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Just before midnight on June 21, 2013, someone stole the mailbox from Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha’s house.
Surveillance video from the home shows a man in shorts, long-sleeve shirt and baseball cap plucking Kealoha’s cast-iron mailbox off its post and putting it in the backseat of a sedan.
In all, the theft took about 30 seconds, the epitome of a grab and go.
But court records show the case is much more complex, revealing a bitter family feud over money, a condo and the well-being of a 95-year-old grandmother who was forced to sell her home.
Documents also show the involvement of a special police unit in what is normally a low-priority crime, and the arrest of a family member who’s claiming innocence.
In 2013, the Kealohas lived on Kealaolu Avenue in Kahala, a high-end neighborhood, home to some of the city’s wealthiest families. The day after their mailbox was apparently stolen, Katherine Kealoha, reported the crime to the Honolulu Police Department.
Katherine is a city prosecutor who heads the career criminal unit, meaning she takes on high-level, felony offenders. One of her recent high-profile cases involved preparing the gambling indictments against individuals running sweepstakes machines.
On June 29, 2013, Katherine Kealoha told HPD investigators she had reviewed a black-and-white surveillance video from her home the night of the alleged theft. The man who drove away with the locked mailbox, she said, was her uncle, Gerard Puana.
At about the same time Katherine was talking to police, Puana and his girlfriend were looking for parking at Saints Peters and Paul Catholic Church located on Kaheka Street.
When he got out of the car he was approached by police and arrested for felony theft. He now faces a federal charge of destroying a mailbox, a crime that carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison.
“The claims contained in that document are so detached from reality that it amounts to a work of fiction.” — Katherine Kealoha, city prosecutor
Puana’s attorney, federal public defender Alexander Silvert, said that by the time the arrest was completed eight officers, many from HPD’s crime reduction unit, had arrived on the scene.
Police reports also indicate some officers were already prepared to search for Puana about a half an hour before Katherine Kealoha identified him to investigators.
“They already had a description of him and the car,” Silvert said. “They were briefed.”
Chief Kealoha wasn’t available for an interview in time for this story. But he told Hawaii News Now that the use of a special squad is not unusual in a case that involves a high-ranking public official, including a police chief.
“I know what it looks like but there’s no preferential treatment,” he said during the newscast Thursday night.
Kealoha also said his home had been vandalized at least half a dozen times in a year including someone shooting out his windows. He and Katherine no longer live in the home.
Silvert says the man in the surveillance video is not his client. Civil Beat viewed the video along with a photo of his client. There was no obvious resemblance. Silvert refused to provide a copy of the surveillance footage.
But the case has an even more curious twist: Puana is suing Katherine Kealoha alleging fraud and financial elder abuse.
He says in the lawsuit that his niece bilked him and his mother — Katherine’s grandmother — out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The grandmother, Florence Puana, is also a plaintiff in the suit.
Together the Puanas allege Katherine took their money and spent it on herself and her husband, even putting about $25,000 toward a breakfast celebration at the Sheraton Waikiki after he was named chief in 2009.
Other expenditures listed in the lawsuit include $2,000 for Elton John tickets and payments made to Mercedes Benz and Maserati.
That lawsuit was filed nearly three months before the mailbox was stolen, and is now inextricably linked to the criminal case as police witnesses, including the chief, have been called to testify in the civil matter.
“To me there appears to be a clear link between the two cases,” Silvert said. “Obviously, gaining a conviction against Mr. Puana would help her tremendously in the civil case.”
Silvert noted that in his nearly 30 years as a federal public defender he’s never seen a case like this before.
“I’ve never had a mailbox theft case,” he said. “Ever.”
While the criminal case seems simple, the civil litigation is complex. It involves hundreds of thousands of dollars Puana and his mother, Florence Puana, say they entrusted to Katherine Kealoha, who was acting as their attorney and investment advisor.
According to the lawsuit, Puana gave Kealoha $40,000 that he believed would be used as part of an “investment hui” that she would manage on his behalf, and allow him to make periodic withdrawals. The records state he gave her an additional $30,000 to keep inside a safe at her house.
Katherine Kealoha also helped obtain a reverse mortgage on her grandmother’s house so they could use the funds to buy her uncle a condo.
Court records say the reverse mortgage was for $534,594.01, about $390,000 of which went toward purchasing the condominium unit. Another $20,000 went toward other fees and charges related to the mortgage.
