A 60-year-old woman has pleaded guilty to her role in the death of local runner Cameron Bean, but the development brought only a sliver of relief to family and friends who must wait until February for Valerie Bray to be sentenced.
On Tuesday, Bray told Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz she was guilty of criminally negligent homicide and leaving the scene of an accident. Both are Class E felonies, said her attorney, Bill Speek. And one, criminally negligent homicide, is a lesser charge than what she originally faced on her indictment.
"Valerie Bray is a tremendous person just like Cameron Bean, two individuals that were very, very good people brought together in a very tragic manner," Speek said afterward. "Valerie worked for 20 years at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute caring for people as a [nurse] — on time, diligent, reliable. She just found herself in a situation that was immediate and reacted in a manner that led to Cameron Bean's death, unfortunately."
That statement did not fully resonate with Alan Outlaw, who owns Fast Break Athletics and was friends with Bean. He and Bean were joking inside the store before the runner left for his final workout in September 2015.
"If Cameron Bean had struck someone, the last thing he would do is leave them there to die," Outlaw told the Times Free Press. "And, unfortunately, things happen, and horrible things happen, but by no means can you put those two people in the same category."
Police said Bray was driving on Moccasin Bend Road on Sept. 19, 2015, when she swerved into Bean as he was running against traffic on the road. Bean, 28, died from his injuries two days later.
Bean, who ran for Baylor School and attended Samford University, was one of the top runners in the nation and specialized in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Before returning to Chattanooga in August 2015, he spent five years running professionally for an outfit in North Carolina. Bean also worked at Outlaw's Fast Break shoe store and operated Magnum Training, a personal coaching business to help runners and triathletes reach their full potential.
At the time of the accident, Bray told police she could not see Bean because the sun was in her eyes. She was not arrested until January, when a grand jury returned an indictment for vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident. Vehicular homicide, a class B felony that carries eight to 20 years in prison, is more severe than criminally negligent homicide. The lesser negligent charge offers one to six years in state custody.
With a standard plea, a person can be sentenced on the spot if the defense attorney and prosecutor have agreed on the terms. Bray will be sentenced Feb. 1, Speek said. In the meantime, a Tennessee Department of Correction employee will compile a report that includes information on Bray's employment history, any criminal record that would enhance her possible sentence, and victim statements about how the crime has impacted their lives.
Greenholtz will have to weigh all of those factors before making his decision. Anything could happen, Speek said, because sentencing in Tennessee is based on which range a person falls into. Someone with no prior criminal history, for example, will face the lower end of a criminal charge's range.
"The fact that she made a decision not to stop, not to help, that is something I hope is taken into account during sentencing," said Outlaw, who also spoke with Bean's family members Tuesday. Tuesday was welcome news, breaking up a long and painful process, he said.
Records show Bray's trial was scheduled to begin Tuesday. The county district attorney's office never responded to an email about why Bray's case never went before a jury.
The "negligence" aspect has been the keystone of Speek's argument the whole time.
"Vehicular homicide is a felony two classifications higher that involves recklessness," Speek said. "[Bray's incident] was more negligent, not reckless. It had more to do with sudden emergency."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423- 757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.
This story was updated Dec. 6 with more information and to note that Bray was charged with criminally negligent homicide.