Veteran accused in shooting death charged with DUI

January 9, 2013
Brandon Thomas

A decorated war veteran accused of shooting a man to death in a supermarket parking lot also will face charges for driving under the influence after blood tests showed he had heroin in his system when police found him passed out in his vehicle just days before the killing.

Brandon D. Thomas, 30, of Upper St. Clair, is accused of shooting 55-year-old Vaughn Simonelli of Washington to death in broad daylight Oct. 18 outside the Shop ’n Save grocery store at Beau Street and Jefferson Avenue in Washington following a confrontation stemming from an apparent road rage incident.

Thomas, who received three Purple Hearts while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, was formally arraigned on the homicide charge Friday before Washington County Judge Katherine Emery. The prosecution is not seeking the death penalty against him. Thomas also faces three counts of possession of drug paraphernalia after several empty heroin stamp bags were reportedly found in one of his socks after he was taken to the jail the day of the shooting.

On Wednesday, he was arraigned by District Judge Robert Redlinger on charges of DUI, unauthorized use of a vehicle registration and restrictions on alcoholic beverages stemming from an incident days before the shooting.

According to the affidavit filed by North Franklin Township police, blood tests confirmed Thomas had heroin in his system when officers found him slumped over the steering wheel of his 2006 GMC Hummer about 12:10 a.m. Oct. 15 in the parking lot of the closed Club 40 at 3390 W. Chestnut St.

Police said Thomas was wearing a bulletproof vest with a loaded semiautomatic handgun strapped to his waist when he was found unconscious with his foot on the brake while the vehicle was in drive. Police reportedly found a cache of firearms and an open bottle of beer inside the vehicle.

Thomas was taken to Washington Hospital for blood tests and later freed because police had no evidence of a crime to hold him on since he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon and the guns found in his vehicle had been legally obtained.

At a preliminary hearing in November, Washington County Corner Tim Warco testified that Simonelli died from a gunshot wound to the back of the left shoulder after the bullet traveled upward and lodged in the spinal cord in his neck.

Thomas’ attorney, Frank Walker of Pittsburgh, claims his client never got out of his vehicle and shot Simonelli in self-defense when the man reached inside the window and punched him.

After the confrontation, about 4 p.m., Thomas called Washington County 911 to report the shooting and waited for police to arrive. Walker has said he has evidence to present at trial to show the man was shot from behind while he bent forward inside the driver’s side window to assault this client.

One witness presented testimony that conflicted with both the coroner’s findings and Walker’s claim, stating that he watched from inside his parked vehicle while Thomas shot Simonelli twice straight in the chest from a distance of nearly 5 feet while both men were outside their vehicles. Prosecutors argued the witness could not have seen shooting from his vantage point.

Honorably discharged from the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Thomas suffered wounds from a bullet, shrapnel and a roadside explosion while serving his country. Thomas has told investigators he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Thomas remains in the Washington County jail while Emery considers a request by his attorney to set bond.

Andy McNeil has been with the Observer-Reporter since 2011 as a general assignment reporter. He covers courts and education, and also serves as a photographer and videographer. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University, The Behrend College, with a degree in English; Duquense University with a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate, and Point Park University with a graduate degree in journalism and mass communication.

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