A deadly shooting in May was a justifiable act of self-defense, Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf announced in a statement Monday.
The shooting victim was identified by Lebanon city police as 33-year-old Thomas Vance, who was killed after an argument that morning near the 100 block of Jones Street.
According to previous reports, police were dispatched to the scene at around 8 a.m. on May 3. They found a man with a gunshot wound on the scene and transported him to a Dauphin County medical facility, where he died from his injuries.
On Monday, after a six-month-long joint investigation by the Lebanon City Police Department and Lebanon County Detective Bureau, Hess Graf “ruled the use of deadly force by a private citizen … ‘justified’ under Pennsylvania’s self-defense laws.”
According to the narrative provided in Monday’s release, the shooter in this case “utilized his personal handgun for self-protection” and shot Vance “one time in his upper torso.”
“Because the shooting is ruled lawful, the private citizen will not be identified,” according to the statement.
“Any loss of life is tragic,” Hess Graf says in the release. “Families are left without their loved ones. In this instance, the fatality is especially tragic as it was wholly avoidable. … The citizen acted lawfully, but regrettably, in the death of the decedent.”
A construction worker, Vance was a 2008 graduate of Northern Lebanon High School. He is survived by a daughter, Leila Maria.
Read More: Thomas M. Vance (1990-2023)
“Per the longstanding policy of the District Attorney’s Office, this release is issued as a final determination and explanation of the ruling,” the release states. “Graf … will not be taking any interviews regarding the incident.”
A look at what happened
According to the narrative, Vance was incarcerated at the Lebanon County jail months prior to the May 3 shooting. While he was imprisoned, he left personal belongings in the care of a third party. After he was paroled to a residential recovery program in the area, the release says, Vance saw the person who had his belongings arrested; when he learned that a “private citizen” had the items in his care, Vance “went to the citizen’s home for the initial purpose of locating his left-behind, personal items. The incident at issue came as a result.”
The release states that Vance and an unidentified companion approached the citizen in the rear of his home, where the man was on the ground working on a vehicle. Vance asked about his belongings, he release says, and the other man “told Vance he would need to speak with the third-party who took possession of his things and asked to not get involved.” Vance and his companion walked away, the release says, but then Vance made a call on his cellphone, said that the other man had “lied” to him, and returned for a second confrontation.
The citizen stood up, apparently holding a tool in each hand. According to the DA’s release, Vance appeared ready for a fight and pulled a weapon — and that’s when the encounter turned deadly.
“Vance faced the citizen and ‘squared up’ his body, braced for a fight,” the release says. “He jumped forward towards the citizen multiple times. The citizen dropped the object in his right hand and swung a silver tool held in his left hand towards Vance; Vance appeared to reach into the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt and extract a handheld weapon. The investigation revealed a backpack carried by Vance before and after the incident; the front pouch revealed a switchblade knife with apparent fresh blood. DNA forensic testing showed the blood belonged to Vance. This matches video which appears to show Vance extract an object from his pocket, hold said object in his hand, and aggressively move towards the private citizen.
“Both men took various swings and lunges towards one another. Vance then reached for a black pipe on the ground between the two men. The citizen swung his silver tool to block Vance from grabbing the pipe – this caused the citizen to lose control of the pipe altogether. It fell to the ground and left the citizen defenseless. Vance then grabbed the black pipe and chased the citizen as the citizen ran towards his home.
“Vance caught the citizen, grabbed him, and used an overhand motion to strike the pipe over the citizen’s head. The citizen fell to the ground. As he fell, Vance grabbed him and again used an overhand motion to strike the citizen’s head with the pipe. The citizen yelled ‘you’re going to jail’ and Vance walked away. Vance walked in the direction of the citizen’s vehicle, which was surrounded by the citizen’s own tools.”
It was at that point, the release says, that the citizen retrieved a handgun from the vehicle he had been working on. The gun, the release states, “was lawfully purchased and lawfully possessed by the citizen.”
“The citizen pointed the gun in Vance’s direction; Vance taunted him, chased him, and continued to aggressively hold onto the black pipe.”
Vance continued to “aggressively” pursue the other man, despite the gun pointed at him and verbal warnings to get away, the release states. “After multiple efforts to evade Vance,” it says, the man fired once at Vance’s upper torso.
“Vance turned, walked away, dropped the pipe, and picked up his nearby backpack. Vance’s companion went with him. The two men walked down the street to finally leave the area. After he moved a short distance, Vance collapsed on the ground. He remained in that position until medical help arrived on-scene minutes later.”
An autopsy confirmed the cause of death was the single gunshot wound.
The man wielding the gun called 911 to report the shooting, the report says. Video of the incident, provided to police by local residents and businesses, backed up his story of events, showing that the man “tried what was practical to avoid confrontation before he used deadly force and fired his gun.” An examination also showed the man had lumps on his head “consistent with being struck with a pipe.”
Hess Graf stresses in the release that the interactions between Vance and the gunman took place “mere feet” from the man’s property, and he tried on more than one occasion to flee to his home. “As such, Pennsylvania’s laws with respect to deadly force and self-defense, and the heightened protections they provide to a person in his or her own or on his or her own property, apply,” the release states.
“The citizen tried to initially run away from Vance. He obtained his handgun and told Vance to ‘get away.’ Vance chose instead to pursue and chase the citizen in an aggressive manner. He verbally taunted the citizen even after the firearm’s reveal. Vance never tried to disengage or deescalate the situation, nor did he ever drop his weapon,” the narrative continues.
“The law provides a man may use deadly force when necessary to defend himself from a deadly incident which occurs in or directly outside of his own home. Special protections are given under the law for the use of deadly force when in your private residence – these protections are often referred to as the ‘Castle Doctrine.’ When in one’s own home, a private citizen does not need to retreat or try to escape before he uses deadly force. In this instance, the citizen attempted to do so anyway without success. The citizen fired a lone shot in an effort to protect himself from a repeat of Vance’s earlier attack and continued chase.”
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