Jin Hyuk Byun pleaded guilty to hit-and-run causing death. He’s scheduled to be sentenced January 3.
"He started sobbing,” said the California Highway Patrol officer. The teenager had been forced to stop his Lexus by patrol cars gathered down the street from his parents’ Carmel Valley home. Officer Steven Jio said as soon as he approached the driver’s side of the car, the young man began to cry.
Jin Hyuk Byun, 19, was put into handcuffs and placed in the back of a patrol car. The officer had a search warrant, and he drove Byun the short distance back to his home.
A Good Lead
Two days earlier, a neighbor had noticed “severe damage” to a black truck that he often saw parked in the driveway next door.
That was on Friday morning, July 6. He saw “the whole passenger side was bent up.” On Sunday, the neighbor heard a report on a morning news show about a bicycle rider killed by a hit-and-run driver. The victim was found on Via de la Valle, about five miles away. Police asked for the public’s help. The neighbor made a phone call.
Highway patrol officer Steven Jio arrested Jin Hyuk Byun and found the damaged pickup truck.
Officer Mark Keyes responded about 2:30 Sunday afternoon. Keyes pulled up to a house in the 13500 block of Old El Camino Real, a neighborhood of large, beautiful homes. He knocked on the front door but got no response. The officer heard voices, so he walked over to the garage and looked in a window. He saw “several Asian males.” And he saw a bong and opened beer cans. When he spoke, he startled the young men. One left the group and met the officer at the front door of the house.
Jin Hyuk Byun opened the door “halfway,” the officer remembered later.
The officer told Byun that he was investigating a “traffic collision.” He asked about a black truck. Byun said his family owned a black truck, but it hadn’t been driven “in a long time” because it had “electrical problems.” Did the truck have any damage? The truck had only small scratches and dings that any two-year-old vehicle would have, Byun told the officer. Keyes asked if he could see the truck.
The young man explained that the rest of his family was in South Korea, and he couldn’t allow the officer into the home, nor into the garage, until his father returned — that would be some time next month probably, maybe the end of August.
Keyes asked if the young man could open the garage door so he could see the truck from a distance, from the walkway or from the driveway. Byun declined.
When the officer walked away, he tried to look through the garage window again, but “somebody closed the shade.”
Byun was so nervous — shaking and sweating — while they spoke that the officer decided he had a “good lead.” Keyes phoned his superiors and they started moving to get a search warrant.
Two Days Earlier
At 2:00 a.m. on Friday, July 6, Salvador Gambino was driving around Rancho Santa Fe. Gambino works for a private security firm, and he had the overnight shift at a homeowners’ association.
Gambino was driving on Via de la Valle when he heard the noise. It sounded as though he had run over “tin and glass.” Then he saw a shoe in the road. He made a U-turn and slowly drove back, using the spotlight mounted on the side of his marked security vehicle. The bright light caught a reflective vest on the dirt shoulder. The vest was still strapped onto a person. Gambino said he knew right away that the person was dead. He said there was “definitely” head trauma. He phoned for police and paramedics. While he waited, he looked around. About 30 yards from the body, he found a crumpled bicycle in the bushes.
The dead man was 18-year-old Angel Bojorquez. He had finished his work as a grocery-store clerk in Del Mar some hours earlier. He used a bicycle to commute to his home in Escondido.
Investigators determined that Bojorquez had been struck from behind. He was walking his bicycle on the shoulder of the road at the time of impact, according to experts who testified later in court.
On the Rim
It took detectives about three hours to get a search warrant approved by a judge.
When officer Steven Jio brought the handcuffed Byun back to his parents’ home after stopping him, they sat down together in the kitchen. While they sat at the kitchen table, other investigators searched the home and garage. Jio asked the nervous young man if he might want to “get something off his chest.” He said Byun “started crying” again.
Byun said he was on his way to a friend’s home in Rancho Santa Fe at about one o’clock in the morning when he reached down to adjust his radio, and then he heard a “loud clink.” He said he thought he struck a mailbox. Or maybe he hit a deer. Or a dog.
In any case, he said his right front tire “immediately went flat.” The teen told the officer that he pulled off the road where others couldn’t see him to remove the flat tire and “discard” it. He said he drove all the way home on the rim. That was about five miles.
Investigators found “gouges” on the road in Rancho Santa Fe and gouges up the driveway, all the way to the garage of the Byun home.
They never found the discarded tire.
At the collision site, investigators had gathered broken bits, and they compared these to the broken headlight on Byun’s truck. The edges lined up “like a jigsaw puzzle,” according to Jio.
“White paint transfer” on the bumper of the black Chevy Avalanche in Byun’s garage matched paint on the smashed bicycle found in the bushes, according to investigators.
Byun has been charged with one count of hit-and-run causing death. Prosecutor Aimee McLeod said the maximum prison term for this charge is four years. There is no minimum.
Byun pleaded not guilty for three months and then changed his plea, admitting the one felony charged. Because there is no minimum, it is possible that Byun could be set free on his day of sentencing, currently scheduled for January 3, 2013, in San Diego’s North County Superior Court.
Byun is being held without bail in the Vista jail. ■