The verdict came far more swiftly than anyone expected. In fewer than three hours, a jury of eight women and four men, after hearing nearly five days of testimony, decided the fate of the only man who had witnessed the shooting death of 33-year-old Aron Thomas, an Olivebridge man who left behind a wife and two young sons.
That sole witness, David Reese, was also the man the jury determined had killed Thomas on a cold February morning last year, in the maintenance shop of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Smith Street headquarters in Kingston, where both men worked.
“Aron Thomas went about his duties on a day like any other day, not expecting to die,” county senior assistant district attorney Katherine Van Loan told the jury in her closing statement.
The jury convicted Reese, a 54-year-old father of two teenage daughters, of second-degree murder, the most serious charge the former DEP maintenance man faced. He’s now looking at a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Reese is a big man with a shaven head and luxurious graying beard. The day before his conviction, he took the stand in his own defense.
Speaking calmly and in a deep voice, he told the jury he hadn’t intended to kill Thomas.
Reese said he’d gotten to work on Monday, February 3, 2014, at about 6:30 a.m. He had a .45-caliber Glock tucked in the waistband of his pants. He’d been bringing the gun to work for several months. He needed it, he said, “for protection.”
Reese said Thomas “cut him off” on his way to the small office he shared with Thomas and another worker. Ordinarily, Reese said, he stashed his gun in his lunch box or his jacket. But after he logged on to his office computer, he said he heard Thomas making a racket outside the office, slamming doors and slamming a clipboard on a filing cabinet. That was when he said he confronted the younger man in the building’s maintenance shop, holding the gun hidden at his side behind his right leg.
While standing a foot or two away from him, Reese said he accused Thomas of having broken into Reese’s Gilboa home in Schoharie County several years ago. He then accused Thomas of stalking him, his wife and daughters.
“What would you do,” Reese said he demanded of Thomas, “if someone broke into your home and stalked you and your family?”
Reese said Thomas replied by saying “Well, I’d be afraid to go home and I’d be always looking over my shoulder.”
Reese pressed Thomas for an answer again, saying “Why are you stalking my family?”
Then, according to the only surviving witness of the confrontation, Thomas threw up his hands and said “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me!”
When Thomas saw the gun, the younger man reached for it, Reese said. A struggle ensued. A shot was fired at the same time Reese said he struck Thomas with a punch from his left hand that sent Thomas to the shop’s concrete floor, where Reese said Thomas struck his head. Thomas then “lunged up” from the floor at the bigger man. In a clinch, Reese said he fell backwards while pulling on Thomas’s hoodie and “as I fell, the gun went off.” Thomas, Reese said, “just dropped,” falling atop Reese. Reese said he pulled himself from beneath Thomas’s body and called 911 on his cell phone.
“I just shot a man,” he told the dispatcher.
He said he then walked up a flight of stairs and turned himself into a DEP policeman, surrendering his gun and telling him twice that he’d “shot Aron.”
Following his narration, Reese’s attorney, Jeffrey Hoerter, asked Reese if he had intended to kill Thomas.
“No sir,” he replied. “I just wanted to let him know that unless he stopped stalking me and my family, there would be consequences.”
A day later, Van Loan provided another version of what had happened that February morning. She stood before a projected close-up photo of Thomas that showed the fatal bullet wound in his neck. Above the projected photo stood Reese’s words to the 911 dispatcher: “I just shot a man.”
Van Loan said there was no evidence of a close-quarters struggle. Nothing in the room had been disturbed, nothing knocked over. The head wound that Reese claimed had resulted from the struggle had in fact been inflicted by Reese, who she said struck Thomas with the butt of his gun.
She went on to dismiss the findings of defense psychiatrist Dominic Ferro, who testified that Reese suffered from a “delusional disorder,” and an “extreme emotional disturbance.” She invoked the testimony of the prosecution’s psychiatric expert, Kevin Smith, who contradicted Ferro’s diagnosis, saying that Reese may have been depressed due to physical issues, but that he didn’t have a personality disorder.
Reese’s “step-by-step account” of his actions that morning, his 911 call and his surrendering to the DEP police officer demonstrated, Van Loan said, “how he was fully aware” of his actions.
His intent that morning was clear, she said — to “execute” Aron Thomas.
“[Reese] didn’t like Aron Thomas. They didn’t get along. There was jealousy. Racism. But nothing justified what he did,” she said.
Reese’s version of events, she concluded, was nothing more than an attempt by him “to excuse the inexcusable.”
The jury’s decision announced, the grim-faced Reese was led out of the courtroom, his hands jammed in his pockets. After Ulster County Judge Donald Williams enthusiastically thanked and praised the jury for their service, after Van Loan huddled briefly with Thomas’s friends and family before declaring “justice had been served” and later promising to seek “substantial” prison time at Reese’s scheduled August sentencing, and after the jurors and the family and friends all declined comment, public defender Jeffrey Hoerter stood in the courthouse parking lot, meditatively drawing on a cigarette.
He didn’t have to say he was disappointed in the verdict, though he voiced surprise at the quickness with which the jury decided Reese’s fate.
Between draws on his smoke, Hoerter, who said he intends to appeal, gave the journalists standing around him a quote they liked: “I have to respect the jury’s decision, and I do.” he said. “I don’t have to agree with it, and I don’t.”