Veteran accused in shooting at Washington grocery acted in self-defense, attorney says

| Monday, May 12, 2014, 12:00 p.m.

There's no question an Army veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq fatally shot a man in a Washington County parking lot, his attorney told a jury on Monday, but jurors should acquit him because he did it in self-defense.

The trial of Brandon Thomas, 32, of Upper St. Clair began in Washington County before a crowded courtroom. A jury of six men and six women must decide whether the former staff sergeant was justified in killing Vaughn Simonelli, 55, of Chartiers after a driving incident on Oct. 18, 2012, outside the Shop 'n Save in Washington.

Thomas is charged with homicide and three counts of possessing drug paraphernalia.

Calling Simonelli an “angry, deranged person,” Thomas' attorney, Frank Walker, said his client was defending himself following an argument that Simonelli started.

“As a self-defense-trained veteran, he pulls out a lawfully concealed firearm to defend himself,” Walker said of Thomas.

Prosecutors don't see it that way. First Assistant District Attorney Chad Schneider is seeking a conviction of first- or third-degree murder or manslaughter. He said Simonelli was shot once in the shoulder and once in the back.

“(Thomas) also had packets used for heroin transportation in his boot,” Schneider said.

Recollections of what happened differed among witnesses who testified. Prosecutors contend Thomas drove recklessly down the center turning lane on Jefferson Avenue in a black Hummer, passing cars until he got to a red light.

Simonelli, who was behind Thomas at the light, got out of his car and yelled at Thomas.

When the light turned green, Thomas drove off and turned into the supermarket parking lot. Simonelli followed and blocked in Thomas' vehicle once he pulled into a spot.

Roger Anderson, 71, testified he walked out of the store and saw both men out of their cars, arguing. He said Thomas was saying he had to leave because he had a family member in the hospital and went to get into his Hummer.

“(Simonelli) approached the door and said, ‘You're not going nowhere,' and he threw a punch,” Anderson said. “Then, I heard two shots immediately after. I ran over and said, ‘You didn't have to shoot him.' ”

John McGary, 73, who was heading to the grocery store, said he heard the argument and saw Thomas waving his gun — a Ruger pistol — over Simonelli's head.

“(Thomas) was using the F-word, saying, ‘I have a child in the hospital, and I have to get out of here.' He put his gun in his holster and went toward his Hummer. Once the fella got in the Hummer, the other man started toward him,” said McGary, who heard shots seconds later.

Thomas has a wife and three children. Walker said his client made up the story about the sick child to get away from Simonelli.

Thomas has support from former comrades, said Army Warrant Officer Jeremiah Minor, who plans to testify on Tuesday as a character witness.

The two served together in the 173rd Airborne Infantry in Afghanistan, where Minor said Thomas saved his life. Their platoon came under heavy Taliban fire and Minor was the forward observer, whose job was to give coordinates of incoming fire to Thomas, who was returning mortar fire.

“Everyone was duck-and-cover, but he stood by my side and waited for me to get my coordinates. If he would have left me, there would have been no one to return fire,” said Minor, 36, who drove from Cincinnati for the trial.

Minor and Walker said Thomas was honorably discharged in 2010 and has three Purple Heart medals.

Minor views the case as clear-cut self-defense.

“Any soldier in his situation would have done the exact same thing,” Minor said. “If he was a little old lady, we wouldn't be here.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or

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