Veteran faces trial in homicide

November 7, 2012
Brandon D. Thomas of Upper St. Clair is led Wednesday to his preliminary hearing in Central Court, Washington County Courthouse, by Deputy Sheriff Chad Beattie. - Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The Washington man killed last month in a grocery store parking lot was shot from behind by a military veteran who claims he acted in self-defense.

Washington County Coroner Tim Warco testified Wednesday at the preliminary hearing for Brandon D. Thomas, 30, of Upper St. Clair, that the victim, Vaughn Simonelli, died from a gunshot wound to the back of the left shoulder after the bullet traveled upward and lodged in the spinal cord of his neck.

Simonelli, 55, also was shot once in his right front shoulder about 4 p.m. Oct. 18 outside the Shop ’n Save supermarket at Beau Street and Jefferson Avenue in Washington after the two men had some type of confrontation while driving in separate vehicles to the store, testimony at Thomas’ preliminary hearing indicated.

District Judge Larry Hopkins ruled the prosecution presented sufficient evidence at the hearing in Central Court to hold Thomas for trial on a general charge of homicide in the slaying of Simonelli. Washington police added a charge of possession of drug paraphernalia Wednesday against Thomas, alleging several empty heroin stamp bags were found in one of his socks after he was taken to the Washington County jail the day of the shooting.

Thomas served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq with the U.S. Army, earning three Purple Hearts and the Medal of Honor, and received an honorable discharge in 2010. A few days before the shooting, he was detained in nearby North Franklin Township after police there found him asleep behind the wheel of his parked Hummer, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying several legally owned weapons. He was released that night because, police said, they didn’t have any evidence he had committed a crime.

Thomas remained in his 2006 GMC Hummer in the parking lot after reporting the shooting to Washington County 911. His attorney, Frank Walker of Pittsburgh, since has claimed Thomas should only be charged with manslaughter for shooting Simonelli in a “clear case of self-defense” after being attacked by the man.

Walker said he has evidence to present at trial to show Simonelli was shot from behind while he bent forward inside the driver’s side window of the Hummer to assault Thomas.

Meanwhile, Washington County Assistant District Attorney Mike Lucas presented evidence suggesting Simonelli had been threatened by Thomas and Simonelli also had suffered facial injuries during the confrontation.

Warco said Simonelli suffered blunt force trauma to the face and a laceration under the left eyebrow.

A witness, John McGary of Washington, said he saw Thomas holding a gun to Simonelli’s head that afternoon while Thomas shouted profanity, saying he needed to get to a hospital to attend to a sick child. McGary said Thomas then put his gun into a holster and returned to his vehicle. McGary said he feared for his safety and turned his back to the disturbance before hearing two rapid gunshots.

He said he overheard Simonelli saying, “You are not going anywhere,” and saw the man with a cellphone to his ear.

“Then I heard, pop, pop,” McGary said. “I turned around immediately and saw the man lying on the ground.”

McGary also said he didn’t see either of the men throwing punches.

Another witness, Robert Newman of Washington, presented testimony that conflicted with Warco’s when he said he watched from inside his parked vehicle while Thomas shot Simonelli twice straight into the chest from the distance of nearly 5 feet while both men were outside of their vehicles.

However, Lucas argued Newman couldn’t have seen the shooting from his vantage point.

Newman also said he heard Thomas say, “I’m going to shoot you.”

Walker said the conflicting testimony would benefit his client as the case moves forward.

Before holding the case for trial, Hopkins refused a request by Walker to set bond for Thomas and returned the suspect to jail. Walker said he would appeal that ruling to Washington County Court.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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