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Fatal Shooting Foul-Up Admitted : Mistake: Young father-to-be was slain by deputies who were following wrong vehicle, Sheriff’s Department says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday admitted that two deputies, trying to pick up the trail of a suspected stolen vehicle, mistakenly tailed the wrong pickup truck and followed it into a Vista apartment complex, where the driver was shot and killed.

The explanation was the most detailed yet as to why deputies had followed Jeffrey Bray.

Bray was killed Friday afternoon by a single gunshot to his head after he came to a stop in the driveway of his apartment complex, then backed up--a witness says unwittingly--into the sheriff’s patrol car, prompting the two deputies inside to open fire.

On Tuesday, even before the Sheriff’s Department’s admission that Bray should not have been the target of their attention, an attorney for the family promised to file a wrongful death claim against the county and the Sheriff’s Department.

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At a press conference, Lena Bray, 22, said of her husband’s death: “You make plans with somebody for over the weekend . . . and the next thing you know, your world is torn apart by somebody’s mistake.”

Six hours later, the department issued a prepared statement explaining the events:

A patrol deputy in Vista radioed that he was observing a red pickup truck on Hacienda Drive that appeared to be driven by “an unlicensed driver who likes” stolen vehicles.

Since that deputy had a prisoner in his vehicle, he gave the vehicle’s description, the identity of the driver and a license plate number on his radio so others could pick up the trail.

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Deputy William C. Fewell heard the call at the Vista station and enlisted the help of a reserve deputy who was still in his street clothes, John S. Wickham, to serve as a backup. The two headed in Fewell’s patrol car to Hacienda Drive, a block away, where they saw two red trucks that generally fit the description.

One of the vehicles was speeding about 100 yards ahead of them, the department said. It was that vehicle--Bray’s--that they followed, thinking he was speeding to evade them.

Inside the apartment complex, the deputies activated their emergency lights and the truck stopped. Their patrol car stopped 20 feet behind it.

Wickham exited the patrol car and pointed his 9 millimeter semi-automatic pistol toward the driver. “The driver of the truck looked over his shoulder to the right as his right hand appeared to go down toward the seat,” the statement said.

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“The engine of the truck revved, its tires squealed, and it suddenly accelerated rearward toward the patrol car. Just prior to the truck colliding with the patrol car, Deputy Wickham fired three shots from his pistol.”

Fewell heard the shots but couldn’t tell where they came from, the department said, so he fired a single shot at the truck.

To this point, the department acknowledged, the deputies “had not confirmed the status of the truck, nor had they informed the communications center of their activity.”

It was later determined that Bray’s truck was not stolen and that he was not armed.

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“It has further been determined,” the statement read, “that Bray’s vehicle was not the one that (the first deputy) had intended for the deputies to investigate.”

Earlier in the day, Lena Bray, 22, told of her bitterness toward the department.

“I wish they had at least made an attempt to contact me and tell me what was happening, and to apologize to me,” she said.

An eyewitness to the shooting told The Times Monday that Bray was backing up simply to talk to him as he sat in his own, parked car in a carport, and that Bray didn’t know the patrol car was behind him.

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Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Glenn Revell said the department’s internal investigation will be turned over to the district attorney’s office for review and possible action.

Lena Bray, a Navy petty officer third class, and Jeffrey Bray, a Marine who was appealing a court-martial and was working as a carpenter, married last September. Their baby is due in November.

Today, Jeffrey Bray is to be burried at his hometown of Conway, Ark., and Lena Bray was to leave after that to her hometown in Alabama.

“I want to go home to my family and try to pull things together,” she said. “The doctor says everything is OK (with the unborn baby) and I should be fine, if I keep the situation down, which I’m trying to do because my baby’s the only thing I’ve got left.”

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