In 1970, Honolulu Police Chief Francis Keala had 39 unsolved murders on the books, 13 of which were gangland slayings related to the rise of organized crime in Hawaii.
To get a handle on all the killings, Keala wanted to add more men to a newly created unit designed to keep tabs on the criminal syndicates that had taken hold in the islands.
Keala’s “Criminal Intelligence Unit” was made up of nine officers assigned to work in the shadows of the underworld, gathering information and conducting surveillance. The hope was that they could help put an end to the mayhem.
But the Honolulu Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, or CIU as it’s more commonly referred to, has been caught up in controversy almost since it began. The unit has a long history of scandal and corruption, and one member was killed in a gangland-style murder.
The recent arrest and federal indictment of former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, who is a city prosecutor, has once again put the unit under an uncomfortable spotlight.
According to the indictment, the Kealohas allegedly worked with at least five members of HPD’s CIU to frame a family member for the theft of their mailbox, in hopes of undermining that relative in a legal dispute that threatened to reveal a history of bank fraud and financial deception.
The officers, four of whom were indicted Friday and a fifth who has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy, are accused of falsifying police reports and lying to federal investigators. They’re also accused of destroying evidence related to the alleged conspiracy.
“It’s hard to police intelligence-gathering,” said Jim Dooley, a long-time investigative reporter based in Honolulu who has written extensively about the alleged abuses of HPD’s Criminal Intelligence Unit as well as its ties to those in organized crime.
“To have the CIU answer directly to the chief creates all sorts of protections for them, but it also creates all sorts of problems because they can operate with impunity,” Dooley said. “They’ve been caught doing some really suspect things over and over again. And the’ve been doing it virtually since the time they started.”
The Honolulu Police Department keeps a tight lid on information about the CIU, and how it conducts its business.
Officials from HPD refused to provide anyone for an interview to discuss the unit and its role. In an email, HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said that CIU is responsible for developing intelligence on organized crime and terrorist activities.
Yu said the unit, which reports directly to the chief, is currently made up of 19 officers and led by a captain. She did not provide any of the officers’ names.
The CIU is funded through the office of the police chief, which has a budget of about $7 million. The unit also receives some federal funding.
“Officers who were working in CIU when the (U.S. Justice Department) target letters were sent out were immediately transferred out of the unit,” Yu said in reference to the recent criminal indictments.
“Most of the officers now assigned to the CIU were not there at the time of the incident.”
What sticks out most about the CIU is just how little anyone really knows about it.
Most of the unit’s work occurs out of sight of the public. Some say the secrecy is necessary. Others find it troubling, especially given the unit’s history of scandal and abuse of police authority.
Brook Hart, a veteran defense attorney who has practiced law in Honolulu for nearly 50 years, said he knows just as much about the HPD’s CIU as his other colleagues working in criminal justice — “very, very little.”
“They’re a secretive group who report directly to the chief,” Hart said. “Exactly what their work is or how it is supervised has always been somewhat of a mystery.”
He said most of his interactions with the unit came in the 1970s when he was involved in organized crime cases. But he didn’t often gain much access to the unit.
All he knew was that the unit would gather information about known and suspected criminals or persons of interest that might be tied to organized crime. Although that information might not be used to secure a conviction, it could be used to help the detectives and other officers.
“I’m highly skeptical about the CIU and very concerned about the degree of secrecy that surrounds their operations,” Hart said. “I think secret police forces always pose a danger to the community. And based on the accusations made against the chief and his wife it seems like the CIU was thoroughly involved in whatever it was that happened.”
While the CIU was always supposed to be a covert unit, it didn’t take long for it to start grabbing headlines.
In one of the more bizarre accounts, three CIU officers were accused in 1973 of breaking into a Hollywood businessman’s Waikiki penthouse to steal his briefcase, which contained documents related to a proposed business venture and “semiprecious stones.”
According to news reports, a later search of the penthouse uncovered a bugging device that was hidden on top of a kitchen cabinet.
Keala’s response to the incident was vague. “All I can say about it is that it will be investigated just as any other burglary case,” he said.
A few years later a lawsuit was filed against Isaac Sanga, a former member of the CIU, by a grieving father, who said Sanga helped arrange his son’s murder.
Sanga had resigned from HPD the day after the alleged killer was arrested. Sanga himself was killed in the Kewalo Basin parking lot in 1984. Prosecutors said Sanga was trying to collect a $4,000 debt on behalf of someone else when he was fatally shot.
