“I always wanted someone to notice. No one asked me anything,” Darby McCarthy said.
McCarthy was raised in an isolating religion created by Charles Aragon, her stepfather. With elements cherry-picked from Mormonism pushed to the extreme, Aragon's preaching placed the burden of salvation on his children, inside their very thoughts.
“We were told to be in the world but not of it,” McCarthy said. She remembers being taught that in order to save everyone around her, it was her responsibility to not talk about her religion.
The Aragons reinforced to the children that they were special, smarter and better than everyone else, in a way that distanced them from peers and even relatives, McCarthy remembers.
When the abuse started, she had nowhere to turn.
It took years, but finally someone listened and McCarthy saw the last step in the ordeal of abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother and stepfather. Earlier this month, they pleaded guilty to sexual battery.
Charles and Nancy Aragon were each sentenced to four years of probation.
Now 21, McCarthy brought her story to Murfreesboro police Detective Tommy Roberts in 2014. She told him about repeated sexual contact beginning when she was 14 years old.
“I can see how incredibly lucky I am to have him and (Assistant District Attorney) Hugh Ammerman,” McCarthy said after the plea hearing. “They are two amazing individuals.”
McCarthy’s testimony revealed a household where every interaction revolved around an isolating religious reality perpetuated by the Aragons and a pattern of abuse stretching back into her childhood.
The made-up religion
Nancy and Charles Aragon married when McCarthy was 6 years old, after Nancy Aragon divorced McCarthy’s father. The Aragons’ blended family included four children from Charles Aragon’s previous marriage and one child born in the new union.
The family lived on several acres in Readyville, not far from a local school. Physically close to the normalcy of other families, inside the home was a world apart from the normal lives of their neighbors.
“(Charles Aragon) created a need to be moved up on the family social hierarchy, to prove you’d earned it,” McCarthy explained. “I was put at the top of the food chain.”
From almost the time of the Aragons’ marriage, McCarthy slept in the master bedroom with the adults.
“That was our normal. I didn’t know it was unusual until much later,” McCarthy said. “They built up this reality for me and my siblings. You’re dependent on everyone around you, and that’s the problem. You’re dependent on the people who raise you.”
These religious standards were so tied up in her sense of self that she remembers not even wanting to make friends, because no one would truly understand her.
“He would say no one else can understand because no one else has our religion. Well, of course no one else has our religion; he made it up,” she said.
The Aragons' convictions were centralized around the “marriage” between Charles Aragon and then-14-year-old McCarthy. After that time, sexual contact was common between both adults and the young McCarthy, she said.
Relatives would come visit, and they would notice something was different in the household, but McCarthy said no one ever acted on their suspicions.
"We called ourselves Mormon," she said. "When we broke away from the church, Nancy and Charles often said the church had fallen away from the truth. So we were the more "true" followers of God's real religion.
"I was convinced Charles was God's prophet/the second coming of The David/adopted by Jesus Christ...and God commanded through Charles that we be married and fight the non believers in the last days."
Doubts creep in
Her grades began to slip in school, and she tried to reach out to the few friends she did have to tell them what was going on.
McCarthy graduated from Siegel High School in 2013.
“I’d say, ‘I have a secret and it’s that I’m in an arranged marriage or I’m betrothed or I’m basically promised to someone and yes, I’ve met him. I know him and he’s in his 40s, he’s 30 years older than me,’” McCarthy remembered. “Their reactions were basically, ‘Oh, wow, that’s really weird, but I’ll keep your secret,’ which wasn’t what I wanted.”
McCarthy stressed that she does not think it was the responsibility of her peers —themselves young teenagers at the time — to report the information or fix the situation, but that the lack of response was discouraging.
“I was leaving class to go vomit for like 20 minutes at a time. I kind of wanted someone to see it, to start a dialogue or just say something,” she said. But no one did.
She remembers feeling trapped by her doubts.
“I’m married and I don’t have friends and I’m miserable, and it’s supposed to be for a purpose. He (Charles Aragon) always taught us that all religion is a feeling. I’m not sure if I’m ruining my life by doing this or if by doubting I’m ruining my life."
The narrative McCarthy remembers hearing over and over compelled her to believe that “God will stop you from doing anything that’s bad for your soul,” and that to reach salvation she had to follow the word of the man who presented himself to her as a prophet: Charles Aragon.
Breaking away, speaking out
It wasn’t until she was 18 that she could make a choice on the right thing to do.
“I wondered if I was selling my soul to Satan to live in the world, but I couldn’t live under this God-fearing path any longer,” she said. “I didn’t know. I thought what I was doing was wrong, that this was going to send me to hell forever, that even doubting meant God couldn’t save me.”
That spring, she told her father, who had no idea what was going on under her mother’s roof, she said. They then brought the story to Roberts.
“Tommy Roberts goes the extra mile. He wanted to know the truth,” McCarthy said. “he and Hugh (Ammerman), they believed me when they didn’t have to.”
Ammerman called McCarthy a hero for taking the stand.
"Every child sex abuse victim who musters the courage to get on the witness stand and testify during a jury trial is doing a heroic thing for every other child sex abuse victim who might follow in their footsteps and do it themselves," Ammerman said.
"I’m very proud of her for having the strength to come forward in a case that involves deeply personal facts regarding things that people would usually consider private and not share with the public."
“There’s an assumption that because this story is remarkable, it must be fake,” she said.
McCarthy said she wanted to speak out now just to be a voice for anyone else going through similar experiences.
“You don’t always realize the gravity of what you’re going through until someone gives you a little perspective on it,” she said. “I’ve learned my worth because I know what it’s like to feel worthless.”
'I've found my peace'
The case went before a jury in February, but was declared a mistrial after dragging out for almost two weeks. Unsure if the case would go back to trial or to a plea deal, the investigation led by Roberts and Ammerman immediately began to prepare for a potential second trial.
"Child sex abuse is something that most people on the planet would prefer to never think about and prefer to just remain blissfully ignorant of," Ammerman said. "Jurors start from a position where they don’t think about this stuff and they’re sort of shocked and dismayed by the reality of it is coming out in the proof of the trial.
"People have a natural tendency to not want to believe that parents would hurt their own children or that anyone would hurt a child, especially a child who’s dependent on them for their well being."
Charles Aragon refused to comment. Nancy Aragon and defense attorneys for both Aragons could not be reached.
In the end, the Aragons agreed to a plea deal that does not include jail time. In court, they each admitted to the charges in response to a direct question from Judge David M. Bragg.
“I’ve found my peace. This is almost the better outcome. You can’t acquit on this,” McCarthy said. “At the end of the day, I know and they know. What I did is tell the truth.
“I don’t give up easy,” McCarthy said.
To report abuse
There are several channels open to anyone who may need to report sexual abuse or child sexual abuse. In case of emergency or a life-threatening situation, call 911.
A victim can be taken to an emergency room right after the assault to have a rape kit done anonymously, which can be processed in the case of future prosecution.
If the victim is a child, it must be reported to the Department of Children's Services and the police. DCS is reachable at 877-237-0004 Reports also can be made online at https://apps.tn.gov/carat/
Locally, a victim can contact the Domestic Violence/Sex Assault Center at 2106 East Main Street, Murfreesboro, by phone (615) 494-9262, or online at dvpshelter.org.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or on the internet through a live chat at online.rainn.org or rainn.org/es.