They called Bruce Bryan “the chaplain of the ‘hood.”
Not just because of the tough Carson streets where he routinely rode along with sheriff’s deputies, but because of the volunteer chaplain’s habit of helping people in trouble with the law even as they leaned handcuffed against patrol cars.
Early Saturday, one of those troubled people turned on him.
Sheriff’s officials said Bryan, 39, was gunned down execution-style on a lonely Wilmington street by a man also suspected of shooting and critically wounding Sheriff’s Deputy Terrence Wenger, 31, during a ride-along gone awry.
Investigators said the incident occurred about 2:45 a.m. in the 100 block of West D Street after the deputy, accompanied by Bryan, gave a ride home to a man who had been involved in a quarrel outside a Carson bar.
“It was a situation where the man was being driven home as a courtesy to separate him from some trouble that occurred earlier,” said Sheriff Sherman Block, who spent several hours Saturday at UCLA-Harbor Medical Center, where Wenger was taken for treatment.
Instead, authorities say, Derek Pettis somehow wrestled Wenger’s gun away from him, shot the deputy and then killed Bryan, apparently as he was attempting to flee.
Wenger was listed in critical condition Saturday after undergoing a delicate operation to save his right eye.
Bryan, who was shot four times, including once in the back of the head, was pronounced dead at Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Harbor City, Block said.
Authorities arrested Pettis, 25, in his room at a nearby boardinghouse about four hours after the shootings occurred.
Although Block said investigators probably will not know exactly what happened until they are able to talk to the deputy, the sheriff said evidence at the scene indicated that Bryan, who has participated in the Sheriff’s Department’s volunteer chaplain program for six years, was chased and “gunned down execution-style.”
“Judging from the trail of shell casings and what we believe was the angle of the gunfire, it appears that Deputy Wenger was shot at close range with his own gun and that the chaplain was chased for up to 150 feet and shot while on or close to the ground,” Block said.
The sheriff said investigators were working on the assumption that the suspect may have believed that he had killed the deputy, and was intent on eliminating Bryan to ensure that there would be no witnesses.
The deputy’s gun and flashlight were found in a vacant lot a few hundred feet from the murder scene, Block said.
News of the chaplain’s death stunned his friends and colleagues.
“If there was anyone who was out there to help people, it was Bruce,” said Capt. Joe James, who heads the Carson sheriff’s station.
Deputies there said Bryan sometimes went on “ride-alongs” with deputies two and three nights a week, and almost always on Fridays.
Like other chaplains who routinely ride with officers, Bryan was involved in a variety of tasks, including helping defuse domestic disputes, consoling distraught crime victims and offering words of encouragement to crime suspects and law enforcement officials.
An ordained minister since 1988, Bryan made his living operating the New Heart Mission in Carson, a nonprofit home for troubled men.
“Bruce had had a rough time of it as a young person and was devoted to helping other people in trouble,” said Debbie Schmidt, his fiancee, who worked with him at the mission.
The couple met at a church service five years ago, and became engaged last Christmas, she said.
“He had the respect of people on the street,” said Tim Garcia, an associate pastor at South Bay Calvary Chapel, where Bryan was ordained.
Sheriff’s officials said Bryan was the sort of person they could call at all hours if a problem warranted, whether it was someone in custody who was distraught or a sheriff’s deputy who needed a shoulder to lean on.
“I’ve got a letter from a woman whose husband beat her up several years ago and who wrote to thank us that (Bryan) had stopped later to make sure everything was OK,” said James, the station captain.
“She said, ‘We’ve solved our problems now and are both active in church, but I just wanted you to know what a difference your chaplain made.’ ”
Although the area where the shootings occurred is outside the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Department, Block said that Wenger and Bryan were there because the deputy was taking Pettis home after the disturbance at the Carson bar. Several deputies responded to the disturbance, and Wenger was asked to transport Pettis by one of the ranking officers at the scene.
Block noted that Wenger had served on a sheriff’s gang detail until being reassigned to the Carson station last year, and was familiar with many of the area’s gang members. Block said Pettis is a known gang member, but he did not know whether Wenger knew him.
Two Los Angeles vice officers heard the gunshots and were the first to arrive at the scene, he said.
Pettis’ neighborhood, near where D Street intersects with Avalon Boulevard, is in a section of Wilmington dotted with liquor stores, boarded storefronts and rooming houses.
Rosa Silvas, the manager of the Holland Hotel, said Pettis had moved to one of those boardinghouses to share a room with his girlfriend about two weeks ago.
“He comes, he goes like other people,” she said. “A lot of them rent by the week or the month. You don’t ever know who you’ve got.”
Few of the hotel’s residents could say much about the shootings.
“I heard gunshots, but then we’re used to them,” said Abraham Hernandez, 20. “People here don’t make a habit of sticking their necks out.”