Testimony begins in Washington County road-rage shooting

Lawyer says driver fired in self-defense

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An Upper St. Clair man charged in the 2012 shooting death of a man in a parking lot after a road-rage dispute opened fire in self-defense, his attorney said Monday.

In opening remarks at his client's trial, attorney Frank Walker said Brandon Thomas, 32, a decorated Army veteran, husband and father, thought he was being attacked.

"As a self-defense trained veteran, he pulls his lawfully concealed firearm to protect himself," Mr. Walker told jurors in a Washington County courtroom.

Monday marked the first day of testimony in the trial of Mr. Thomas, accused in the Oct. 18, 2012, killing of Vaughn Simonelli, 55, of Chartiers.

First Assistant District Attorney Chad Schneider described a confrontation between the two men that afternoon on Jefferson Avenue, which resulted in Mr. Thomas shooting Simonelli twice in a grocery store lot.

Drivers and a pedestrian in the area that day testified that a Hummer, driven by Mr. Thomas, was driving erratically and passing vehicles in the center turning lane. Witnesses said Simonelli, who was driving a gray or silver sedan, got out and confronted Mr. Thomas at a stoplight and followed him when he drove off.

Witnesses, however, offered differing accounts of exactly what happened in the grocery store lot.

At least one witness testified that Mr. Thomas was inside his Hummer when the shots were fired. Others previously said he was outside the vehicle. Some said both men were cursing, others heard profanities from only one.

One witness testified that she heard Simonelli scream "you hit my car" at Mr. Thomas, though no witnesses Monday said they saw a collision.

All who heard the shots recalled hearing two, one witness describing it as a rapid fire "pop pop."

Whether Mr. Thomas was in his vehicle is crucial because he contends his actions were justified by the Castle Doctrine, which allows citizens the right to defend themselves in their homes. An expanded definition of the law includes a person's vehicle.

Witness Roger Anderson, 72, of Claysville, testified that he saw Mr. Thomas inside his SUV with the door open in the grocery store lot, telling Simonelli he had to leave because "I've got somebody in the hospital." Simonelli approached the Hummer, threw a punch and said, "You're not going [anywhere]," Mr. Anderson said. Immediately, he said, he heard two shots.

Mr. Thomas was a staff sergeant in the Army's 173rd Airborne Infantry Unit Brigade Combat Team when he was honorably discharged in 2010. He joined the Army shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and completed two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, relatives said.

In an interview with reporters after Monday's testimony, Army Warrant Officer Jeremiah L. Minor, who will testify for the defense as a character witness, recalled Mr. Thomas' 2006 efforts as an infantry mortar man in Afghanistan.

In one precarious moment, Mr. Thomas was waiting for coordinates from Warrant Officer Minor so he could return enemy fire. Had Mr. Thomas left, no one would have been there to fire back.

"He stood by my side and waited for me to get my coordinates. ... He saved my life and everyone else's in that platoon," Warrant Officer Minor said.

Mr. Walker said his client is prepared to testify but he didn't know Monday whether he would. Mr. Thomas also is charged with having drug paraphernalia, which police said they found immediately after the shooting.

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. First Published May 12, 2014 11:48 AM


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