Convicted murderer Thomas Vargas reflects on tragic past: How adverse childhood experiences shaped his life

Thomas Vargas is a convicted murderer. He committed the crime when he was only 15-years-old and was sentenced to life in prison at 16-years-old. 

Court records say, in 2005, 81-year-old Vida Sutton let Vargas and his 16-year-old co-defendant in her Pearland home to use the phone. 

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Vargas stabbed Sutton to death in her house, ransacked the place with his co-defendant, then set it on fire before stealing Sutton’s car. 

A cold-blooded crime he’ll likely spend the rest of his days behind bars for. 

"I know that I committed the murder, I did," Vargas admitted. 

Now 37, Vargas has spent 22 years behind bars. 

"To this day. I still cannot believe that I did that. Still to this day. It's been 22 years now," he said. 

Vargas doesn’t claim any innocence in this case. He says that night he was heavily intoxicated and planned on stealing from Sutton’s home. 

"Do you remember the time in your mind when it went from robbery to stabbing someone?" Asked reporter Abigail Dye.  "No, I just remember panicking," replied Vargas. 

The reason FOX 26 spoke to Vargas was to try and understand how, and why, a 15-year-old could be driven to murder a stranger. 

Vargas was born in 1987 and says he grew up in a family of six in Sage Meadow in southern Houston. He says his parents were divorced and weren’t present in his day-to-day life. 

"We would run away at night, sneak away at night, to go to these places where everyone else was. Because there was no fun at home," he said. "We turned to the streets." 

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He says he spent most of his time "on the streets" doing drugs, getting into fights, and committing crimes with other kids – and adults. 

"In the environment I lived at, there was always a lot of violence."

He says in 1997, his brother Michael was murdered. 

"He was the one who kept me positive, praying, and going to church. He was murdered just a couple years before committing this crime," said Vargas. 

According to the Center of Disease Control, much of what Vargas experienced through childhood would be categorized as an "adverse childhood experience" (ACE).  

The CDC has an ACE study and scoring system to analyze the trademarks of a rough childhood. The system includes the three categories: abuse, neglect, and household challenges. 

They each have sub-categories:

- Abuse: physical, emotional, and sexual. 

- Neglect: physical and emotional. 

- Household challenges: mental illness in the family, witnessing a parent treated violently, divorce, having an incarcerated relative and substance abuse in the family. 

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The CDC says that having a high ACE score can lead to a multitude of issues from physical health problems to socio-economic struggles. 

The Center for Child Counseling says 90% of young people in the juvenile justice system have at least one of these ACE stressors, and usually far more. The CDC says mitigating those stressors for children, ultimately leads to healthier adults. 

Something Alfredo Alberto does daily in his work with Prairie View A&M Health and Wellness. Their mentorship program goes into schools and gives struggling kids something very simple; a listening ear.

"They’re dealing with these traumatic situations without having anyone to talk to them, council them, have a listening ear," he said. 

"I’m here for you, we're all looking out for you, and you matter," might be all a kid needs to hear, according to Alberto. 

Vargas was exposed to multiple childhood stressors, but says he didn’t experience any first-hand abuse. He says what he believes was the "turning point" for him was the lack of family involvement in his young life. 

"I sat there in the middle of the basketball court after this game, and I watched all the kids run to their families, and I was alone, that kind of... That was the turning point. That was the turning point for me," he said. 

His input shows just how important parental presence is in a child’s life. 

"The biggest thing is, for a lot of these kids, is presence," said Alberto. 

"Deep inside, I was hoping someone, someone, would care to ask. What's wrong? What are you going through? And no one did," said Vargas. 

He says he believes a caring parent in his life or a role model would have made all the difference. 

"It all results back to the same thing. Parents need to be involved in their child's life individually," he said. "These kids need involvement from their parents, they need to see their parents are there."

Vargas is eligible for parole in 2042, when he is 55-years-old.