Vargo arraigned on rape charges

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Stephen L. Vargo Jr., who has been behind bars in federal prison since 2000 with 10 more to go, was in court Thursday facing charges of kidnapping and rape of a 5-year-old child, dating back to 1997.

Vargo, 58, appeared before Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra Thursday and pleaded innocent to one count of rape of a child younger than 13, and one count of kidnapping a child younger than 13 for the purpose to engage in sexual activity, occurring Sept. 20, 1997. Vavra added that both are felonies of the first degree, each carrying a sentence of 10 years.

According to law enforcement, Martins Ferry police were dispatched to a Broadway Street residence where they talked to the girl’s parents. The girl had been playing outside when a man came up to her, offered her something and when she followed he took her behind a house and raped her.

Vargo’s pre-trial hearing was set for April 29, with plea agreement May 13 and trial June 4.

Vavra addressed the issue of appointing a defense attorney. Vargo appeared with attorney Steve Stickles for the hearing. Vavra said Public Defender Frank Pierce would be unable to handle the case.

“(The) court’s aware that you are a prison inmate and so again we will appoint council. Mr. Pierce was actually the prosecuting attorney back in 1997. He has notified us that he believes his office has a conflict throughout this matter,” Vavra said. He also addressed Vargo’s place of incarceration during the proceedings. Belmont County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Flanagan requested Vargo be housed in the Belmont County Jail. Stickles agreed matters would proceed more convenient if Vargo was not placed back in federal custody.

According to law enforcement, DNA from the victim and suspect in the 1997 case was collected at the crime scene. The evidence was taken to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Since then the case had been dormant. On June 28, 2016, police were notified there was a Combined DNA Index System hit in the case by the FBI. Vargo was reportedly the match, and law enforcement obtained a search warrant to get new DNA evidence from Vargo at Allenwood Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, where he was serving his three decade sentence.

“In 2000, he entered a plea of guilty in state court to two counts of kidnapping, and one count of rape,” Flanagan said afterward. “I actually prosecuted that case (1999 into 2000) … He got 10, 10 and 10, consecutive in the state, but running concurrent with 20 years in federal, so once he gets out in 2020 in the federal, he’ll still have 10 more years to do for the state.”

Flanagan said Vargo had not been a suspect in the 1997 case before the DNA evidence turned up a result.

“We didn’t even know. Not a suspect. Not even on our radar. Nobody was a suspect,” Flanagan said.