A Petersburg man who fatally shot a Chesterfield County mother because he didn’t want to pay child support for two children he fathered was sentenced Wednesday to 43 years behind bars in a case that hinged on a recanted alibi.
Brandon W. Thomas admitted to a friend that he killed Bobbie Jo Bell, a 27-year-old mother of four, on Sept. 11, 2010, because money was tight and he couldn’t afford to support any more children, prosecutors said. Thomas was already paying support to his mother who was taking care of another child he fathered with a different woman.
The victim had filed a court petition three months before her slaying seeking child support for two of her four children that paternity tests concluded Thomas had fathered. Bell was living with three of her children; the fourth lived in Southwest Virginia.
A support hearing involving Thomas had been set for Sept. 20 of that year, but Bell was found fatally shot nine days earlier in her home in the Chimney Corner mobile home park in the 8600 block of Jefferson Davis Highway.
Judge Harold W. Burgess imposed a prison term of 43 years that a Chesterfield Circuit Court jury recommended after finding Thomas, 28, guilty of first-degree murder and felonious use of a firearm following a week-long trial in March. Jurors also recommended that Thomas pay a $100,000 fine for the killing, but there was no discussion of that in court Wednesday and Burgess didn’t impose it.
Thomas delivered a lengthy, prepared statement Wednesday, claiming the police investigation and certain trial testimony was biased, unprofessional and negligent, and urging the judge to set aside the guilty verdict and grant him a new trial. But Burgess said he found the jury’s verdict was supported by substantial evidence and rejected Thomas’ bid.
The case turned on testimony from a key prosecution witness who initially provided the defendant with a false alibi, telling police that Thomas was with him in Fairfax County the night of the killing.
The man, Don Van Story, a close friend of the defendant, initially claimed that he and Thomas had planned to attend a party that night but decided instead to spend the evening at Van Story’s home.
But Van Story eventually recanted.
“It took about a year, and then he came forward to police and said that the version that he originally told was not true, and he came clean about it,” said Chesterfield Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Shawn Gobble, who prosecuted the case with Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Larry Hogan.
Gobble said Thomas’ alibi was further undermined through cellphone records, bank documents, surveillance video and DNA evidence obtained by investigators.
For example, Thomas claimed that he and Van Story had made some purchases with his credit card the night of the killing at a 7-Eleven near Van Story’s Fairfax apartment. Thomas’ credit card was used but surveillance video from the store showed only Van Story buying the items.
Although the prosecution had no witness that could put Thomas at the victim’s home the night of the killing, authorities recovered a sample of Thomas’ DNA from a pillow that had been placed over Bell’s head when she was shot, prosecutors said.
Bell died of a single gunshot wound to the head from a Hi-Point .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol.
Van Story told police that Thomas advised that he had tossed the gun in a pond near Regency Lake Apartments on Meadowdale Boulevard, where Thomas and the victim once lived.
After 17 separate dives in two separate ponds there, the gun was found in December 2012 by an FBI dive team. A ballistics test matched the gun to the slug that killed Bell.
Bell’s three young daughters were inside the family’s home at the time of the killing, and the two oldest children — ages 2 and 3 — were found smeared with their mother’s blood after they had crawled over her corpse, prosecutors said.
A neighbor of Bell’s, Shirley Phillips, said in 2010 that Bell told her she was excited to spend the weekend with Thomas and hoped to rekindle their relationship. At the time, Thomas lived in Upper Marlboro, Md; he moved back to the Richmond area in early 2013 and was living in Petersburg when indicted for Bell’s murder.
Phillips said she last saw Bell about 7 p.m. on Sept. 10, 2010. The next morning, Bell’s oldest two daughters showed up outside Phillips’ trailer naked, telling Phillips that their mother was asleep. Phillips alerted the mobile home’s maintenance man, who discovered Bell’s body inside and removed the youngest child — age 1 — unharmed from her crib.