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Army veteran will stand trial in fatal shooting in Washington County parking lot

| Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, 1:18 p.m.

An Upper St. Clair veteran accused of killing a man in a parking lot was cursing and claiming his daughter was in the hospital during the confrontation with the victim, witnesses said Wednesday.

Police disclosed during a preliminary hearing for Brandon Thomas that they found empty stamp bags commonly used to package heroin in the suspect's sock when they arrested him for the fatal shooting on Oct. 18.

Thomas' lawyer, Frank Walker, tried to get a new drug charge connected to the bags dismissed, arguing there was no proof his client had any drugs. He said Wednesday was the first time he heard anyone say Thomas, a father of three, mentioned a hospitalized daughter.

Walker argued Thomas, 30, whom he said is a decorated veteran, was acting in self-defense when he killed Vaughn Simonelli outside of the Shop 'n Save in Washington. District Judge Lawrence Hopkins ordered Thomas to stand trial and remain jailed on a homicide charge after hearing from several witnesses.

Coroner Tim Warco testified that Simonelli was shot twice, once in the left back of his neck and once in his front right shoulder.

Witnesses John McGary and Robert Newman of Washington testified that Simonelli did not display a weapon.

University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said it would be difficult for a defendant to successfully argue he acted in self-defense in a case like this.

“He has to prove that he wasn't the aggressor, that he reasonably believed that it was immediately necessary to act to protect himself from death or serious bodily injury, and that he could not have retreated to avoid the danger,” said Burkoff, who is not involved in the case.

McGary said he saw Thomas wield the gun over Simonelli's head before returning it to a holster. He said Simonelli, who was on his cell phone, told Thomas, “you're not going anywhere.” McGary turned to walk away and soon heard two shots. When he turned back around, Simonelli was on the ground, McGary said.

Newman said Thomas was about an arm's length away when he shot Simonelli twice in the chest. Walker said that testimony conflicted with the coroner's report that stated the victim was shot in the neck, but Newman said he was “absolutely sure” both shots were in the chest.

Washington police Lt. Dan Stanek said Thomas confessed to shooting Simonelli.

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

Prosecutors said officials are investigating another argument involving Thomas and Simonelli shortly before the shooting. Witnesses told investigators that they yelled at each other on nearby Jefferson Avenue.

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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