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The Honolulu Police Department has had more than its share of bad press recently, with a steady stream of news about costly legal settlements involving officer misconduct, criminal charges, the federal grand jury probe of the chief, questions about the lack of oversight and more.
Then came a news report that raised the bar for strange but provocative allegations.
According to Hawaii News Now, a former Hawaii Pacific University professor said he was set up to be killed in a shootout with police as part of a conspiracy involving two of his colleagues at HPU, along with unnamed police officers.
It’s the kind of news story designed to catch your attention and it caught mine.
But the first lesson you learn as an investigative reporter is to be skeptical.
“If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” goes a fabled bit of journalistic advice.
In other words, even things that seem obvious need to be checked out.
And if ever there was a story that needed to be checked out, this was it. Despite playing up the allegations that two HPU employees had engaged in a murderous conspiracy, the story relied solely on the sketchy version of events laid out in the 14-page lawsuit and the sound bites from former HPU professor Gordon Knowles and his attorney.
It didn’t take much digging to find documents that undercut the story’s main “conspiracy” narrative.
Instead of a conspiracy involving current and former police officers, there’s plenty of documentary evidence strongly suggesting this is likely an unfortunate but more mundane case stemming from a veteran’s PTSD caused by prior Iraq service leading to personal issues on the job, eventual firing and a messy emotional aftermath in which all were victims.
The conspiracy allegations appeared in a lawsuit by Knowles and were reported by Hawaii News Now in a story broadcast June 8, just two days after the lawsuit was filed. Both Knowles and his attorney, Myles Breiner, were featured in the report with the headline, “Lawsuit: 2 HPU employees falsely told police that colleague planned campus shooting.”
Knowles is a lieutenant colonel and military police officer in the U.S. Army Reserves and previously deployed to Iraq. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology and has been on the faculty of HPU since 1998.
He was placed on leave without pay from his position teaching sociology and criminal justice in February 2015 for violating the school’s conflict of interest policy and was terminated four months later.
For some reason, these concerns didn’t prompt the station to dig a little deeper before airing the story with its dramatic allegations of conspiracy and police wrongdoing.
This lawsuit stemmed from Knowles’ arrest near his home and in the vicinity of several of the HPU buildings in downtown Honolulu at the beginning of September 2015. It did not deal with any of his other employment issues, which are apparently subjects of other proceedings.
In an on-camera interview, Knowles said he was busted by police based on false information intentionally fed by two former colleagues, Sheryl Sunia, a retired HPD homicide investigator and now an HPU professor, who had been assigned as his supervisor, and the university’s vice president for human resources, Diana Niles-Hansen.
Sunia spent 29 years as an HPD officer before her retirement, including 19 years as a member of the department’s hostage crisis negotiation team, where she was involved in several high profile cases, including a televised hostage-taking on Sand Island in 1996, and the murder of seven Xerox employees by a co-worker in 1999.
According to the lawsuit, Sunia allegedly used her contacts within HPD to access a confidential gun licensing database in order to confirm Knowles owned a registered handgun. This information was then used to support the application for a temporary restraining order against Knowles.
The lawsuit alleged that without the improperly obtained confidential gun information, the restraining order would not have been approved.
“They were trying to orchestrate an event where I would be shot and killed by police,” Knowles said, “by informing police I was carrying a weapon, had an arsenal of deadly weapons in my apartment, and was planning an active shooter event.”
The HNN story acknowledged the conspiracy allegations were “bizarre” and that the involvement of Sunia, an experienced former police officer, made it “even stranger.”
But for some reason, these concerns didn’t prompt the station to dig a little deeper before airing the story with its dramatic allegations of conspiracy and police wrongdoing.
It didn’t take long to find that there is another side to the story.
A quick online search found Knowles had twice applied for temporary restraining orders against Sunia, Niles-Hansen and other top HPU academic administrators. Both times they were rejected because the things Knowles complained of are not covered by the law.
Documents in the restraining order files in Honolulu’s District Court tell the story.
In January 2014, Knowles was told by his department chair the university had learned that he was also teaching classes on a part-time basis at the University of Hawaii in addition to his regular classes at HPU. He was advised this was both against campus policy and grounds for termination.
Knowles asked who had collected the information about his teaching schedule but did not receive an answer.
It didn’t take long to find that there is another side to the story.
“Out of concern for my personal safety that someone was stalking me and conducting surveillance of my private life, I filed a police report,” Knowles later wrote.
Knowles then wrote to David Lanoue, then-dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, accusing HPU of “cyberstalking” which he claimed was “illegal and needed to be discontinued immediately.”
