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Agony Over Slaying by Deputy Lingers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christmas came and went in Conway, Ark., without Joe and Brenda Bray finding much joy in it.

Two days before the holiday, Joe’s 68-year-old father suffered congestive heart failure and “just up and died on us.”

And a little more than a week ago--on Dec. 18--the Brays did what they always do on that date every 30 days. They mourned another month’s anniversary of their son Jeffrey’s death--another month without answers from authorities about why it happened or what they plan to do about it.

“It seems like 1990 was a very rough year for us,” Joe Bray said softly Wednesday from Conway. “I don’t know what else can be thrown at us.”

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May 18 is a date the Brays cannot shake. At about midnight that day, their daughter-in-law, Lena, called Arkansas. The message was rather confusing. But above the panic, they learned that 21-year-old Jeffrey had been shot and killed by a sheriff’s reserve deputy.

In the following weeks, they picked up more details. Jeffrey had just left his job for the day as a construction worker and driven his red pickup to a Vista apartment complex. According to a witness, Bray backed up his truck to talk to a friend, unaware of the sheriff’s patrol car behind him.

As the truck moved in reverse, reserve Deputy John S. Wickham got out of the passenger side of the car and fired his 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol three times through Bray’s back window, fatally hitting him in the head as the car and truck collided.

The Sheriff’s Department has acknowledged that the deputies mistakenly believed they were trailing a stolen vehicle.

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Joe and Brenda note the passing months since Jeffrey’s death. On Nov. 18, six months to the day of the shooting, Jeffrey’s daughter--Amanda Leanna--was born to Lena in Guntersville, Ala.

And then in mid-December, Joe heard from friends in San Diego that the county grand jury, which earlier had agreed to assist the district attorney’s office with a combined investigation of the Bray shooting, had referred the case back to the district attorney. The district attorney’s office said it would then forward the results to the grand jury.

Joe and Brenda Bray wonder why. Nobody has contacted them. Neither grand jury foreman Reno Testolin nor anybody from the district attorney’s office has called.

Testolin and grand jury spokesman Steve Casey could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Bray’s attorney, Dwight Ritter, did not return a phone call Wednesday.

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Joe Bray said Testolin told him in September that the grand jury would be through with the investigation in a few weeks and would share the results with Bray before releasing it publicly.

Testolin announced on Dec. 12 that the grand jury would continue to investigate the “civil aspects” of the case, which could include a review of the Sheriff’s Department shooting policy or other non-criminal matters. But he said the district attorney’s office should issue a separate report on the criminal investigation.

The shift in procedure has the Brays worried because nobody has explained to them why it has occurred or why it took three months for grand jurors to change their minds.

“I’m not sure that when this all comes to a head, it will ease the pain and hurt just a little bit,” he said. “But I hope it will. There is nothing more painful than the loss of a son, especially the way we lost him.”

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Jeffrey Bray served as a lance corporal in the Marine Corps but last year was charged with one count of unauthorized absence, one count of possession of drug paraphernalia, one count of possession of a controlled substance and 30 counts of writing bad checks.

At that time, a special court-martial issued him a bad-conduct discharge, ordered him confined for four months in the base brig, forfeited $400 of his pay per month for four months and demoted him to private. He was then placed on appellate leave while senior Marine officers in Washington reviewed his case, which was still under way when he died.

He took a job as a carpenter for a San Marcos home builder, which he held until he was shot.

Several weeks after their son died, Joe and Brenda traveled to San Diego. They talked to several people who said they had witnessed the shooting. They spoke before the County Board of Supervisors and urged creation of a review board to investigate allegations of misconduct in the Sheriff’s Department. Last month, voters gave county supervisors the authority to establish such a board.

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And on that same trip, Joe Bray stood in the spot where his son lay dead on May 18.

“I was trying to get the feel of it and to try and make sense of the reality part,” Joe Bray said. “The sense of being there meant a lot to me. It was something I had to do.”

The Brays returned to San Diego in September and hoped something would develop on their son’s case; it never did.

They have hoped that the election of Jim Roache, a reform candidate for sheriff, might speed things along.

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Roache said Wednesday he will do what he can when he becomes sheriff in two weeks.

“Obviously, once I’m in office, I can sit down with district attorney and grand jury and decipher where the case stands and why it’s being handled in this particular manner,” he said. “Mr. Bray is owed the courtesy of some explanation of what is happening and why. We have an obligation to meet with him and clarify that issue.”

Talk of Jeffrey’s death has consumed the Bray family, including Joe’s mother and father. Joe’s father talked about the circumstances surrounding his death right up until Sunday, when he died. He believed that justice would prevail in the case, Joe said.

Joe works in the Arkansas office of emergency services and has tended to disasters like tornadoes, earthquakes and floods for the past 16 years. Brenda walks across the street to her job as a schoolteacher for about 20 second-grade children.

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Every day, the Brays think about the May 18 phone call and the funeral and the spot where Jeffrey died and all the unanswered questions they have. They often sit down at dinner and recall a particular food he liked or a certain mannerism he had.

“We are still going through hell wondering when it’s going to end,” Joe said.

Conway is a city of about 20,000 people, about 30 miles north of Little Rock. Two states to the east is Alabama and Guntersville, about 450 miles away, where Lena Bray lives with her month-old daughter. Lena and Jeffrey Bray had been married less than eight months when Jeff was shot.

“Lena said she never would remarry because Jeff meant so much for us,” Joe Bray said. “But you and I know that life is short and never is a mighty big word. That baby will need a father some day.”

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For now, the Brays are looking forward to seeking Lena and the baby this spring in Conway. Brenda has already seen Amanda once. She believes Amanda has her father’s hands and feet. And every now and then, Brenda can see Jeffrey’s facial expressions in her 6-pound granddaughter.


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