly celebrating, saying that the molester got what he deserved and praising the father for his extrajudicial approach to the situation. Others are not so sure, including civil rights advocates outside the community who argue this was a summary execution, and think the father should have acted with more restraint so the case could be referred to court and taken through a proper legal process.
If I’m going to be honest, I have mixed feelings about the case myself. If I saw someone sexually assaulting anyone, let alone someone I love, I’d do anything to stop it from happening, and I wouldn’t be moderating my use of force with concern for the legal consequences. It’s entirely possible I’d strike someone severely on the head in defense of the victim and, potentially, myself, and it’s possible that blow could land wrong and be fatal. I’d feel remorseful about that, but I’d still be confident I did the right thing.
And the legal system does not have the greatest of records when it comes to handling victims. This doesn’t mean I think we should give up on it, or that I believe vigilante justice is acceptable, but I can see why some people feel they have no choice but to take the law into their own hands, and I can see why cases like this happen.
Especially in a small-town environment where there is so much pressure, and there are so many complicating factors that make it hard to report and pursue a case through to the end. And especially when there are factors that make it highly unlikely that a case will ever be handled fairly; a trans sex worker reporting a rape, for example, or a child of colour in a low-income community accusing a middle-class white “community leader” of molestation. Against those odds, there's a reason people don't have much faith in the system.
Maybe if people had more faith in the legal system’s ability to provide actual justice, they’d be more confident about putting the lives of victims into the hands of that system. Or maybe none of that happened here; maybe the father was reacting with pure, hot rage and wasn’t thinking about any of this at all, because all he saw was his daughter being hurt, and all he knew was that he wanted it to stop.