But it’s what happened to the rest of that money — about $150,000 — as well as the $70,000 Gerard Puana says he gave to Katherine Kealoha that is central to the lawsuit.
The Puanas say Kealoha kept the money for herself, taking out cash or spending it on food, travel and entertainment. She also didn’t pay down any of the mortgage, the lawsuit says, causing the balance to balloon to more than $650,000.
According to the Puanas’ attorney, Gerald Kurashima, Florence Puana had to sell her house to pay off the mortgage. She now lives with one of her daughters.
“I’ve never had a mailbox theft case. Ever.” — Alexander Silvert, federal public defender
“Florence’s primary concern was the amount of the reverse mortgage,” Kurashima said. “She believed she had to sell the property because of the size of the reverse mortgage.”
In court records, Kurashima notes that the Puanas placed their trust in Katherine because she was highly educated and an attorney. Gerard Puana had a high school education and Florence only finished the eighth grade.
Katherine Kealoha’s attorney, Anthony Wong, of Kevin Sumida & Associates, told Civil Beat his client would not comment on the case. He also did not want to talk about the lawsuit.
“It’s probably a good idea for me to follow the same advice that I would give to my client,” Wong said.
But court filings make clear that Katherine Kealoha and her attorneys find the allegations in the suit bogus. In fact, in a written declaration to the court, Katherine vigorously defends herself while trying to undercut her uncle, who in previous filings is referred to as a “ne’er-do-well” and a “dead-beat.”
“I deny all of the so-called factual assertions claiming that I breached any duties to either of the plaintiffs,” Katherine Kealoha said. “The claims contained in that document are so detached from reality that it amounts to a work of fiction.”
She said she never accepted $70,000 from her uncle, who she said was living “hand-to-mouth,” and that the only reason she helped her grandmother obtain a reverse mortgage was to help her buy a condo for her son. She ends her eight-page defense by suggesting her uncle likely orchestrated the entire scheme.
“Again, Gerard had no money (zero) to give to me, and his claim that he gave me large sums of cash is absurd,” Katherine Kealoha said. “Gerard is now under criminal prosecution in federal court for stealing a mailbox, and is being defended by a public defender.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office suggests the claims made by the Puanas in the civil lawsuit may be a motive for the alleged mailbox theft. In court filings, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Osborne says Puana took the mailbox as a means of getting to Katherine Kealoha’s bank statements.
Specifically, Osborne argues that Puana wanted financial statements that could help him find out what happened to the hundreds of thousands of dollars he and his mother say they had entrusted to Katherine Kealoha.
Osborne, who was not available for comment, wrote in his filing that Puana had contacted the Bank of Hawaii to try to obtain this information.
According to records, Puana told a bank employee on Jan. 23, 2013, that he was involved in a lawsuit with Katherine Kealoha and that he needed to know what happened to $500,000 of his mother’s money.
When told he wasn’t named on the account and therefore did not have access, he made a phone call to a woman who he identified as Katherine Kealoha and handed the phone to the bank employee.
“The motive really doesn’t hold any water to me.” — Gerald Kurashima, attorney representing Gerard and Florence Puana
The woman on the line said the bank should give Puana the statements, and that she’d pay for any charges necessary.
Katherine Kealoha, however, said she was not the voice on the other end of the line and did not authorize the financial statements to be released.
“This evidence proves motive,” Osborne wrote. “It demonstrates the Defendant’s desire to obtain (Kealoha’s) bank records by any means — even fraud. As later events show, the Defendant stole (Kealoha’s) mailbox in a second attempt to get the same records.”
Kurashima, however, says the mailbox incident has no place in his civil suit against Kealoha. Not only did the incident occur after he filed the case, but his clients already had all the documents they needed months beforehand.
Many of the allegations occurred in 2009 and 2010, Kurashima said. All the money was gone shortly thereafter. When the lawsuit was filed in March, Kurashima said he already had access to the financial statements.
“The motive really doesn’t hold any water to me,” Kurashima said. “We had the bank records before I filed the complaint so if he’s trying to steal the mailbox with the bank records the question is why. We already had them.”
He added that it’s also pretty clear how a federal charge against his client could sway the civil suit.
“I think it’s self evident.”
Trials in both cases are scheduled for December.
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