The Criminal Intelligence Unit again was thrust into the spotlight in 1997. That’s when then-Police Chief Michael Nakamura told the Internal Affairs Division he had ordered CIU to follow Sharon Black, an HPD outreach worker, “around town and to place a ‘trap'” on her phone and pager, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
At the time, the Internal Affairs investigators were looking into Black’s allegation that she was being retaliated against after filing a sexual harassment complaint against then-Assistant Chief Joseph Aveiro Jr. Nakamura and Aveiro denied wrongdoing.
Nakamura, however, told the Internal Affairs Division that he asked for surveillance on Black’s car after she found a threatening note on her windshield. But, according to the Star-Bulletin, the law prohibited CIU from placing a trap on any phone or pager unless it had a court order or the consent of the person being monitored.
In 2009, a federal jury awarded Black $150,000 for emotional damages in her lawsuit against the city for retaliation.
One of the most revealing cases was in 2007 when a CIU officer, Kenneth Kamakana, filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against HPD alleging widespread corruption and abuses of power within its ranks.
Kamakana had said in his lawsuit he was transferred out of CIU and investigated by HPD’s internal affairs division, now known as the Professional Standards Office, after he turned over records of alleged wrongdoing by the secretive unit to the FBI.
Among the allegations were that CIU officers had contacted a defendant in a major federal investigation into organized crime and gambling in Chinatown despite warnings from FBI officials that doing so could put the case at risk.
According to depositions obtained by the Advertiser at the time, FBI agents expressed concerns about just how close some CIU officers were to the criminals they were supposed to take down.
“It is a Criminal Intelligence Unit, and to do their job correctly, they have to develop very close working relationships with people of suspect character,” one agent said. “The better the source you have — usually that means the source is a very bad person — the better the case you have. And it’s like playing with fire.”
The city spent nearly $2 million in legal fees fighting the Kamakana lawsuit, and eventually paid him $650,000. Lee Donohue, who was HPD’s chief at the time, issued a written statement calling the legal settlement “an economic decision.”
Across the country, it’s a common practice for police departments to set up specialized units — similar to HPD’s CIU — to fight gangs, drug trafficking, organized crime and gambling.
A key feature of such specialized units is their relative freedom to investigate crimes on the street, relieved from the demand to constantly respond to calls, as regular patrol officers do, or to radio commands from their supervisors and dispatchers.
But critics say that freedom comes at a cost, leaving most specialized units with little oversight and tempting some officers down the dark side of policing — as demonstrated by a string of police scandals over the years.
In 2007, for instance, the Chicago Police Department disbanded its elite Special Operations Section, known as SOS, after county and federal prosecutors launched investigations into allegations of wrongdoing.
The investigations centered on a rogue group of SOS officers who were supposed to root out gang and drug crimes in the roughest parts of Chicago. The officers operated a robbery ring and were involved in a series of other wrongdoings, such as breaking into homes without warrants, stealing money from suspects and even kidnapping.
In the end, a number of SOS officers were indicted and pleaded guilty to charges relating to the scandal. Ringleader Jerome Finnigan, who became notorious for ordering a hit on a fellow SOS officer who he believed was cooperating with investigators, was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
“My bosses knew what I was doing out there,” Finnigan said when he was sentenced in 2011. “And it went on and on. And this wasn’t the exception to the rule. This was the rule.”
First Assistant Federal Defender Alexander Silvert is the man many credit with uncovering the alleged conspiracy involving the Kealohas and CIU.
Silvert was Gerard Puana’s defense attorney in the mailbox case and the first person to present evidence that indicated his client was framed by HPD.
He said that CIU’s past, combined with the recent allegations involving the attempted framing of his client, make clear that Honolulu’s unit is in need of reform. He’s even called on the department to disband the unit until it can figure out how to police its members.
“Given the facts that we’ve uncovered in this case, we believe that the CIU unit needs to be disbanded and or completely reorganized,” Silvert said in an interview.
“It was supposed to be a special intelligence unit that could cross law enforcement boundaries to do undercover investigations of major crimes. What it appears to have become is a black ops unit working at the behest of the chief without any regard to normal rules and procedures.”
One of the most egregious allegations, he said, involved CIU members video-taping the ceiling in their offices for six days in an attempt to record over the footage from a hard drive taken from the Kealohas’ residence the day after the mailbox theft.
He believed that hard drive would have contained evidence of the alleged frame job. And when a federal judge signed off on a subpoena for him to retrieve that footage, federal investigators say CIU members recorded over it. If they had simply deleted the file, it could have been retrievable.
“It’s just fundamentally undemocratic and dangerous to have in a police department a unit that is completely devoid of controls of reporting requirements of accountability,” Silvert said. “This isn’t the FBI or the DEA or the CIA. This is a local police department.”
