Jury convicts Safco shooter of manslaughter
Published 8:00 am Thursday, August 3, 2023
After deliberating for nearly three hours on July 25, an Isle of Wight County jury found a Carrollton man guilty of voluntary manslaughter for killing a coworker two years ago while the two were employed at the Safco Distribution Center near Windsor.
Prosecutors had charged 25-year-old Preston Kyle Thomas with first-degree murder, which would have carried a sentence of 20 years to life in prison under Virginia law.
Thomas shot and killed 26-year-old Rakim Breeden of Como, North Carolina, on Sept. 23, 2021, following an argument sheriff’s deputies said was precipitated by Breeden knocking Thomas’s cellphone off a ledge and damaging it.
A sentencing hearing is set for Oct. 11. Voluntary manslaughter, defined in Virginia case law as a heat-of-passion act resulting from “reasonable provocation” by the victim or mutual combat, carries a sentence of one to 10 years in prison, or at the discretion of the jury or court, up to 12 months in jail.
Prosecutors had pushed for a first-degree murder conviction.
Thomas’ attorney, Timothy Clancy, characterized Breeden as the aggressor and his client’s actions as self-defense throughout the two-day trial. The jury, in reducing the charge to manslaughter, rejected the self-defense argument but found Breeden did play a role in escalating the argument that led to his death.
First to take the witness stand on July 24 was Lance Simms, senior distribution center manager at Safco’s Windsor facility. Simms testified that he heard a “loud popping sound” the day of the shooting and found Breeden on the floor of the receiving dock where trucks are loaded, bleeding badly. Breeden died en route to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips showed video recordings from Safco’s security cameras that Simms had provided to law enforcement. Simms identified Thomas and Breeden in the videos.
Eddie Tilley, a Safco employee, testified on July 25 that he’d overheard the altercation between Thomas and Breeden around 2:15 p.m. the day of the shooting while Tilley was in his car on break. Tilley, who testified he’d reclined his car seat and ducked when he heard the gunshots, said he heard Thomas shout “Where’s my money?” at Breeden prior to shooting him.
Thomas himself testified during the trial’s second day, telling jurors Breeden had refused to pay for repairs to Thomas’ cellphone, took off his shirt and punched Thomas in the face.
Thomas testified that when he’d attempted to get away by going outside to his car, Breeden followed him. Thomas said he’d retrieved a gun from his car after becoming “scared” of Breeden.
Under cross-examination by Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Edwards, Thomas admitted Breeden hadn’t knocked him to the floor when punching him, and that he could see from Breeden’s having removed his shirt that he didn’t have a weapon. Thomas also admitted to walking toward Breeden before firing what Edwards said were nine shots based on the number of shell casings recovered by law enforcement at the scene.
Some, Edwards noted in his closing argument, had struck Breeden as he was walking away from Thomas back toward Safco.
Thomas surrendered to authorities on April 14, 2022, after eluding law enforcement for nearly seven months. Sheriff’s deputies and a Virginia State Police tactical team attempted to apprehend Thomas the day of the crime at his last known address in the Eagle Harbor apartment complex, where they spotted a car allegedly belonging to Thomas that had been seen leaving the scene of the shooting – but didn’t find Thomas himself.
Thomas initially admitted only to having remained “in Virginia” during his seven months as a fugitive, but when ordered by the judge to answer Edwards’ question about his specific whereabouts, said he’d been living at a friend’s house.
Family members of Breeden and Thomas in the courtroom when the verdict was read heeded the judge’s warning against outbursts, and declined to provide comments to The Tidewater News following the trial’s conclusion.
Clancy told The Tidewater News he isn’t planning an appeal at the moment and is instead focused on sentencing.