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East Vandergrift homeowner's body found in barrel in basement; son charged

| Tuesday, June 24, 2014, 12:00 p.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Vandergrift police and Westmoreland County detectives confer next to 301 Kennedy Avenue in East Vandergrift after a mans body was found on Tuesday morning, June 24, 2014.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Investigators gather outside of 301 Kennedy Ave. in East Vandergrift where the body of a man was found Tuesday, June 24, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
David Jordan Thomas photographed on Tuesday, June 24, 2014.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
An animal control officer removes a dog from 301 Kennedy Avenue in East Vandergrift after a mans body was found on Tuesday morning, June 24, 2014.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Vandergrift police and Westmoreland County detectives confer next to 301 Kennedy Avenue in East Vandergrift after a mans body was found on Tuesday morning, June 24, 2014.

Police on Tuesday night charged a 31-year-old East Vandergrift man whose father was found about 10 hours earlier in a plastic barrel in their basement.

In a video arraignment, David Jordan Thomas was charged with abuse of a corpse, identity theft and a related access device charge involving the death of his father, David F. Thomas, 59.

Police think Thomas died at least two weeks ago.

But they don't know how he died or exactly when he died.

“We don't know yet if it was natural causes or foul play,” said Vandergrift police Chief Joe Caporali.

An autopsy is planned for Wednesday, and additional charges are possible, Caporali said.

Caporali said the dead man was a Navy veteran who was on disability.

Police said Thomas was found dead in a blue, plastic 55-gallon barrel about 10:30 a.m. in the house he shared with his son at 301 Kennedy Ave. near the train tracks.

According to a police affidavit, David J. Thomas told police and detectives that he “found his father dead and cold to the touch” and that he used his father's S&T bank card to order the barrel.

The barrel was delivered on June 10 or 11. The receipt was found in the kitchen.

Caporali said the suspect drove to an ATM machine in Allegheny Township, where he used a bank card to withdraw about $500 at a time — ultimately removing about $3,400. Officials didn't specify when those transactions took place.

At night court, Export District Judge Charles R. Conway ordered the suspect, who was at the Vandergrift police station, sent to the county jail in lieu of $55,000 cash bond pending a July 8 preliminary hearing.

The county's coroner's office assisted county detectives in the investigation.

Walking down the steps

The discovery unfolded when one of Thomas' neighbors called police to say they hadn't seen him in quite a while.

Acting on that tip to check on Thomas' welfare, police visited the 1½-story frame house and met Thomas' son at the door just after 10 a.m., police said.

Patrolman Bill Moore talked with Thomas's son.

In the affidavit, Moore said he smelled a foul odor when the younger Thomas opened the door.

In addition, Thomas told Moore that his father was at a VA hospital in Pittsburgh, but Moore checked and found that not to be true.

Moore summoned Caporali, his chief, to come to the house sandwiched between Norfolk Southern railroad tracks no more than 25 feet from the front door and a sewer construction project close to the small back yard.

Police said the younger Thomas invited officers inside to check on his dad's identification and medications.

David Jordan Thomas eventually led police downstairs and the odor “grew stronger.”

“We had a suspicion we would find him,” Caporali said.

“As we went downstairs we steeled ourselves,” the chief said. “You never know what you will find.”

Caporali said the suspect walked over to the barrel and opened the lid.

“We saw the top of a man's head and part of a shoulder,” Caporali said.

The body was wrapped in at least one blanket.

Neighbors said David F. Thomas has been on a military disabilty for many years and was ill.

One word was used time and time again to describe him: quiet.

Police said they can't recall disturbance calls at the small house.

Neighbors upset

News of Thomas' death rocked the community of about 800, who live in mostly modest but well-kept houses not far from the Kiski River.

At times, Thomas attended Mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace parish at the 400 block Kennedy Ave., according to the Rev. Michael Sciberras, the parish priest.

“I really don't know him. He was quiet,” the priest said. “I haven't seen him in a long time.

“I have never seen the son.”Neighbor Brian Butch, whose parents live next to the Thomas house, said he used to see Thomas walking his small brown-and-white dog. Thomas was “nice.”

Butch said he grew up with the elder Thomas, who as a youth lived one street away.

He said Thomas was ill so often that it wasn't unusual for him not to go outside for weeks. Then he'd walk the dog.

“You'd see him for a couple days and then not for a couple of weeks,” Butch said.

“No one can believe this,” said a tearful Mary Anuszek, who has lived in East Vandergrift since the 1950s and spent four years as mayor.The dead man's father, Andy, was once mayor.

“I served on council with him for 30 years,” said John Guerico, who lives across the tracks from the house.

“This is very sad,” he said. “I knew Andy's son was in the military, on disability, and sick for years.”

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

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