Son's death leads mother to target Md. traffic laws

January 11, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the night of March 14, 1998, a week before her son Tate's 16th birthday, Beverly Hibschman watched him drive off with his friend Steve Campbell and reminded him to call home by 11 p.m. That was their rule. But, at 10 minutes past 11, instead of a phone call, there was a knock on the door.

Some of Tate's friends stood on the front porch. Nearly two years later, Beverly Hibschman remembers how nervous they seemed when she greeted them.

"Did Tate go out with Steve?" one of them asked.

"Yes," she said.

"There was an accident," a boy said. "There's a body bag."

The memory of those words is still a blow to the heart. According to several eyewitness accounts given to police, Steve Campbell, then 18, drove his car through a red light at U.S. 1 and Route 24 in Bel Air and was hit by a car crossing a green light.

The passenger door of Campbell's car flew open, and Tate Hibschman, a 10th-grader at Bel Air High School, fell out and his life was ended. For Steve Campbell, his troubles were only beginning -- but not particularly with the law, which treated him gently that night and again the next year when he once more took a flier at the wheel of a car.

And this is why, nearly two years after her son's death, and with state legislators convening in Annapolis this week, Beverly Hibschman, a teacher at Abingdon Elementary School, wants to talk about the traffic laws -- and about penalties.

For the 1998 incident, where his friend Tate Hibschman was killed, Steve Campbell never went to trial. He was given three points on his driving record for running a red light and contributing to an accident. He was allowed to continue driving.

Then, at 4: 30 on the morning May 14, Campbell drove his Jeep truck north on Interstate 95 near Joppa, "at a high rate of speed and swerving," according to state police, where he collided with a tractor-trailer -- and kept going.

The 18-wheel tractor-trailer was disabled and subsequently hit by a United Parcel Service truck, which spilled its contents onto the highway and blocked traffic for two hours. Campbell kept going -- until he struck a center barrier. Then he got out of his car and ran. Police found him in a nearby wooded area.

He was charged with driving while intoxicated, fleeing and eluding, and leaving the scene of an accident.

When he appeared before Baltimore County Judge Vicki B. Watts, he was given a one-year suspended sentence and had his license suspended for six months.

"What's the message?" Beverly Hibschman asks. "What's the message to people who know he was reckless, and that a kid died because of it, and this is the penalty? And then this second accident happens, and there's no significant consequence, no community service, no sense that something terrible has happened, and almost happened again. Is there anything between nothing and jail?"

"She's right about that," says Mark W. Nelson, the Harford County assistant state's attorney who decided not to prosecute the accident that killed Tate Hibschman. "Maryland doesn't have a middle ground. It's kind of all or nothing. There should be an interim penalty, but there isn't."

Nelson says he decided not to prosecute on advice of Bel Air police, who decided there had not been "gross negligence" by Campbell. There is some dispute about that. One accident eyewitness, a former emergency medical technician, gave police a written statement saying she smelled alcohol. The day after the accident, police found marijuana in the car. But Campbell was not tested for substance abuse that night.

"You have to have a reason to believe" there was substance abuse "to test for it," says Bel Air police Cpl. Jim Lockard, who handled the case. "And we didn't think there was. After that, when Steve decided to pay the citation, there was no need to go to court.

"You know, no matter what the courts do, this kid has to live with the fact that he killed his friend," Lockard adds. "That's a terrible burden to carry."

Steve Campbell agrees. In conversation yesterday, he said, "I can understand why Tate's mom feels the way she does. Tate and I were very close. It hurts that he's gone. I don't like to talk about it. I was stupid."

He denies there was alcohol consumption the night of the accident, and will not comment on marijuana. As for sentencing in both cases, "In the eyes of the law, maybe I should have gotten something for the first case. Maybe I should have. For the second case, I was very surprised I didn't at least get community service. But why should the first case affect the sentencing in the second case?"

Calls to Judge Watts, who handled the case in May in Baltimore County District Court, were not returned yesterday. Beverly Hibschman attended that trial as a spectator but was not allowed to testify. When Watts handed out the sentence and called for her next case, Hibschman says, "I went before the judge and said, `I'm the mother.'

"She seemed confused. I said, `I'm the mother of that fatality, and that fatality has a name. [Campbell] never had to face a court for his past act and never had to admit publicly what he did."

A state policeman gently led Hibschman away.

Two years after her son's death, she says, "Whenever I go to sleep, that accident scene is the thing I see. It's the last thing at night, and the first thing in the morning. When the school year begins, I think, `Do I get school supplies for Tate?' I go to the supermarket and reach for things he liked to eat.

"I see his friends moving on, and I'm still stuck at 15. I don't fit anywhere. I'm not a mom anymore. If I want to be with old friends, I don't want to be around them to see their kids. They complain about them. I wish Tate was here to aggravate me."

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