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Police informant to face trial

| Friday, Aug. 31, 2001

A Duquesne man charged with slashing the throat of a neighbor will stand trial even though he is a confidential informant for a police agency.

Thomas G. Watson, 32, of South Seventh Street, was held for court at a preliminary hearing Thursday before Deputy Coroner Timothy Uhrich for the Aug. 16 death of Eugene Comer, 44, who lived a few houses away on the same street.

On the day of the killing, the two friends went to a secluded wooded area near the Union Railroad yard in Duquesne to retrieve a hidden cache of firearms to sell at a scheduled 7:30 a.m. meeting with two other people, according to testimony by Allegheny County Homicide Detective Bill Palmer.

The deal was to include $2,000 worth of cocaine, Palmer testified.

There was an active arrest warrant from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for Comer at the time he died at 5:15 a.m., after stumbling from the woods into the employee parking lot of the Union Railroad office bleeding profusely.

Comer's death was caused by a gaping 6-inch slash from the front of his throat up to under his right ear, said Dr. John A. Delmastro, a forensic pathologist from the coroner's office.

During the homicide investigation, police discovered from Comer's girlfriend that he went with Watson at 4 a.m. to buy or sell cocaine.

Palmer left multiple messages on Watson's cellular telephone during an extensive manhunt that included sending a SWAT team to a relative's home in Fayette County.

On Aug. 20, Watson used his cellular telephone to call Palmer back to tell police his side of the story and to find an attorney, testified Palmer. Watson surrendered the next day.

Watson told Palmer that when they got to the wooded area, Comer tried to rob him and they struggled. Comer was accidentally cut when Watson was trying to defend himself.

Comer then fell down a steep 80-foot hill, discovered he was bleeding and went after Watson saying, 'You cut me: I'm going to kill you,' Palmer testified.

Comer wrapped his shirt around his neck wound and stumbled about 250 yards, where he fell at the rail yard calling out: 'Hey Buddy,' to two Union employees before he died.

A knife was not found in the wooded area after two extensive searches by police. Drugs were not recovered, either.

Watson's attorney, Bruce A. Carsia, objected to the use of a cellular telephone conversation that may not have been made by his client. But after a 15-minute sidebar discussion with both attorneys, Uhrich allowed information about the cellular telephone conversation to be used as evidence.

Tom Merrick, Allegheny County assistant district attorney, argued that the fatal slashing was not a case of involuntary manslaughter or self-defense.

After the hearing, Comer's family said they did not believe Watson's story that he acted in self-defense.

'I just want everyone to know that my brother was going to testify (when he was to be arrested) the next day and Watson didn't want him to talk,' said Deborah Gooden. 'He killed my brother. We don't believe it was self defense.

'And if Watson was working for the district attorney's office, then the DA shouldn't be handling this case,' Gooden added.

When Watson was arrested, police found 16 high-powered rifles, a dozen knives and a martial arts-style steel sickle at his home.

Palmer testified that Watson was an informant, but did not name the district attorney's office as the law enforcement agency that used him in that capacity.

Carsia confirmed after the hearing that his client had been working for the district attorney's investigative branch.

'The informant aspect is a concern,' Carsia said. 'The victim may have known Mr. Watson was a confidential informant.'

Merrick would comment only on testimony that came out in open court.

Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., declined to comment on any confidential informant issues.

Regardless of Watson's status, John Gooden, Comer's stepfather, said, 'We want justice done.'

Rose A. Domenick can be reached at rdomenick@tribweb.com or (412) 380-8521.

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