During a Friday press conference addressing the criminal charges against the Kealohas and four current and former members of CIU, acting HPD chief Cary Okimoto said he’s been trying to improve the oversight of the division, saying he meets with the officers every other day.
He also said there’s been some change within the division, although he did not provide specifics about who was assigned or why they were chosen.
“Like any other group or any other division in the police department you need the supervision to be very, very tight to make sure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” Okimoto said. “When you don’t have that and you don’t have those controls in place then things like this could happen real easily.”
The unit is made up of officers who are hand-selected by the police chief.
Many of the alleged co-conspirators from CIU had personal ties to either Kealoha or his wife.
Gordon Shiraishi, who was the captain in charge of the unit when the alleged frame job went down, was in the same recruit class as Kealoha in 1983. Shiraishi was a lieutenant in the traffic division prior to Kealoha becoming chief. In 2010, not long after Kealoha was selected as chief, Shiraishi was promoted to captain and assigned to CIU.
After the alleged framing of Puana, Shiraishi was again promoted, this time to major, and assigned to the Training Division. While there, the police academy experienced its own set of problems in the form of a cheating scandal that resulted in the termination of three recruits.
Shiraishi retired from HPD as a major in April 2017 after he had received a target letter from the Justice Department indicating that he was suspected of criminal activity.
Derek Hahn, a lieutenant who was second in command to Shiraishi at the time of the mailbox theft, owned a business with Katherine Kealoha and another man, Bronson Tokioka, called Discount Energy Solutions, which was a residential solar company.
He was promoted to lieutenant in 2012 and assigned to CIU after eight years working as a detective in Patrol District 1, which includes Downtown, Chinatown and Makiki. He became the acting captain and commanding officer of CIU after Shiraishi transferred.
According to the indictment, Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen was a “footman” in CIU for five years, from 2012 to 2017. Nguyen was married to Katherine Kealoha’s niece, who was a fellow officer. They lived together with the Kealohas on the property from which the mailbox was stolen.
Daniel Sellers, who was arrested the same day as the Kealohas and, like the couple, pleaded not guilty to the charges, has an even closer connection. Sellers went to high school with Katherine Kealoha and even dated her for several years.
Investigators say he served two separate stints in CIU, the first starting in 2009. He is still with the department.
Every county has a CIU, according to Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry, who spent 30 years at HPD, some of which included working with CIU members while he was a major overseeing the narcotics/vice squad as well as the criminal investigation division.
“It’s a very elite squad,” Perry said. “The main focus is on information gathering and nothing more. Officers do not get involved in the criminal investigation aspect. All they do is gather information and that information is then shared with the detectives.”
He said that the information collected by CIU is confidential, meaning it likely won’t appear in an official investigative report. The reason for this, Perry said, is to prevent the CIU members from testifying in court, which would automatically expose their identities.
Former HPD Deputy Police Chief Marie McCauley offered a glimpse into the CIU during an interview with a Honolulu Ethics Commission investigator in 2015 about the alleged mailbox theft.
During questioning, the investigator, Letha DeCaires, a former HPD officer, said that CIU “still belongs to No. 1, meaning Louis Kealoha.”
McCauley told DeCaires that CIU focuses much of its attention on gambling, prostitution and drugs. But it also responds to calls from public figures, such as judges and politicians.
“I mean it’s not unusual to have requests from public figures to, you know, go find out who’s stalking the mayor, who’s stalking Tulsi Gabbard, or I feel like I have a bug in my office and things like that,” McCauley told DeCaires. “These requests come to us, you know, quite often.”
Perry told Civil Beat that CIU members often meet with each other as well as with other law enforcement agencies to share information about possible threats to the community or upcoming high-profile events, such as the visit of a U.S. president or other international dignitary.
The most important quality in a CIU officer is trust, he said. They report directly to the chief and are often privy to some of the most sensitive information a police department can access.
But Perry admits that this tight-knit, closed-off relationship can be problematic, especially if the boss is asking for a favor that might not fall within the duties of a police officer. He said that scenario appears to be at play in the allegations outlined in the indictment.
“I think what happened is the officers were very, very loyal to the chief of police and to the command staff,” Perry said. “I think that loyalty went just a little bit too far in this situation and they didn’t know how to stop. It’s a tough one. You have to say no.”
“Sometimes you have to say this is wrong, I’m taking the high road and I’m not going to follow those orders even if you transfer or suspend me,” Perry said. “And it takes a brave person to do that, especially in an organization like the Honolulu Police Department.”
Civil Beat reporter Rui Kaneya contributed to this report.