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Police make arrest in fatal shooting that occurred near Washington County Courthouse

| Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, 11:12 a.m.

Washington police on Friday charged an Upper St. Clair man for the fatal shooting of a man in what authorities said started as a road-rage incident that escalated.

Brandon Thomas, 30, of Redfern Drive is accused of shooting Vaughn A. Simonelli, 55, of Chartiers twice with a small-caliber pistol as the men argued on Thursday in the parking lot of a strip plaza a few blocks from the Washington County Courthouse.

“We're trying to see how far back the altercation started,” Washington Detective Dan Stanek said.

Witnesses said the men were yelling at each other in the 400 or 500 block of Jefferson Avenue, a few blocks from the West Beau Street plaza where the shooting occurred, Stanek said.

Simonelli punched Thomas before Thomas grabbed a gun out of his Hummer and fired, witnesses told the Tribune-Review. Stanek would not confirm that, saying detectives were still investigating. A police report says only that Thomas pulled a gun as the men stood alongside Thomas' sport utility vehicle.

Exactly what happened will play a key role in the prosecution of the case, experts said.

“Every American has the right to be free from assault. Just because (Simonelli) didn't have a gun, fists and feet can be deadly weapons or ruin the rest of a person's life,” said Kim Stolfer, chairman of the advocacy group Firearms Owners Against Crime. “But how he was punched, what led up to the situation, all those factors have to be looked at.”

University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said, “It could be you are faced with some kind of force, but you're not always allowed to use deadly force against people. You can only use (deadly force) if it is necessary to defend yourself.”

Thomas was charged with homicide and was being held in the Washington County Correctional Facility without bail, police said. His preliminary hearing is tentatively set for Wednesday.

No one answered the door at Thomas' home on a quiet, tree-lined street with large homes in Upper St. Clair. Neighbors said they did not know him and that he had not lived there long.

In Chartiers, Betty Gontas, 49, of Washington said her parents have rented a small home that Simonelli owned along busy Henderson Avenue for the past three years. Simonelli sometimes stayed in the basement, but more often spent time at a girlfriend's place.

Pennsylvania court records show he was charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and mischief in a 1990 incident, but pleaded guilty only to the latter offense and spent two years on probation.

“It's sad and shocking,” she said of Simonelli's shooting death.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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