On April 8, 2014, a man named Stephon Bibbs was found fatally shot and stabbed 14 times in his upstairs apartment on East 27th Street in Erie. Upon further investigation, Jason Thomas, the downstairs neighbor, became the person of interest. On March 5, 2015, Thomas appeared in court for a trial that would later convict him of first-degree murder. According to WICU 12 news of Erie Thomas took the stand that day admitting that he sold marijuana for a living to support his family. He also added that he has a criminal history having had stolen cars for chops shops in other states. He said the murder victim, Bibbs, was a good friend of his, adding that the two would smoke and play chess together. He cried as he explained what happened that day; he claimed an individual referred to only as “Dude” had shot Thomas in the leg and shot Bibbs in a robbery.
In reality, Thomas had stabbed and shot Bibbs, who was later found at the bottom of the stairs of the two-floor housing complex which contained two apartments, upper and lower. While Thomas claimed that there was a third party, it was the evidence that proved otherwise. During the preliminary hearing, the jury was having trouble understanding the layout of the apartments.
The Erie District attorney decided to contact Professor Steve Carpenter of whom contacted two Edinboro animation students to help him assist the jury convict Thomas. Rebecca Vitko and Stuart Ruffin, alongside Carpenter, met up with the district attorney and a few others to take measurements and pictures of the apartment, getting the various measurements of different rooms, doors, windows and walls that were needed. “We modeled certain rooms of the two apartments that were important for the case. I did the first floor, and Stuart did the second floor, basement, and stairwells, because there was only one room for the second,” Vitko said.
Over winter break of 2014, Ruffin and Vitko worked to model the rooms as separate objects in a 3-D program called “LightWave,” as well as the “modeler” program, that they had used in classes. Upon completion of the rooms, Carpenter took over and put them all together, then animated them for how the rooms would need to be shown for the court case. “It was really interesting. I hope it helped me get an idea of how to model for cases in the chance that I may be doing it again. I was a bit distant from the actual case itself and just focused on my job. I learned a lot from doing this and I hope I get the opportunity to do something like this again,” Vitko said. “I was interested in this field of work because we rarely get to hear about other fields of animation besides film and video games. Plus it feels nice to help provide justice for the parties involved in these cases,” Ruffin, a fourth year computer animation student, said.
The Erie County District Attorney, Jack Daneri, and his team were successful in the prosecution of Thomas with the jury announcing the verdict as guilty of firstdegree murder. Daneri applauded the work of Vitko, Ruffin and Carpenter. “The ‘movies’ created by you and your students were used throughout the trial and extremely helpful in getting the jury to understand the layout of the crime scene,” he sent Carpenter.
Daneri added that the visuals of the residence and how it was set up was critical for the jury to help them understand the proximity of the areas to be able to judge the evidence gathered, as well as the defendant’s version of what happened that night. “Edinboro University has been of great assistance to our office, and the quality of work done is something to be most proud of,” said Daneri, along with much thanks and hopes of more collaboration down the road. Thomas was found guilty for the crime a year ago and was sentenced April 22 of this year by judge Shad Connelly to life in prison without the possibility of parole.