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Violent attacker shot to death on reservation

Originally ran here as:
"Witnesses: Killing Self-Defense"
Wednesday, June 20, 2001
By Mike McAndrew and Erin Duggan
2001 The Syracuse Newspapers

A man who shot another man to death Tuesday afternoon on the Onondaga Nation territory was released from custody without being charged Tuesday night because witnesses told detectives he fired in self-defense.

Anderson Johnson, 34, shot Gary O. Thomas, 33, once with a shotgun during a fight at 12:30 p.m. inside the trailer on Route 11A where Johnson lives, Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh said.

The district attorney's office will probably ask a grand jury to review the evidence and decide if a crime was committed, Walsh said.

Johnson and Thomas were both Onondaga Nation members. The shooting was the second homicide on the Onondaga Nation in 2 years, and only the third slaying there in 22 years.

Witnesses told detectives that Thomas, an iron worker who lived on the Onondaga territory, came to the trailer to confront Jonathan Buckshot because he believed Buckshot had fought one of Thomas' relatives, the sheriff said.

Walsh said the witnesses claimed Thomas began assaulting Buckshot with a wood stove shovel he found on the porch of the trailer.

The witnesses said that when Johnson ordered Thomas to stop beating Buckshot, Thomas turned toward Johnson, Walsh said. "According to Anderson, Thomas went after him, and that's when he fired the shot," Walsh said.

"Witnesses are saying it was self-defense. That Gary was the aggressor. The guy who got killed had a shovel and was hitting (Buckshot) with that. Anderson told him to drop the shovel," the sheriff said.

When Onondaga County deputies arrived, Thomas was dead in Johnson's living room, with Johnson's gun resting on a kitchen table about 10 feet away.

Detectives took Johnson to the sheriff's headquarters and questioned him for hours before allowing him to leave Tuesday evening.

Buckshot, who also was questioned, did not appear to be seriously injured, Walsh said.

Walsh said it appeared that Thomas was shot once in the chest from close range.

Dr. Mary Jumbelic, the Onondaga County medical examiner, is expected to perform an autopsy on Thomas to determine the cause of death.

Thomas' widow, Michelle, and several of Thomas' relatives declined to comment Tuesday about the shooting.

Detectives planned to meet with Thomas' survivors Tuesday night to explain why Johnson was not charged, said Sgt. John D'Eredita, the sheriff's department spokesman.

Late Tuesday, the sheriff's department began searching Johnson's trailer for evidence after a judge issued a warrant that stipulated that the detectives had to obtain permission from the Onondagas' chiefs.

Onondaga chiefs gave detectives permission to search the crime scene for evidence and to make any arrests, if necessary, Walsh said.

"This hasn't happened in a long time, a shooting like this," said Sid Hill, the acting tadadaho, or spiritual leader, of the Iroquois Confederacy.

The shooting prompted officials to postpone the Onondaga Nation School's eighth-grade graduation ceremony, which was scheduled tonight.

Several Onondaga chiefs declined to comment on the shooting.

Ronald Shenandoah, the Onondaga Nation Fire Department chief and leader of the Onondaga Nation security patrol, said the nation's security force had not been asked to intervene in any prior disputes between Thomas and Johnson.

The homicide was the first on the territory since Ronald K. Jones Sr., 64, of Route 11A, was found dead in his home Feb. 11, 1999, after firefighters extinguished a fire there. Jumbelic has ruled that Jones died from blunt force trauma to his head, not from the fire. No one has been arrested in connection with the Jones homicide.

Prior to the Jones case, there hadn't been a murder on the Onondaga territory since 1979, when Bishop Raymond Oehly was killed.

The Onondaga Nation territory has generally been peaceful since supporters of the Council of Chiefs clashed in 1994 with supporters of several Onondagas who owned cigarette shops on the territory. The chiefs banished three of the business owners.

Thomas, a member of the Beaver clan, has lived on the Onondaga territory most of his life, according to Onondagas. Described as athletic, Thomas had fought as a boxer in the past. In recent months, he was employed as an iron worker helping to build the nation's new lacrosse and hockey arena. He has several children, including an infant son born in March. Thomas lived with his family in a recently built home.

Johnson has only lived on the nation for about two or three years, several Onondagas said.

The shooting occurred just hours after Johnson checked in with the Onondaga County Probation Department, said Commissioner E. Robert Czaplicki.

Last month, Johnson, who was already on a pre-trial release from a December arrest in Onondaga County, was arrested in St. Lawrence County after state police accused him of possessing 15 pounds of hydroponic marijuana.

Johnson was granted a pre-trial release by a county court judge in that county, instead of posting his $50,000 cash or $100,000 bond bail, Czaplicki said, and was being supervised by Czaplicki's department.

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