On Oct. 2, 2014, Knowles was called to a meeting with Niles-Hansen and HPU Provost Matthew Liao-Troth. At the meeting, they reviewed a new conflict of interest policy adopted by HPU in August 2014. The policy requires disclosure of and written approval for any outside employment and prohibits outside work with an organization “that is in direct competition with our University.”
The two administrators informed Knowles that his part-time employment teaching at UH and at Honolulu Community College was a conflict that “warrants termination of your appointment and contract.” But they agreed to excuse his teaching in that semester since the policy was new. However, they advised that the conflicts needed to be resolved by the beginning of 2015.
According to the lawsuit, Knowles continued to object to “the ‘stalking’ into details of his personal life and terminated the meeting.”
Two weeks later, he filed a petition for a temporary restraining order naming his department chair, along with the dean, the vice-president for human resources, and provost. He asked the court to “prevent them from using State of Hawaii databases at the University of Hawaii/Honolulu Community College to harass, surveil, collect, and document my private and personal life for malicious intent.”
The restraining order was denied, court records show.
In February 2015, Knowles was placed on leave without pay pending further investigation, apparently after the administration learned he was continuing to teach at other campuses without approval despite repeated warnings.
Knowles responded by again seeking a restraining order against three of the same four administrators, citing what he called “15 months of repeated harassment and cyberstalking.”
“This malicious stalking and harassment has now manifested into an unpaid suspension and future termination of my employment,” he wrote, and “has caused me substantial emotional and financial distress.”
Again, the restraining order was denied.
Knowles was fired in June 2015 after failing to stop the additional teaching. The end came some nine months after he had been warned in writing that continued outside employment could lead to termination and nearly a year and a half after his department chair first advised him of the problem.
Documents contained in the restraining order files said Knowles then began emailing crude homemade flyers to other faculty and some students, accusing top HPU administrators, including Niles-Hansen, of being against military veterans and of unfair labor practices, cyberstalking and “employee surveillance.” Some flyers with photos of Saddam Hussein and Hitler, accusing HPU administrators of being dictators, were reportedly posted on or near HPU buildings along the Fort Street Mall.
In mid-August, Sunia reported that Knowles told her that he was seeking a permit to carry a concealed weapon “for those psychos at HPU.”
Then on Aug. 31, 2015, Knowles loudly confronted Niles-Hansen along Fort Street Mall, yelling expletives at her several times, according to a written statement she later filed.
“Gordon Knowles’ face was red, he was shouting so loudly that people came out from neighboring businesses while he yelled and jeered at me with aggressive gestures where he forcefully kept jabbing the air with his fingers pointed at me,” Niles-Hansen wrote.
The experience frightened her. She and Sunia immediately sought a restraining order barring Knowles from approaching them or any HPU buildings. Sunia’s statement in support of the restraining order cited Knowles’ access to weapons, but contrary to the claims in the lawsuit, did not allege that he had an “arsenal” in his apartment, only that his military service provided access to weapons.
Sunia also cited several specific behaviors, which she described as “characteristics of a dangerous person,” based on her years of experience as a hostage negotiator.
The public wasn’t served when the sensational conspiracy allegations were broadcast without pausing long enough to check out more of the story.
Sunia pointed to “the escalation of his anger issues towards myself and other people in the University, and his constant reference that he is suffering from PTSD, and his unpredictable behavior,” as further reasons the restraining order should be granted.
Knowles himself had filed documents in which he said he suffered from several symptoms of PTSD, which he tied to “mental combat-trauma symptoms from my military service in the Iraq war.”
Knowles was apparently arrested when police served the restraining order. The following day, his downtown apartment was searched and his handgun taken by HPD. He was later charged with disorderly conduct based on the Aug. 31 confrontation with Niles-Hansen.
The restraining order was extended several times. Then on Nov. 27, 2015, Knowles signed a stipulated agreement in which he agreed not to have any contact with either of the women, to stay away from HPU buildings and “not to request the return of any firearms that were surrendered” to HPD until the one-year agreement expires.
Not long after that agreement was signed, the separate disorderly conduct charges were dismissed when an unidentified “complaining witness” failed to appear in court.
And then Knowles filed his conspiracy lawsuit.
I suppose that these competing story lines will eventually have to be reconciled, probably in court after a long, expensive and painful process. At this point, it’s hard to predict how it will all be sorted out or to say with any certainty which version of events is “true” or where blame will fall for all the damage to lives and reputations.
But one thing that’s clear, to me at least, is that the public wasn’t served when the sensational conspiracy allegations were broadcast without pausing long enough to check out more of the story.