Hearing held in shooting death

August 16, 2013
Brandon Thomas, 30, of Upper St Clair, is led into Washington County Courthouse for a hearing associated with the shooting death of 55-year-old Vaughn Simonelli in the Shop ‘n Save parking lot in Washington last October. - Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Citing gun residue evidence and some contradictory witness testimony, the lawyer for the Upper St. Clair man accused of shooting to death another man following a road rage incident in Washington asked for homicide charges to be reduced.

Frank Walker, attorney for Brandon Thomas, argued to Washington County Judge Katherine Emery Friday that although there might be enough evidence to make a case of voluntary manslaughter, charges of first- and second-degree murder should be dropped.

Thomas, 31, is accused of killing Vaughn Simonelli, 55, of Washington, while in the Shop ’n Save parking lot Oct. 18 after an apparent road rage incident between the two. Washington police said Thomas shot Simonelli twice, killing him with a bullet wound to the neck.

Walker pointed to gun residue found inside Thomas’ black Hummer that show the fatal shots were fired from inside the vehicle. Thomas told investigators Simonelli was attacking him when he fired the fatal shots.

However, Washington police Lt. Dan Stanek contends Thomas stepped from his vehicle and noted the gun residue inside could have been from another fired shot or transferred from the gun. He also noted that two witnesses told investigators they saw Thomas step out of his vehicle and fire two shots.

Thomas, wearing a neatly trimmed beard and close-cropped hair, was animated at times while Stanek testified and could be heard saying “What?” when he appeared to disagree with the detective’s recollection of events. He also shrugged his shoulders and shook his head vehemently when the proceeding was interrupted by a fire drill in the courthouse.

He also periodically looked back at the dozen family members and friends of Simonelli who attended the hearing. They declined to comment on the hearing.

The back-and-forth between Walker and Assistant District Attorney Mike Lucas often was testy as the two argued about testimony and what should be allowed during the hearing. Walker questioned if police could determine if empty stamp bags of heroin found in Thomas’ vehicle had been used that day.

Walker also took exception to Lucas bringing up a drug test administered to Thomas immediately after the shooting.

“I can’t think of any better word than shameful,” Walker said.

Walker also asked for bond to be set for Thomas, a decorated Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, who has remained in Washington County jail since his arrest.

However, Lucas read a laundry list of evidence and witness testimony against Thomas that he claimed showed premeditation and malice. He added that Walker has “repeatedly misrepresented” the gun residue evidence found inside the Hummer.

It is not known when Emery will make a ruling on the charges and whether Thomas should be allowed bond.

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working at the Observer-Reporter, he also has spent time at the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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