Driver in hit-and-run that killed local runner apologizes ahead of sentencing

Driver in hit-and-run that killed local runner apologizes ahead of sentencing

January 31st, 2017 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

Valerie Bray talks in attorney Bill Speak's office Friday, Jan. 27, 2017.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

At the psychiatric hospital, where she spent two weeks as a teenager and 20 years as a working adult, Valerie Bray knew how to approach patients.

"I know you're going through things right now," Bray would say. "But in the morning, it's going to be a different day."

Bray, 60, hasn't worked at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute since March 2016, six months after the accident that changed everything.

But the former nurse still whispers that advice to herself when the nightmares wake her up. She prays for strength and for her victim. She waits until the morning's 7:30 alarm. Then she drives to her mother's house, where she loads her onto the Medicare van heading to the doctor's office, where she can forget about herself for a while by focusing on someone else.

Bray knows she killed 28-year-old Cameron Bean, a popular Chattanooga runner who died in September 2015 after she struck him on Moccasin Bend Road. She pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and leaving the scene of an accident in December in Hamilton County Criminal Court.

All that's left now is Wednesday's sentencing hearing, where Bray faces one to two years in prison on each class E felony charge. On Friday, in the only interview she has given since the incident, Bray accepted responsibility for the crime.

"I'm so sorry," she said, tears streaking her cheek. "It was a traffic accident and it wasn't meant to be. It was something terrible that happened and I can never take it back."

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Bray crashed into Bean while he was running against traffic on Moccasin Bend Road on Sept. 19, 2015, police said.

"She struck him from behind," said Chattanooga Police Department Lt. David Gibb. "[Bean] may have heard it, but I don't think he saw it."

Two days later, Bean died from his injuries.

Initially, Bray told police the sun was in her eyes and that she saw a deer. But when investigators recreated the scene, they determined sunlight was not a factor. After examining Bray's cellphone, police said she likely wasn't texting during the accident, court records show. Surveillance footage showed she kept driving to the Moccasin Bend facility.

Bray's attorney, Bill Speek, would not let her discuss the accident during the interview.

But since her indictment in January 2016, Speek has said Bray and Bean are both good people brought together because of tragedy.

Bean, who ran for Baylor School and attended Samford University, worked tirelessly to become one of the top runners in the nation and specialized in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Before he returned to his native city in August, Bean spent five years running professionally in North Carolina, where his charisma and go-getter attitude created a legendary impression among his colleagues.

About a week after his son's death, Steve Bean completed the Ironman, a grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run packed into 17 hours, all on the strength of Cameron's training plan.

Bray, who began a 20-year career working at Moccasin Bend in the mid-1990s, also cared for people at group homes on the weekend, family members said. But earlier in life she struggled.

At 16, she attempted suicide, landing her in Moccasin Bend for two weeks.

Later, she found herself raising three children as a single mother at age 22 and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years later. She takes now medication for depression, muscle spasms and MS.

She said it was her time in Moccasin Bend and her life experiences that made it easy to empathize with psychiatric patients at Moccasin Bend.

"I would just sit there and start talking and try to put myself in their position," Bray said. "I really miss that, because that was my joy in life."

When she wasn't stocking the food kitchen there, she was caring for people at group homes on the weekend, family members said.

Her first conviction came in 1981 for shoplifting, records show. She received a $100 fine and a six-month sentence that was suspended into probation.

After that came gambling in 1985 — $50 in fines, 30 days in prison.

Her final encounter for the next 25 years was an aggravated assault charge in 1990 that ended in an 11-month, 29-day sentence at Silverdale Correctional Facility. Records show the felony was reduced, also suspended, and that Bray picked up especially aggravated burglary and theft up to $500 charges while on bond.

But when all is said and done, Bray said, she wants people to know: "I always do the best that I can do for anybody."

"I'm just so, so sorry," she said.

Steve and Lisa Bean declined to comment before Wednesday's hearing, their attorney, Lee Davis, said Friday. But their victim impact statements are available in a public report that court officials often request before sentencing.

Judge Tom Greenholtz will have to weigh those statements along with Bray's testimony before coming to his decision.

"The best description I can give is, I'm living with a tortured mind," wrote Cameron's mother, Lisa Bean. "My prayer to God is to please not let me or Steve or Chris have any thoughts about what happened to Cameron come into our minds."

Said Steve Bean: "She never touched the brakes, she just kept going, leaving him to die. That's what really tells me what kind of person she is."

"A week before he died, he found out he was going to be an uncle," Lisa Bean added. "Seven months after Cameron died, we were blessed with our granddaughter. She would have loved him and he would have adored her."

As for prison time, the Bean family asked for the maximum amount Bray can receive based on her record. As Lisa Bean put it: "To hit someone from behind and leave them lying on the road is as bad as it gets."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.