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One day in February 2000, four teenagers burst through Robert Wong’s front door in Pearl City and told him to lie face-down on the carpet. One of the intruders carried a rifle. He demanded to know if anyone else was in the house. He kicked Wong as he lay there.
Then the rifle went off.
Wong felt a shot of pain in his upper left leg, then a warm feeling as his blood flowed out onto the carpet. The teenagers ran. The whole ordeal lasted only a minute or so.
It didn’t take long for the police to round up five suspects – the four who went into the house and one who waited outside by the car. They got various sentences, including 20 years for the shooter.
But almost two decades later, the drama of that brief, violent moment is coming to a crescendo once again in two houses, one in Pearl City and another 10 miles away in Ewa Beach.
In Pearl City, Wong deals daily with the pain and disability caused by the bullet that shattered his hip. One leg is two inches shorter than the other. His wife has to clip his toenails and he can’t walk more than a block or two.
And finally, he’s on the verge of making someone pay.
That someone is Deborah Villa, a 60-year old Ewa Beach resident who raised five children on her own, most recently while working as an aide at a Schofield Barracks child care center.
Deborah’s son Sharone was one of the teenagers who barged into Wong’s house in 2000, though he was not the one who shot him. Sharone was 16 at the time. He did several months at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility in Kailua before being released to a program for troubled adolescents.
A few years after the robbery, Deborah Villa qualified for a low-income housing program in which a group of participants build each other’s houses, working on weekends and holidays over a year or so. The sweat equity made it possible for Villa to achieve what she had thought was impossible – owning a home in Hawaii.
She hauled heavy beams to the roof and got a rash all over her arms from installing fiberglass insulation. She discovered a penchant for using a nail gun, and liked to show off her tool belt.
“It was kind of cool and sexy, being a female and doing a man’s job,” she said.
When the crew finally finished in 2005, she threw a housewarming party. About 50 people came, and they roasted a pig and sang karaoke late into the night. At one point, two daughters sang Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love,” with tears streaming down their faces.
Today, that house is her only asset.
And after years of court procedures, Wong is about to take it.
Hawaii may be the only state where he could do it. A highly unusual state law places no cap on a parent’s liability for a minor child’s willful actions. Another allows a judgment against several people to be imposed on any one of them in such cases.
In combination, the two statutes mean Villa will almost surely lose her house. With nowhere to go and no other resources, she fears becoming homeless.
To Wong, the case represents long-delayed reparations to a crime victim. To Villa, draconian consequences for someone who was not even there.
In either case, it raises questions. How do Hawaii criminals and their families repay their “debt to society”? When does it end?
Villa remembers Sharone as a sweet child, despite physical abuse from his father. At the age of 7 or 8, he used to cook eggs on Mother’s Day and bring them to her in bed. He’d say, “You stay in bed all day, I’ll take care of you,” she recalls.
But by the time he was 16, Villa said, Sharone was getting into trouble, disappearing from home for days at a time – though she says she had no idea of the extent of it. She said she’d try calling the police to bring him home, but they had other priorities.
“You can’t get no help at all,” she said. “And I tried.”
A search of public records did not turn up any serious offenses committed by Sharone Villa, who now lives in Florida, since that day in 2000 — just traffic infractions.
“I was a dumb kid that wanted to hang out with the older crowd, which got me into trouble,” he said in an interview. “If I could turn back time, I would.”
In the months leading up to the crime, he was spending much of his time at the house of a friend, Nate Penn.
“We’re always together,” Penn told police in 2000 after they were caught.
One of the five who took part in the robbery, Masaaki Nemoto, knew Wong’s son and had spent time in the house, and so was familiar with the layout, according to court records.
Villa, Nemoto and Penn cased the house, driving up and down the street several times in the two weeks leading up to the robbery.
A fourth teenager, Joel Sanders, was also in on the plan. And Sanders had a rifle.
On the day of the crime, Nemoto picked up Penn and Villa, and then drove to Sanders’ house. They picked up a fifth teenager, Lawrence Manuel, at a pool hall and drove to Manuel’s house to get blue bandannas they used to mask their faces, according to court records.
In an interview with police, Penn said he and Villa urged Sanders to take the bullets out of the rifle but he refused.
Penn described the scene outside Wong’s house. While Nemoto stayed by the car, he said, he and Villa and Manuel were getting cold feet.
“We was thinking, do we actually, really want to do it?” Penn told police. “We stalled outside for at least a good five minutes.”
Sanders tried to get Penn to take the gun, but he refused. Then he turned to Villa, according to Penn’s account, who responded, “I’m definitely not taking the gun, just go ahead and get it away from me.”
