Testimony begins in ex-soldier’s homicide trial

May 12, 2014
Brandon Thomas is escorted by sheriff’s deputies as he arrives for the first day of his homicide trial Monday. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The first day of testimony in the trial of an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran accused of killing a man during a road-rage incident in Washington in late 2012 was full of contradictions.

Witness testimony Monday in Washington County Court before Judge Katherine Emery in the Brandon Thomas homicide trial detailed several different versions of the Oct. 18, 2012, Shop ’n Save parking lot encounter that left Vaughn Simonelli, 55, of Washington, dead.

According to testimony, the incident began on Jefferson Avenue, after Thomas, who reportedly was driving erratically down the center lane, cut off Simonelli at the intersection of Jefferson and Hall avenues. While at the red light, Simonelli reportedly attempted to block Thomas’ black Hummer and approached Thomas’ driver’s-side window. Witnesses testified that an argument ensued, and that Thomas drove about 15 feet along the sidewalk to get away from the situation. Simonelli followed and pulled his gray sedan behind Thomas’ Hummer in the Shop ’n Save lot shortly before 4 p.m.

The majority of the witnesses called Monday testified about the pair’s encounter in the parking lot, but few witnesses actually saw the shooting. Sarah Hayes, 69, of Washington, said she happened to pull behind Simonelli’s vehicle. Unaware of what was going on, Hayes said she tried to find the owner of the vehicle in front of her.

Hayes said a “big man in white T-shirt” caught her attention.

“He went up to the Hummer with his fist balled,” she said. “His fist was raised like he was going to punch someone in the Hummer.”

Hayes said the driver’s-side window to Thomas’ vehicle was down, though that was a detail other witnesses could not recall. Thomas told investigators that Simonelli attacked him through the window of his vehicle, and that he fired to shots in self-defense. He cited the state’s Castle Doctrine law, which covers the use of deadly force in self-defense situations.

As Simonelli approached the vehicle with his fist raised, Hayes said she heard two “pops,” then saw Simonelli turn and fall to the ground.

“When he turned, it was like the lights went out in his eyes,” Hayes said. “Then he fell facedown in the street.”

She said she got out to help but could tell Simonelli already was dead.

Hayes said she didn’t see an argument prior to the shots. Others testified earlier in the day that the two men exchanged words in the lot, and that Simonelli told Thomas he wasn’t going anywhere. Other witnesses testified that the two men were standing outside the Hummer and that Thomas pulled his weapon from his holster, brandished it and then went back to his vehicle.

Washington police Detective Dan Rush said he interviewed Thomas after the incident. Thomas told investigators he wasn’t sure if he fired two or three shots. Rush, who said he also has a military background, said the two spoke in “military lingo.”

“He was taught to engage a target until it was down,” Rush said. “He said he was attacked, and he leaned over and pulled his weapon from (a holster on) his right side. He then shot. He was aware of Castle Doctrine and said he was within his rights.”

Prior to the witness testimony, the jury heard brief opening statements. Thomas’ attorney, Frank Walker, argued that Thomas acted in self-defense. First Assistant District Attorney Chad Schneider laid out the prosecution’s case, acknowledging conflicting statements by witnesses. He told jurors it is their responsibility to determine the truth.

Schneider said he expects the prosecution to rest its case by mid-afternoon Tuesday.

Walker said he will call about five witnesses. He said Thomas is prepared to testify, but he could not confirm whether that will happen. Walker said the defense might complete it’s case by the end of the day Tuesday.

Thomas, who was honorably discharged from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and is a veteran of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, is charged with felony criminal homicide and three misdemeanor counts of possession of drug paraphernalia. Schneider said empty stamp bags were found on Thomas after he was taken into custody and that he tested positive for morphine.

Thomas has been in Washington County jail without bond since the shooting.

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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