Accused Mobile New Year’s Eve shooter gets max for federal gun violation

Thomas Earl Thomas Jr. admitted that gun used in shooting was illegally converted into machine gun
Published: Sep. 18, 2023 at 2:16 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A federal judge on Monday sentenced a man accused of a mass shooting on New Year’s Eve to the maximum 10-year sentence for a federal gun violation.

Thomas Earl Thomas Jr, 23, of Mobile, faces charges of murder and assault in state court related to the incident in downtown Mobile at 11:14 p.m. that evening. He has pleaded not guilty to those offenses, but he pleaded guilty in April to illegal possession of a machine gun conversion device commonly called a “Glock switch.”

Chief U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Beaverstock noted that he served in the Army for 28 years and has heard automatic gunfire.

“That’s not a sound that we should hear on the streets of Mobile,” he said. “It’s not.”

Thomas, wearing glasses with his hair pulled back in a ponytail, showed no emotion as the judge pronounced sentence.

Although he imposed the maximum prison sentence, the judge did deny a prosecution request for it to run after any prison term that might be imposed in the pending state case. Thomas will serve the federal sentence simultaneously. The judge also left open a request by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to order Thomas to pay medical bills and funeral expenses arising from the shooting.

The shooting occurred as a large crowd gathered for the Moon Pie drop to celebrate the new year. Federal prosecutors played surveillance video showing the shooting and the mayhem that followed. Video from the Mobile Downtown Alliance office shows a man named Morgan Peters walking up to Thomas, who later told investigators that that Peters threatened him, according to testimony Monday by Mobile police Detective Julius Nettles.

Later, Peters returned. The video shows a muzzle flash form Thomas’ gun and Peters dropping. A third man and Thomas then exchanged gunfire, injuring each other. Seven other people who were in the vicinity also suffered gunshot wounds.

A surveillance video from Pat’s Downtown Grill on Dauphin Street shows the mayhem that ensued after the gunshots. A different security video depicts the shooting from a different angle – including sound of the defendant’s .40-caliber Glock 23.

Nettles testified that the defendant’s Glock had been equipped with an extended magazine and a “switch” that turned it from a semi-automatic gun into a fully automatic weapon allowing rapid fire with one pull of the trigger. An agent from the Buruea of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified that it would take just two seconds to shoot 25 rounds from an extended clip.

Nettles testified that investigators recovered 16 shell casings matching the gun and another six shell casings matching the weapon that Peters had.

Thomas has claimed he was acting in self-defense, but Nettles testified that investigators determined that was not the case. He said that while JaTerious Reives had a gun, he did not brandish it on any of the security footage. Police found it in his pants after the shooting, the detective testified.

“It was unlikely, based off the surveillance video, based off where that gun (belonging to Reives) was situated, he was able to pull the gun, point that gun and then after he was shot in the head, put that gun back in his pants,” he said.

Acting U.S. Attorney Sean Costello praised the sentence.

“Wantonly shooting into an innocent crowd, Thomas made his crime even more dangerous and serious by using an illegal machinegun,” he said in a prepared statement. “Working with our federal, state and local partners, we will do everything we can to protect our community by taking these illegal weapons off the street, and putting the criminals who use them in prison.”

The Mobile Police Department also issued a statement, calling the sentence “a significant milestone in our pursuit of justice and community safety” and praised the judge for his “decisive” ruling.

“We will continue to work hand-in-hand with our federal, state, and local partners to ensure that individuals who engage in violent criminal activities face the full force of the law,” the statement reads.

The victim’s mother, Natasha Reives, said the shooting impacted her family in the “most unimaginable, horrible way.” She said it was the second son she has lost; the victim’s brother died in 2010 in a drowning accident.

Reives said her son recently would have celebrated his 25th birthday.

“There I was, in a graveyard, wishing my son a happy, heavenly birthday,” she said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Roller even the maximum sentence was insufficient based on the severity of the crime.

“Words fail as far as describing the severity of the offense. … It would be impossible for the United States to round up all of the victims,” he said. “You saw many of them scattering for their lives on surveillance video.”

The judge also heard from the defendant’s father, aunt and grandmother.

“As a father, I have observed Thomas’ humble and quiet nature,” Thomas Earl Thomas Sr. told the judge.

Updated at 5:31 p.m. with a statement from the Mobile Police Department.