'Free Brandon Daniel Thomas' effort seeks release of former Hilton Head man accused in Pa. homicide

achristnovich@beaufortgazette.comMarch 4, 2013 

A former Hilton Head Island resident and decorated Army veteran has been jailed in Pennsylvania since October, accused of killing a 55-year-old man in a grocery store parking lot.

Since his arrest, a growing number of friends and family -- including many with Hilton Head connections -- have rallied to his defense.

Police say Brandon Daniel Thomas, 31, of Upper St. Clair, Pa., shot Vaughn Simonelli of Chartiers, Pa., at 4 p.m. Oct. 18 during what has been described as a road-rage incident in Washington, Pa.

A Washington Police Department affidavit says Thomas was standing outside his black Hummer when he reached inside, pulled out a handgun and shot Simonelli. He is charged with criminal homicide and was denied bail.

Thomas' supporters, however, say Simonelli followed him, rammed his Hummer, blocked him in a parking spot and attacked him. The shooting was in self-defense, they say.

"We're not trying to broadcast this for any other reason than the unjust situation," said Thomas' mother, Leah Vaughan, of efforts to free her son.

Vaughan said she once owned the Spartina Grill, which was on Marshland Road, and lived in Beaufort County for about 12 years until she moved to Fort Lauderdale three or four years ago. Vaughan said Thomas met his wife, BethAnne, on Hilton Head, and the couple have three children.

A "Free Brandon Daniel Thomas" Facebook page created Dec. 4 had more than 2,600 followers as of Sunday. A website also was set up to solicit money for Thomas' legal defense.

"Brandon is being held without bond for defending himself on American soil," the Facebook page says.

THE CHARGES

A witness told police that Thomas and Simonelli were involved in a minor wreck, then got into an argument in the parking lot of a Shop 'n Save. Thomas reached into his black 2006 Hummer, grabbed a handgun and shot Simonelli twice while they were standing beside the Hummer, according to a police affidavit.

An autopsy report said Simonelli was killed by two shots to his torso.

"Officers identified ... Thomas as the shooter based on statements he made at the scene and during (an) interview at the Washington Police Department," the affidavit reads.

Mike Lucas, Washington County assistant district attorney, said Thomas was yelling profanities at Simonelli and threatening to shoot him while waving a gun, according to news reports of Thomas' hearing in November, in which his case was sent to trial.

Along with criminal homicide, Thomas is charged with three counts of misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia, according to Washington County court records.

The affidavit said "several empty glassine bags fell out" of Thomas' right sock when he was being booked on the homicide charge. "Through this officer's experience," the affidavit by a Washington police detective said, "glassine bags of this type are commonly used to package heroin."

Supporters on the "Free Brandon Daniel Thomas" Facebook page, however, give a different account.

The page says he was threatened and attacked after he had been followed for more than a mile by an angry Simonelli and was blocked into a parking space at the store. His Hummer had also been rammed.

His lawyer, Frank Walker, said Thomas never left the seat of his Hummer, and his action was justified under the state's "castle doctrine," according to news accounts of the hearing. The state law says a person can use deadly force against "intrusion or attack outside the person's home or vehicle."

"Brandon used force necessary to protect his own life and prevent the assailant from harming anyone else in the immediate area," the page says. It says he calmly remained at the scene and called 911.

FIGHT FOR RELEASE

The Facebook page says Thomas received two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, and multiple Army commendation medals. He was honorably discharged in 2010.

The Island Packet profiled Thomas when he returned from Iraq in July 2004. He served with Task Force 135, part of the Army's 1st Armored Division. He also later served in Afghanistan.

Thomas is a graduate of Hilton Head Island High School and enlisted in the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He had served an extended tour in Iraq, and he said in 2004 he continued to support the war.

"If there was going to be a fight," he told the Packet, "I wanted to be in it. I didn't want other guys risking their neck for me. I've got faith in what's going on. I have faith in my government."

Linda Young of Hilton Head said she met Vaughan in 1991, soon after she moved to the area. She has stayed in touch with the family and said that since hearing about Thomas' incarceration, she has tried to share his story with as many people as she can.

"To me, this is just a horrible thing for this boy to have served his country and to be treated this way," she said.

Her daughter, Marly Young, said she worked at Spartina Grill with Thomas before he joined the military. She said she's written him letters of support since his arrest.

"When he came back (from deployment) he was himself, but he was a little quiet and kind of jumpy," Marly Young said. "But he always had a good heart."

Cory Horn said he met Thomas at Broad Creek Marina in 1999. Though Horn moved to Ohio in 2010 and Thomas eventually moved to Pennsylvania, Horn said they've remained close. Horn said he has visited Thomas several times since the arrest.

"He seems like he's staying positive, but it is just a bad situation," Horn said. "I can't imagine Brandon doing something without thinking about the consequences. ... Brandon is the kind of guy who would do anything for me, and now he needs someone in his corner who'd do the same for him."

The Facebook page says his friends and family will continue to fight for his release:

"Our plight will not end until he is rightfully freed to be home with his suffering family."

Related content:

After Iraq, it's time to relax, July 25, 2004

Post-Gazette: Army veteran from upper St. Clair held for trial in Washington County road rage killing, Nov. 7, 2012

Veteran faces trial in homicide, Nov. 7, 2012

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