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Chatham man guilty of attempted murder after driver shot in head

Chatham man guilty of attempted murder after driver shot in head

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CHATHAM — The fact that Michael Vaughan, 60, of Chatham, shot Eric Clay in the side of the head as he was driving them down Va. 40 in the early morning of Aug. 11 wasn’t in dispute in Pittsylvania County Circuit Court on Thursday.

However, the surrounding circumstances and reasoning for the shooting were the main questions during a bench trial under Judge James Reynolds.

Vaughan and Clay, both of whom were intoxicated when the shooting occured, have very different accounts of the incident.

“The rub of it, judge, is who are we going to believe? This is a credibility case,” Tyler Klink, chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Pittsylvania County, said during Thursday’s trial.

Reynolds ultimately declared Vaughan guilty of attempted first-degree murder, malicious wounding and two related firearms charges. His sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 17.

A grand jury indicted Vaughan on all four charges in October. A jury trial scheduled in January was continued by a motion from the defense, and the bench trial was continued twice in March and April.

Amid all the uncertainty, one detail was clear: Vaughan shot Clay with a 22-caliber gun right below his temple while they were in the car together.

“I saw a flash beside my head and heard a loud boom,” Clay testified, noting that the next thing he remembers is waking up in Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

Clay no longer has vision in his left eye, something that has prevented him from maintaining a job in his previous profession of delivery driving.

According to Clay’s testimony in court on Thursday, he and Vaughan, who had known each other for years, were together at Clay’s house before going over to Clay’s cousin’s home. Somewhere along the line, both had a substantial amount of the alcohol. Clay reported taking two “swallows,” or large mouthfuls, of whiskey.

When they left his cousin’s home on Va. 40 near Gretna, they stopped to check out a fishing hole near her home. At some point, Vaughan told Clay to slow down.

This is where their accounts differ.

According to testimony a clearly intoxicated Vaughan provided to officers on the night of the incident, Clay was going more than 70 miles per hour and had threatened to kill them both by driving into a tree. Vaughan then told Clay he would shoot him, he later told investigators.

“He felt in his mind, in his heart that he was trying to save himself,” attorney Mark Williams said to the court.

Clay insists that he said nothing about killing them and that he was driving around 45 miles per hour. At some point, Clay was shot.

In an interview with an investigator, which was shown through body cam footage, Vaughan argued that he meant to shoot Clay, but only as a way to stop the car.

“Evidently I shot him in the head, but I meant to shoot him in the shoulder,” he told the investigator.

Williams added in court Thursday: “It was a single shot in a moving vehicle by a man with Parkinson’s.”

Vaughan was visibly shaking during much of the five-hour trial on Thursday, and his niece, Tammy Walker, testified that “he can barely hold a drink sometimes.”

Somehow, the vehicle came to rest in the middle of the road. Vaughan later told investigators that “it just kind of rolled over to the side of the road.” At that point, Vaughan called 911. During the call, which was replayed in court, the dispatcher repeatedly asked him where they were located so she could send help.

“If I knew where the hell I was at, I wouldn’t be talking to you,” he told the dispatcher.

The first to arrive was Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries officer Eric Dotterer, who saw Clay laying in the road and Vaughan standing behind the vehicle.

“No emotion, he was just standing there,” he said of Vaughan.

Dotterer also said both smelled of alcohol.

Investigator Rick Baxter said that two 22-caliber firearms and a discharged 22-caliber casing were found in the vehicle. At least one bottle of whiskey was also present.

Body cam footage from three separate members of the Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office, which were shown in court on Thursday, indicate that Vaughan was heavily intoxicated and struggling to understand what was going on. His overarching story about Clay threatening to kill them both was similar in the three interviews, but he did contradict himself on many details.

Throughout the trial, Klink and Williams attempted to undermine the credibility of Vaughan and Clay, respectively. Klink went after the inconsistencies in Vaughan’s recounting of what happened, while Williams brought a toxicology report that showed Clay had a blood alcoholic content of 0.13%, as well as indications of THC and benzodiazepines. Reynolds said that the toxicology report “doesn’t say much,” and ultimately concluded that Vaughan was guilty on all counts.

“The defendant’s version of events does not make much sense,” Reynolds said.

He added: “There’s not a lot of evidence regarding why [Vaughan shot Clay], but there’s a big glass bottle in the corner that says a lot why.”

Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.

Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.

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