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Lawyer: Suspect in fatal Washington County shooting defended himself

| Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012, 11:48 a.m.

Brandon Thomas is a decorated war hero who acted in self-defense when he fatally shot a man in the parking lot of a Washington County Shop 'n Save, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

Attorney Frank Walker requested a delay in Thomas' hearing on a homicide charge because witnesses came forward who can “shed light on the incident.”

Thomas, 30, of Upper St. Clair faces a hearing Nov. 7 and remains in the Washington County Correctional Facility without bail in the Oct. 18 shooting death of Vaughn Simonelli, 55, of Chartiers. District Judge Robert Redlinger agreed to postpone the hearing.

Witnesses told investigators Thomas and Simonelli yelled at each other on Jefferson Avenue, a few blocks from the West Beau Street plaza where police said Thomas shot Simonelli twice with a small-caliber pistol.

Walker said Thomas acted in self-defense.

Mike Lucas, assistant district attorney, said prosecutors have at least five witnesses prepared to testify. He would not say whether he believes road rage prompted the incident.

Thomas served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, Walker said. The Army honorably discharged him in 2010, and he received honors that include three Purple Hearts, Walker said.

Among people offering Thomas support are members of the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, with which Thomas served, Walker said.

“The first thing I said to him when I met him was, ‘Thank you for your service,' ” Walker said. “Now he's in a position of defending himself based on the Constitution he was defending overseas.”

Walker would not say whether Thomas suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, saying that's “irrelevant.”

Relatives for both parties did not comment as police ushered them from court.

Three days before the shooting, police in North Franklin approached Thomas when officers noticed him asleep at the wheel of his car outside the closed Club 40 on West Chestnut Street just after midnight. Thomas told police he had a weapon and was wearing a bulletproof vest. Police found two assault rifles, a shotgun and several pistols, all in cases and all of which Thomas owns legally, said Chief Rich Horner.

“It was strange but not illegal,” Horner said.

Thomas “appeared paranoid,” Horner said, and told police someone had been chasing him. Police took Thomas to Washington Hospital for blood tests to determine whether he was driving while intoxicated. Results were not available, Horner said.

About 8 a.m. on Oct. 15, Thomas walked several miles to the impound lot to retrieve his vehicle, Horner said, and later that day, police returned his weapons.

“We had nothing to charge him with,” he said.

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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