Saturday, September 11, 1999

Special to the Star-Bulletin
Sequoya Vargas of the Big Island was only 16 years old
and full of artistic promise when she was raped,
assaulted and killed.

Justice near for
brutally murdered
Puna teen

Two men await sentencing in
the 1993 assault, and a third suspect,
long a fugitive, will soon be
brought to trial

Teen-ager easy prey

By Rod Thompson


HILO -- Sequoya Vargas chose to become a vegetarian at age 2, for several years spoke only a language she invented herself, and as a teen-ager on the Big Island showed such talent as an artist that she was applying to an art college.

On a Sunday night in 1993, when she was 16, Vargas went to a house in a subdivision south of Hilo to watch television with three young men, got drunk, and passed out.

The men raped her repeatedly, beat her, and killed her.

Matthew Gibbs, 26, eventually pleaded no contest to sexually assaulting Vargas. Jason McCubbins, 26, pleaded no contest to manslaughter and kidnapping.

Both are awaiting sentencing.

And after years as a fugitive, Richard Damian Serrano, 28, was returned to the Big Island this week from Mexico to stand trial on charges of murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.

"I feel he's the one whose idea it was. He premeditated the whole thing," said Vargas' half-sister, Dove Johnson.

Johnson said she, Vargas and two brothers spent their early childhood in Fallbrook, Calif., near San Diego.

"I held her in my arms when she was born," said Johnson, who was six years older.

Vargas was part Tarahumara Indian, an ethnic group from southern Mexico.

Some of the older family members spoke Spanish at home. The children understood it but spoke English, except for Vargas.

She invented an entirely different language for herself, which other children could understand but adults could not, Johnson said.

By age 4, her mother, Becky Meza, became concerned enough to start intensive sessions with her in English, Johnson said.

A special-education teacher came to the house once a week until Vargas was 7 and grew out of her personal language.

At age 2, Vargas became a vegetarian. "She would pick out the meat and leave it there," Johnson said. "She'd eat everything else."

She had her own rules for board games.

"Put a game in front of her and she'd tell you how to play it, her own way."

Intelligence tests showed there was nothing wrong with her, and she was bright, Johnson said.

She collected porcelain cats and drew fantasy art such as dragons, Johnson said.

As a little girl, she drew comic strips with complete story lines, said her uncle, Brad Simone. "Some were just as incredible as any you could buy off the newsstand," he said.

About a year before her death, she won a Hawaii high school chess championship, he said.

The family had moved to the Big Island's Puna District in 1989.

"My mom's friend said Hawaii is a beautiful place and a good place to raise your kids," Johnson said.

Vargas and her brothers quickly learned a new language, pidgin, and she had lots of friends. "She'd come home with about six girlfriends of hers. They eat, hang around, and go to the beach."

She'd go to parties sometimes.

"Every 16-year-old goes to parties," Johnson said. She drank alcohol, such as beer, but neither she nor anyone else in the family were excessive drinkers.

Her mother let her go where she wanted, but always with the warning that she had to call and say where she was.

Johnson said if Vargas didn't call within 24 hours, her mother warned that she would call the police.

Johnson and her mother last saw Vargas in Pahoa on Aug. 22, 1993, Johnson said.

The next day, her mother called the police.

Teen-ager easy prey for
alleged killers

By Rod Thompson


HILO -- Richard Damian Serrano was really smooth, says Dove Johnson, the half-sister of murder victim Sequoya Vargas.

When Serrano picked up Vargas and her friend Jessica Klinker on Aug. 22, 1993, as they hitchhiked from Kehena Beach, he told them he was a professional skateboarder, Johnson said.

After Vargas failed to return home that night, her family called police the next day. "Oh, she probably just ran away," police told them.

So the family began its own investigation, starting with Klinker, who named Serrano.

He took Klinker home. Vargas rode off with him.

Vargas' uncle, Brad Simone, said the family's investigation involved details like a microscopic examination of dirt from tires on a van used by suspects the family identified.

Finally one of their suspects, Matthew Gibbs, talked, leading to a renewed police investigation. "Matthew just opened his mouth," Johnson said.

According to a statement from Gibbs in court documents, Serrano, then 22, took Vargas, 16, to the house of his cousin, Jason McCubbins, 20.

Gibbs, about 19, was also there and Vargas knew him, which probably made her feel safe, Johnson said. They all were drinking. Vargas had beer and shots of hard liquor, Gibbs told police.

After about 1 hours, Vargas fell while dancing, hitting her chin on a counter. Serrano put her on a bed.

"I seen Damian pulling Sequoya's underpants off," Gibbs told police. Later, Serrano said he had sex with the sleeping Vargas, and the others should too.

"I grabbed her okole part," Gibbs said. Gibbs poked a knife in the mattress. "Just playing around," he told police.

The men were taking turns having sex with Vargas when she woke up screaming.

"Then Jason was yelling, we got to shut her up, she's making too much noise," Gibbs said. McCubbins started punching her.

Vargas was in a car driven by McCubbins. Serrano and Gibbs went in a separate van. They drove to the Cape Kumukahi lighthouse, then to a 20-foot sea cliff at McKenzie Park, where Serrano and McCubbins dumped Vargas.

McCubbins was "hyped up," Gibbs said. He contacted his mother and said, "We just killed somebody," Gibbs said. His mother answered, "Shut up. Jason, you're making me sick."

The three men returned to the spot where Vargas was dumped. She was still alive, and Serrano and McCubbins climbed down to her. Gibbs' account ends there. McCubbins also cooperated with authorities for a reduced charge, but his confession hasn't been made public.

Johnson said documents she got through a civil suit indicate what happened after Serrano and McCubbins climbed down.

But Johnson isn't sure she knows the full story. "Will we be able to find out what really happened now they got him?" she asked. "No, we can't question him."

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