Former Hilton Head resident, Army vet acquitted of homicide

loberle@beaufortgazette.comMay 15, 2014 

A jury has found Army veteran and former Hilton Head Island resident Brandon Daniel Thomas not guilty in the fatal shooting of another motorist in a Pennsylvania parking lot after a road-rage dispute.

Thomas spent 18 months in jail after fatally shooting Vaughn Simonelli, 55, in a grocery store parking lot in October 2012 in Washington, Pa. His defense said Thomas suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and fired in self-defense.

Thomas and his wife, BethAnne, are both graduates of Hilton Head Island High School.

Brandon Thomas completed two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq before he was honorably discharged in 2010. His mother, Leah Vaughan, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and once owned the Spartina Grill on Hilton Head, said the past 18 months have been more difficult than any of his three deployments.

"When he was deployed, we knew he was with his Army brothers, people who had his best interest at heart," Vaughan said. "Being in jail, he's around anything from convicted murderers to rapists to pedophiles, and we worried about his safety."

During the trial, Thomas' supporters filled his side of the courtroom -- his mother, aunts, brothers, wife, Army friends, local residents and strangers. Soon after his arrest, a petition was started on change.org and a Facebook page was created to try to free him from jail.

After three hours of deliberations, the jury found Thomas not guilty of homicide. It did find him guilty of possession of drug paraphernalia, an offense for which he has already served time.

When Thomas was released from the Washington County Correctional Facility at 4:27 p.m. Wednesday, he was greeted first by his wife.

"BethAnne ran to him," Vaughan said. "He's had no contact visits, so this was the first physical touch he'd had with his family."

While Thomas was in jail, his two children, ages 3 and 6, were told their father was away at work. When they'd visit him and he was in his orange jail clothes, they were told he was wearing his "work uniform."

"It's hard to connect with your family when you're talking through a glass wall," Vaughan said.

Thomas celebrated with family and friends Wednesday night at a Washington hotel, requesting chicken wings for dinner and a soft bed to sleep on.

"He's going to take a little time and figure out what's next," Vaughan said.

Follow reporter Laura Oberle at twitter.com/IPBG_Laura.

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