Despite their reluctance, Sanders persuaded the others to go through Wong’s gate and approach the door, Penn said. Then Sanders led the way in, followed by Penn, Villa and Manuel. Manuel later told police that Villa was armed with a hatchet.
Within a chaotic minute or so, Wong had been forced to the ground, and Sanders had shot him, apparently by accident.
The teenagers ran out, piled into the car, and drove toward Diamond Head, where they got rid of the gun and some clothes. All the while, the other teenagers yelled at Sanders, Penn said, asking “why did he have to do that?”
They talked several times about turning themselves in, and even got within a few minutes drive of the police station. But they’d heard that Sanders might be going to the mainland, and were afraid “all this is going to get turned on us,” Penn told the police.
Soon enough, the whole thing had unraveled and all the teenagers were in custody. They admitted the crimes. Sanders, the shooter, was tried as an adult even though he was 17. He’s still serving his 20-year sentence, scheduled to be released in 2022.
Three of the defendants were adults at the time. Penn ended up spending a little more than five years in prison and Nemoto did six years. Manuel was in and out of the prison system for 12 years for the robbery and various other reasons, according to a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.
Villa, the youngest at 16, went through the juvenile prison and was released to an outside program after several months behind bars.
When the teenagers burst into his house, Wong was drinking a beer and having something to eat, according to hospital records he later submitted in his civil case against them. At the time, he was working for a wholesale food company.
Wong’s daughter and her boyfriend and his son were also in the house, but weren’t aware of what was going on until it was all over. Wong’s son called 911.
At the hospital, a social worker wrote that Wong said he was “doing well emotionally and just puzzled as to why this incident occurred.”
But the consequences had not fully revealed themselves. One of the bones in his hip joint had been shattered. One leg was now shorter than the other and he would have a chronic limp.
He spent six days at The Queen’s Medical Center, at a cost of more than $20,000, followed by a week at a rehab facility and more outpatient treatment.
“They came to my house, shot my leg and now I’m permanently crippled,” Wong, now 72 and retired from an insurance agent job, said in an interview.
“I can’t even dance. Do you see a lot of crippled people dance?”
Wong said he can’t walk more than a block or two before he has to find a place to sit.
“Every morning, I can’t put on my socks,” he said. “I can’t clip my toenails. My wife clips my toenails for me.”
As for the young men who caused the damage, he said, “I don’t know if they even feel sorry.”
It’s taken an emotional toll. He angers more easily. “This incident changed my life, even my personality,” he said.
So Wong took the path that the law opened for him — he sued the perpetrators. In 2003, he presented evidence of his pain and suffering, severe mental and emotional distress, reduced enjoyment of life, disability, medical expenses and loss of income.
A Circuit Court judge imposed damages of $20,456 for the time Wong spent in the hospital and $360,000 in general damages. In addition, each of the teenagers were on the hook for $50,000 in punitive and exemplary damages, except for Sanders, the shooter, who was liable for $100,000.
The judge also noted that, under Hawaii law, the parents of the two minors in the case – Villa and Sanders – were considered responsible for the actions of their children and would also owe money to Wong.
Hawaii Revised Statute 577-3 is deceptively brief, considering its implications.
After some general discussion of parental custody, it states, “The father and mother of unmarried minor children shall jointly and severally be liable in damages for tortious acts committed by their children.”
Every state has a statute assigning parents some legal responsibility for the actions of their minor children. The statutes also gives people who have been harmed by minors – whether in car crashes, crimes or simple misconduct – a way to recover some money.
“Every parent has this nightmare,” said Gary Wickert, a Wisconsin attorney who compiled a 50-state comparison of parental liability laws. “Minors, especially males, can get involved in these things. These statutes can impose liability.”
But almost all the laws – some states have more than one for different categories – come with limits, generally several thousand dollars or less. A few go as high as $30,000.
Only two states – Hawaii and Louisiana – allow unlimited liability for the willful damage and injuries caused by children. (Some allow uncapped liability in certain categories, such as motor vehicle accidents or for misconduct unlikely to result in high-dollar damage, such as graffiti or damage to school property.)
“Putting a limited potential liability on parents is government’s way of saying you have a duty to be good parents,” Wickert said. “On the flip side, even good parents sometimes get screwed because their kids are out of control.”
Hawaii’s law dates to 1846, more than a century before statehood, Wickert notes in his study, and “today remains one of the most broadly applied, with no monetary limits.”
Only two states – Hawaii and Louisiana – allow unlimited liability for the willful damage and injuries caused by their children.
There’s another aspect of Hawaii’s law that comes into play in a case like Wong’s. When damages are imposed on a group of people who committed an intentional wrongful act, any one of them can be forced to pay the full amount.
