Regis Brown on trial this week in cold case murder

Regis Andrew Brown

Regis Brown gave a detailed confession about how he shot and killed Bryce Kenneth Tompkins to keep him from talking after Tompkins witnessed a burglary at the New Castle VFW.

Brown, also known as Rex Knight, gave the confession to state troopers and the 45-minute video was played for the seven women and five men in the jury Thursday in the courtroom of Lawrence County Common Pleas President Judge Dominick Motto.

Brown, 62, formerly of Erie County, is standing trial this week in the murder of 54-year-old Tompkins, whose body was found in the middle of the Neshannock Creek near El Rio Beach on Dec. 26, 1988. Tompkins’ body was located in a section of the stream in Hickory Township.

Thirty years later, Brown confessed to the murder on March 19, 2018. He was charged Oct. 17 that year with criminal homicide, two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and one count of intimidating a witness, in connection with Tompkins’ death.

Brown also had confessed to authorities in Erie County that year that he had killed his own wife and stepdaughter. He pleaded guilty in those murders in March of 2018 and is serving a life sentence in state prison.

Assistant district attorney Jonathan Miller, who is prosecuting the case involving Tompkins’ death, played the recording of Brown’s confession during the testimony of state Trooper James Vascetti.

Vascetti said he had procured Brown’s statement in an unmarked police cruiser in Erie in the presence of another state trooper. They were in a parking lot of a pharmacy with Brown in the back seat and Vascetti in the passenger seat. He had read Brown his Miranda warnings before proceeding with the interview, he said.

Brown, known in 1988 as Knight, was jailed for a couple of robberies around the time of Dec. 15, 1988, according to court records.

The Tompkins family reported Tompkins missing to the police on Nov. 25, 1988. Archery hunters found his body in the Hickory Township portion of the Neshannock Creek on Dec. 26, 1988.

BROWN’S CONFESSION

Brown, on the recording, first told police his real name is Rex Knight and that Regis Brown is his “changed name.”

He told the troopers he was staying at 305 Highland Ave. in 1988 and he knew Paul Ayersman (who died in 2016) — his reported friend and accomplice — “through the streets, from partying and business.”

He said he saw Tompkins walking around town at night “and just pacing around” back then, and he did not know him personally but Ayersman knew who he was.

Brown said he and Ayersman committed a burglary on Wallace Avenue (in November 1988), when they stole a pistol, a lot of change, a leather jacket, a woman’s diamond ring and a couple of necklace chains. He described the gun as a chrome plated .38-caliber Smith & Wesson with a short barrel and a brown pistol grip, and said it was loaded when they took it from a stand in the bedroom.

He said they probably entered the house by Ayersman jimmying the door, “but I really don’t remember.” They excited the house at different times. Sometime after that, he said, the two were arrested for armed robberies and the city police took a Mossberg shotgun off them. Brown said he believed Ayersman had stolen the shotgun in the burglary “without me knowing it.”

After that, Ayersman and another person burglarized the VFW on East Washington Street days before Tompkins was killed.

Tompkins, who was walking around on East Washington Street, saw them leaving the building and asked what they were doing, Brown said, “and a confrontation ensued and they told him to mind his own business.”

He knew who they were because he called out one of their names, Brown said. The next day around 6 or 7 p.m., Ayersman picked up Brown and the two spent hours looking for Tompkins, gave up then went to a bar. They later found Tompkins around midnight, pulled in front of him and said they wanted to talk. They all walked into a side yard between two houses in some shadows, and Brown had the .38-caliber gun with him that they had stolen in the burglary, he said.

Brown said Tompkins “at first thought we were robbing him,” Brown recalled. “We told him, ‘we know you saw something the other night, and we need you to forget that you saw it.’”

Tompkins said he didn’t see anything, and Ayersman accused him of lying, Brown continued. “Paul was going to go at him, and I tried to reason with the guy. I told him we didn’t want anything to happen to him but they wanted to be sure he wasn’t going to say anything to anybody.”

Tompkins kept turning sideways, Brown said, and he said he kept telling him to face him, stay still, and keep his hands in front of him, because he thought he had a weapon. He said Tompkins “kept fidgeting,” and he turned sideways and he put his hands in his jacket.

Brown said he thought he was pulling a gun out, “and that’s when I shot him” three or four times while standing within 30 feet of him. No lights or sirens were heard, so the two kept walking down the street.

“Before we left, I went over and shook him, and there was no movement or sound,” Brown said. They took Ayersman’s white Monte Carlo back there and opened the trunk and put Tompkins in it, he said.

“I asked Paul where we could get rid of his body,” and Ayersman told him he knew of an area by a creek “where there are always bodies.” Brown said he was worried about people finding the body, and told Ayersman he should be worried in case Tompkins already had spoken to the authorities, he said.

Ayersman told him “let’s just dump the body,” he said. He and Ayersman dragged Tompkins’ body about 100 feet from the car to the creek.

“We were fairly confident he was deceased then,” Brown said. “We just dropped him to the edge (of the creek) and rolled him in.”

He said he never told the other burglary suspect that he killed Tompkins.

“I told him it was taken care of, don’t worry about it,” he said.

Brown told the police that after that, he wiped down the gun, dug a hole and buried the weapon in the back yard of his address on Highland. After that, he never spoke of the incident and “I never told anyone but you about it,” he said.

Vascetti testified when the police went to look for the gun, the house was razed and the yard excavated.

He said he and the other trooper returned to Erie that fall to ask Brown again about the gun’s whereabouts. That’s when he learned that Brown had been convicted by a plea agreement to the murders of his wife and stepdaughter.

Brown’s defense attorney, public defender Larry Keith, told the jury in his opening statement Tuesday that Brown had made up the entire story in his confession.

An autopsy performed in Allegheny County showed Tompkins died from two bullet wounds, one to the left and one to the right sides of his back.

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Debbie's been a journalist at the New Castle News since 1978, and covers county government, police and fire, New Castle schools, environment and various other realms. She also writes features, takes photos and video and copy edits.

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