Woman said she thought branch struck van in fatal Hilton Head hit-and-run

Victim was Navy veteran

mmcnab@beaufortgazette.com

February 17, 2014 

Joshua Michael Hebenstreit

SUBMITTED PHOTO

A Bluffton woman charged in a fatal hit-and-run accident on Hilton Head Island last week called authorities to report a tree limb had fallen on her minivan, eventually leading to her arrest early Sunday, according to a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office spokesman.

Katie Byam, 32, called the Sheriff's Office on Saturday, the morning after the accident, to report a branch had fallen on her 2004 Toyota Sienna minivan while she was driving on Lagoon Road in North Forest Beach, Lt. Col. Bill Neill said. Deputies found damage on the right side of her minivan and on the right side of the windshield, which was pushed inward.

They alerted S.C. Highway Patrol investigators working the accident.

Byam was arrested at about 4 a.m. Sunday and remained in the Beaufort County Detention Center on Monday.

Hilton Head Island resident Joshua Michael Hebenstreit was struck at about 9 p.m. Friday near the intersection of Lagoon Road and Bittern Street, around the corner from his mother's home on Dove Street. Debris at the crash site was matched to Byam's minivan, and she was charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving death and driving under a suspended license, Senior Trooper Hannah Wimberly said.

Apparently, no one witnessed the accident, but two people riding bicycles along Lagoon Road saw Hebenstreit's body lying on the right side of the road at 9:07 p.m., according to a Sheriff's Office report. The bicyclists had first ridden past the body -- believing it might be a prank -- before turning around and heading back to check it, the report said.

A Town of Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division crew rushed to the scene, but could not revive Hebenstreit.

Wimberly said evidence indicated Byam's van ran off the road and struck Hebenstreit. Spray paint marks left by Highway Patrol investigators were visible Monday about five feet from the edge of the pavement.

Hebenstreit was walking home after buying a pack of cigarettes at a convenience store on Lagoon Road, his mother, Terry Hebenstreit, said.

Neill said Byam told deputies she had left her home in Bluffton at about 7:45 p.m. Friday to visit her parents, who live in the same North Forest Beach neighborhood where the accident occurred.

Wimberly said additional charges against Byam are not expected. She did not know if alcohol was a factor in the accident because Byam was arrested several hours after the accident.

In 2007, Byam was charged with driving with a suspended license, possession with intent to distribute marijuana and unlawful carrying of a pistol after a traffic stop for speeding. She was not prosecuted on those charges, according to court records.

Subsequently, in 2009 and 2011, Byam was charged with driving under the influence, but was not convicted of either of those charges.

Hebenstreit, a U.S. Navy veteran, had returned to Hilton Head four weeks ago after spending two years studying business in Japan, his mother said. He was an aviation boatswain's mate on the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, flagging planes on the flight deck, and did two tours of duty in the Persian Gulf, she said.

Although he had been studying business, studying the ocean was his future, Terry Hebenstreit said.

"He wanted to study marine biology," she said. "He loved the ocean. He was a great kid, loved animals and always gave money to the National Wildlife Fund."

Hebenstreit had planned to go to Tennessee to stay with his father after spending time with his mother and grandmother on Hilton Head.

Since the crash, Terry Hebenstreit said she has received an outpouring of support from neighbors and members of her church.

"He was my heart," she said. "I can't believe he's never coming back."

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

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