In June 2013, two homicide detectives from the Honolulu Police Department were assigned to investigate a busted taillight at the Kahala home of their boss.
The car belonged to Police Chief Louis Kealoha’s wife, Katherine, a deputy prosecuting attorney for the city in charge of the career criminal division that takes on repeat offenders and parolees who violate the terms of their release.
She and her husband told HPD investigators assigned to the case that someone had broken into their garage and smashed the taillight using a screwdriver found in the back seat of the chief’s car. Officers dusted the scene for fingerprints and swabbed the screwdriver for DNA. The Kealohas wanted someone to be prosecuted.
The alleged break-in and vandalism occurred less than a week after the Kealohas’ mailbox was reported stolen.
But federal public defender Alexander Silvert says the taillight incident, which hasn’t been made public until now, appears to be another attempt to frame his client, Gerard Puana.
Puana is Katherine Kealoha’s uncle and finds himself at the center of a growing public corruption and conspiracy investigation that has brought the U.S. Justice Department down on the HPD.
The chief went on voluntary leave after Justice Department officials informed him he is a target in its corruption probe swirling around the mailbox theft. His future with the department is expected to be discussed at a Honolulu Police Commission meeting Wednesday.
Katherine Kealoha, who in court documents appears to be considered “Co-Conspirator No. 1” by the feds, was the one who reported the family’s mailbox stolen. The crime was investigated by numerous HPD officers and Puana was eventually charged with destruction of a mailbox, which is a federal crime.
At the time, Puana was locked in a heated family feud with his niece, Katherine, over her financial management of a condominium owned by her then 95-year-old grandmother. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were at stake in the case which was headed for civil court. A jury eventually sided with Katherine and ordered Puana and the grandmother to pay more than $600,000 in damages and legal fees. That case has been appealed.
The federal government eventually dismissed criminal charges against Puana after Silvert argued in court that his client had been set up to help Katherine win the family dispute over the condominium money. The case was then forwarded to the FBI for investigation.
A retired HPD officer, Niall Silva, last month pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges for taking part in what he acknowledged was a frame job. Silva said in his plea deal that at least five co-conspirators worked with him, including four HPD officers.
Now, another investigation of Puana by HPD officers for an incident involving the Kealohas is surfacing, this one for the broken taillight on a car sitting in the Kealohas’ garage.
The alleged vandalism was classified as felony second-degree burglary. And it occurred less than a week after the mailbox was reported stolen.
“It was certainly troubling and suspicious,” Silvert said of the burglary investigation. “He was never arrested or charged. We didn’t even know that it had happened.”
Civil Beat obtained copies of police reports related to the burglary through a public records request.
Silvert at first refused to discuss details of the burglary, citing the ongoing federal investigation. He agreed to discuss it only after Civil Beat approached him with the records.
Silvert said he first learned about the burglary in December 2014, after a federal judge had declared a mistrial in the mailbox case. The mistrial came when the chief inappropriately testified about what he described as Puana’s criminal past.
At the time, Silvert said he had evidence that police officers had falsified reports and mishandled evidence in the mailbox case.
Shortly after the trial, Silvert said said he received an anonymous letter saying there had been another attempt to frame Puana. The information appeared to come from an HPD insider who claimed to have specific knowledge of the burglary case.
Civil Beat reviewed the letter which pointed out that many of the same officers assigned to the burglary case were heavily involved in the mailbox theft investigation, including homicide detectives Dru Akagi and Greg McCormick.
Silvert said after he received the letter he called Akagi, who confirmed that Puana was the sole suspect in the burglary case.
Akagi declined a Civil Beat interview request made through the HPD last week.
Department officials also refused to comment on the case.
One of the officers assigned to the burglary case was Officer Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, a member of HPD’s Criminal Intelligence Unit that conducts surveillance and investigates organized crime. He was also involved in the mailbox theft investigation and is now considered by the feds to be a co-conspirator in that case, according to court records.
At the time, Nguyen was married to Katherine Kealoha’s niece. Civil Beat also requested an interview with Nguyen through HPD but was denied.
But a Civil Beat review of the burglary reports raises questions about when police started looking into the smashed taillight, an issue that could be important because of the mailbox theft.
For instance, in his initial report Nguyen said he initiated the investigation at 8 a.m. on June 27, 2013. Nguyen said he notified HPD’s Criminal Investigation Division of the burglary at 8:30 a.m., at which point he said Akagi and McCormick were assigned to the case.
But Akagi’s report on the burglary says Lt. Walter Calistro assigned Akagi to the case two days earlier.
The mailbox theft was reported on June 21.
The burglary reports were heavily redacted, including covering up names of the victims and suspects. But an address in the report made it clear the crime occurred at the Kealohas’ Kahala home. They no longer live there.
It’s unclear from the records why Puana was targeted by HPD for the vandalism
Silvert said that until he received the anonymous letter, he had no idea that HPD had been investigating Puana for another crime against the Kealohas while he was also a suspect in the missing mailbox case.
The burglary investigation wasn’t referenced in any of the documents Silvert received from the HPD or federal prosecutors who were handling the charges against his client.
“It was the first we ever heard about it,” Silvert said. “We believe we should have been told.”
That makes Silvert even more suspicious that the Kealohas, with the help of certain police officers, were going to great lengths to discredit Puana as the civil suit trial drew closer.
But the Kealohas’ criminal defense attorney, Myles Breiner, takes a different view of the burglary case.
After the mailbox theft became public two years ago, the Kealohas said that they had been experiencing a lot of vandalism at their Kahala home, including having their windows shot out by a BB gun and people yelling obscenities, at about the same time the mailbox was stolen in 2013.
Breiner said it would have been appropriate to have experienced officers, such as Akagi, McCormick and Nguyen, assigned to investigate threats that had been made against the police chief and his wife, even if was just a property crime.
There is nothing in the unredacted sections of the reports to indicate that Kealoha specifically assigned any of the officers to investigate the broken taillight.
Instead, Breiner says it was Calistro, of the Criminal Investigation Division, who assigned Akagi and McCormick. The burglary reports don’t specify who told Nguyen to investigate.
“If there was a burglary report made by the Kealohas then they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing,” Breiner said. “I see nothing sinister, conspiratorial or duplicitous in filing a burglary report.”
The fact that the investigation didn’t result in Puana’s arrest also bolsters his clients’ defense that they didn’t do anything wrong, Breiner said.
If they really were involved in a conspiracy, he said, the officers involved easily could have manufactured evidence, such as fingerprints or other fake reports, that would have pinned the busted taillight on Puana.
There was a clear motive to do so, Breiner said, especially if the Kealohas were truly seeking a way to strengthen the prosecution mailbox case against Puana.
“The investigation worked to his advantage,” Breiner said. “They concluded that they couldn’t prove it and dropped it. And if they dropped it then what happens to the whole conspiracy theory of the government and Silvert?”