DRAPER — While playing a game of pickup basketball and discussing the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, court records say Stephen Vargas suggested to another player that if Simpson could get away with it, so could he.
Three months later — just two days after Christmas — his wife, Rebecca Vargas, was brutally beaten to death and left partially nude behind an apartment. Stephen Vargas was convicted of murder and sentenced to five years to life in prison, all the while claiming innocence.
Stephen Vargas stuck to his story for more than 20 years and now hopes to win parole from the Utah State Prison.
But in a bombshell revelation at his parole hearing Tuesday, May 3, Vargas finally gave up on his insistence there was another killer. He said he and his wife drove to the Ogden apartment where she was moving on the night of Dec. 27, 1995, and they talked about their impending divorce.
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“I grabbed a hammer and hit her in the head with it and took her life right there,” he told Robert Yeates, vice chairman of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, who conducted the hearing at the prison in Draper. Vargas’ disclosure reversed 20 years of insistence he did not kill his wife, despite reports of numerous threats against her life and other ominous developments in the preceding months — including his O.J. Simpson reference to Gary Heward, a deputy Weber County attorney.
Autopsy reports said Rebecca Vargas suffered two beatings, the second one several hours after the first to finish her off. The second beating was inflicted with a lantern that was found at the scene. Vargas said in his parole hearing he discarded the hammer after walking away from the apartment. The hammer never was found.
After deciding to split with Vargas following nine tumultuous years of marriage, Rebecca Vargas, 27, had begun dating an Ogden police officer. Vargas told Yeates he and his wife had been unfaithful to one another.
“I was pissed and jealous and embarrassed and mad … Everything went haywire in my head,” he said, according to an audio recording of the hearing. “I thought I struck her a couple of times but the autopsy said I hit her eight times. She couldn’t defend herself. I was a lot bigger and stronger.”
Yeates asked Vargas why he proclaimed his innocence for more than two decades, including “taking the family through a whole jury trial.”
“I didn’t want the responsibility of what I had done,” he answered. “I was a coward and didn’t want to tell my daughters that I had killed their mother, to tell her family. I gave a lot of false hope to both sides … I don’t think anybody wanted it to be me. I didn’t have the guts, so I just shut up.”
Vargas’s two daughters, who were pre-teens when their mother was killed, have no sympathy for their father after his belated confession.
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Madeline Dulebohn, now 28, delivered cutting remarks at the hearing, telling Vargas she once was “a naive girl who defended you, but now this girl is a woman” who was scarred for life by “your selfish decision to keep my mother to yourself.”
Dulebohn said her faith has given her strength over the years to forgive Vargas. “But I love my mom more than I will ever love you. She deserves justice. And mostly she deserves peace.”
She urged the board to keep Vargas, 60, imprisoned for life.
“I know the prison is overcrowded, you’ve been on your best behavior and you’re getting older,” she told Vargas. “But you do not deserve to breathe the air that our mom could have. You don’t deserve to walk amongst us. You chose our future long ago, but now is our time to fight for our freedom from you.”
Dulebohn also read to Yeates a statement about Vargas from her younger sister, Stevie Weaver, who wrote, “When I was 7, he told me if I looked like my mother he would kill me too. The thought of him scares me to this day.”
In an interview Saturday, Rebecca Vargas’s mother, Sonja Rees of Roy, said she hoped the board would not be “buffaloed” by Vargas.
“I don’t think Stephen Vargas is capable of showing true remorse,” she told the board May 3. “He is excellent at smooth talking and telling people what he thinks they want to hear, and he manipulates them.”
Vargas was several years older than her daughter, Rees said. “She was 18 and impressionable. He was charming and sophisticated, but in truth he was intimidating and controlling.”
Vargas told Yeates he is sorry for the pain he caused. He said if released he would not move back to Ogden. He has trained as a machinist in prison and would live and work in Salt Lake City, he said.
“I miss Rebecca every day, and I miss my daughters,” he said. “I already knew they were gone forever before this hearing. I can’t ever make up for it, and I know that.”
After a few years in prison, Vargas said he “started to accept the entirety of what I had done.”
“I’m not that person that I was at that moment in time any more … I will carry the onus of what I did forever,” he said. “It sucks being a coward. It hurts really bad.”
Rees said in a phone interview she didn’t buy Vargas’ new story.
“He did confess, but (the killing) was premeditated,” she said. “He had told people he would kill her. He had even asked his brother to do it. How more premeditated can it get?”
Behind bars, Vargas got a high school diploma and attended numerous life skills courses, he told Yeates, but Rees said, “The more he talked, the madder I got.” Rebecca Vargas’ family suffered years of depression and grief, Rees said.
“I fear for my children and grandchildren and how Stephen will react with his obsessive behavior if he is freed,” Rees told Yeates.
Yeates said the board would decide within 30 days whether to grant Vargas parole.
“These are difficult decisions,” Yeates said. “This was clearly a vicious, brutal, heinous crime. It is hard to understand something like this could happen, but it has happened and we need to deal with it.”
You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.