Former Hilton Head resident, Army veteran jailed in Pa. to face murder trial in May

mmcnab@beaufortgazette.comMarch 9, 2014 

A former Hilton Head Island resident and Iraq War veteran will stand trial for murder in Pennsylvania in May, according to his attorney.

Brandon Daniel Thomas, 31, has been jailed in Washington County, Pa. -- about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh -- since October 2012, when he was charged in the shooting death of 55-year-old Vaughn Simonelli of Chartiers, Pa., in a grocery store parking lot.

Thomas and defense attorney Frank Walker have contended since Thomas' arrest that Simonelli's shooting was in self-defense, but a police account disputes that.

They'll soon have their chance to present their case. Jury selection will begin May 5, Walker said.

Meanwhile, a Facebook page with about 5,600 followers advocates Thomas' release from jail or a speedy trial.

THE SHOOTING

Thomas shot Simonelli at 4 p.m. Oct. 18, 2012, in the parking lot of a grocery store during an argument over a minor car accident they were in, according to Washington Police Department reports.

Thomas reached into his black 2006 Hummer, grabbed a handgun and shot Simonelli twice while they were standing beside the Hummer, a police affidavit said. A Washington County assistant district attorney has said that Thomas yelled profanities at Simonelli and threatened to shoot him while waving a gun.

But Walker said the police narrative is incorrect, because gunshot residue was found inside Thomas' vehicle, indicating he had stayed in the Hummer. The location of the wounds -- in Simonelli's neck and upper chest -- also indicate that Simonelli had reached into Thomas' vehicle, Walker said.

"It's a simple two-step process," Walker said. "He was in danger, and he did what he had to do to defend himself."

Thomas is also charged with three counts of possession of drug paraphernalia, according to Washington County court records.

Walker said empty plastic bags were found on Thomas. The affidavit said empty glassine bags, which a police officer said were commonly used to package heroin, fell out of Thomas' right sock when he was being booked.

WAITING IN JAIL

Thomas was denied bond and has been in the Washington County Jail since his arrest.

Thomas's mother, Leah Vaughan, said she hasn't seen her son since before his arrest. Thomas is only allowed one hour of family visitation each week, and only on weekdays, she said, so their communication is limited to a weekly phone call.

Most of that visitation time goes to his wife and former Hilton Head resident, BethAnne Thomas, and his three children. Vaughan said her son is falling back on his military training to get him through the long incarceration.

"He's treating it like it's his fourth deployment," Vaughan said.

Vaughan said several of Thomas' military friends have visited him in jail, posting news from their visits to a "Free Brandon Daniel Thomas" Facebook page set up in December 2012.

A post by a veteran who served with Thomas in Afghanistan said Thomas was upbeat, despite his situation.

Thomas spent nearly a decade in the U.S. Army, enlisting after Sept. 11, 2001. He spent an extended tour in Iraq during 2003 and 2004 and was profiled in The Island Packet in July 2004, just weeks after returning home to Hilton Head from Iraq.

Thomas and his wife were both Hilton Head Island High School graduates. Vaughan owned the Spartina Grill on Hilton Head before moving to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. four or five years ago. Thomas worked at the restaurant before he enlisted and moved away from the island in 2001. Thomas's wife now lives in Upper St. Clair, Pa.

The Facebook page set up in support of Thomas said he received two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, and other commendations before an honorable discharge in 2010. Thomas served with Task Force 135, part of the Army's 1st Armored Division in Iraq. He also later served in Afghanistan.

"There's been a pretty incredible amount of support," Vaughan said. "... I'm positive we'll be walking out with him in early May."

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

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