The bottom line: Deborah Villa could be forced to cover all of Wong’s damages.
A few years after the robbery, Villa was telling a neighbor how much she’d like to own a home in Hawaii, but couldn’t possibly afford it. The neighbor suggested she look into a program run by the Self-Help Housing Corporation of Hawaii.
The program puts together teams of 10 to 15 families who work on weekends and holidays to build each other’s houses. The goal is to complete one house per month. A little more than half the labor is done by the families, with the rest contracted out to experts such as plumbers.
The pay-off is a low interest loan that can make the house affordable.
Villa applied to the program and qualified. In late 2004, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin did a story about Villa and how she was having a hard time meeting the requirement that each family put in 32 hours of labor a week, since she was by herself. Her other children had moved out and her remaining daughter was too young to do construction work.
“This is how you really get to appreciate your house,” Villa told a reporter. “Nobody can take this away from you.”
The newspaper published a follow-up the next month. After hearing about Villa’s plight, dozens of people had signed up to help finish the houses, including 115 from Hickam Air Force Base.
“I am really overwhelmed,” Villa said.
By 2013, Wong had failed to collect from the five perpetrators or the parents of the minors, Villa and Rosetta Cash, the mother of Sanders. Wong went to court and renewed the judgment, giving him 10 more years to try to collect.
Cash was the only one to fight against the judgment when Wong first filed suit. She argued that a court decided that Sanders, her son, should be tried as an adult, and so he should bear the judgment himself. She denied that she had not been a good parent. Her other children turned out well, she said, including one who went into the military and another who became a firefighter.
Cash’s name remained on the judgment until at least 2013. But court filings do not show she ever paid anything. She died in early 2009 with no property to her name, according to public records.
Wong’s attorneys queried financial institutions trying to find assets that belonged to the perpetrators, but mostly came up empty.
One exception was Nemoto, who knew Wong’s son and had waited by the car during the robbery.
When Wong’s lawyers tried to garnish his wages in 2014, Nemoto filed a declaration with the court saying he was barely getting by.
After prison, he wrote, he got married and was “trying my best to find work and support my family,” including two stepchildren and one biological child. He said he made about $700 a month working as a waiter at two different places.
Nemoto said he had not committed any other crimes and was making restitution payments to Wong. But he couldn’t afford to give up the $108.49 Wong was seeking from his bank account.
The court disagreed and ordered the money turned over.
Wong’s attorneys found some other cash as well. By the middle of 2015, they’d garnished $928.17 from Nemoto’s wages and $589.59 from Villa, who was getting paid about $1,185 every two weeks as a child care aide.
These sums came nowhere close to satisfying the judgment Wong had won in 2003. But in 2013, Villa had been forced to answer questions in a deposition. Did she own stocks, bonds, CDs? How about stamp or coin collections, antique furniture, art work, valuable jewelry?
The answers were mostly no. But Villa revealed she did have one asset. Her house.
The ensuing struggle over the house is documented in stacks of court filings. The twists and turns included a failed mediation, property appraisals and accusations of fraud after Villa transferred the house to a different son. (She says she did it so that the son, who had better credit than she did, could get a home equity loan to pay off Wong.)
In June, the court granted Wong’s request for a judgment of $244,533, a figure that took into account the appraised value of the house and the amounts that Villa still owed.
In January, Villa’s house was offered up in an auction. The only bidder was Wong, who got it for one dollar.
The only remaining step is for a judge to hold a hearing confirming that the auction was done properly. Villa said she was told by Self-Help Housing that they were not informed about the auction, as they believe they should have been as the holder of her mortgage.
Another unanswered question is how Villa was able to qualify to buy the house in the first place. A lien search by the title company apparently did not show Wong’s judgment against her, which might have disqualified her from getting a mortgage.
After almost two decades of court struggle, both Villa and Wong are bitter, with starkly different views of what is fair.
“Do I feel bad? Yes, I do,” Villa said. “I feel really sad it happened to him.”
As might be expected, the judgment strained Villa’s relationship with her son Sharone.
“When I found out my house was being taken away, I wouldn’t even speak to him,” she said. “It was a long time. Then I said, `He is my son.’ But I was heartbroken. This is all I have. This is it.”
Despite his regrets over what he did, Sharone Villa, too, thinks it’s unfair.
“My take, I think it’s really sad they’re going after her alone and trying to take something she actually worked for,” he said. “She’s the only one taking the fall for it. I think it’s very sad, and very wrong.”
Wong, meanwhile, says he expects to get little value from the house, after accounting for the amounts Villa owes and legal fees.
“She’s the one initiating the whole thing,” he said of Villa. “She’s the one causing me so much pain. I hate her.”
Wong strongly supports the idea that parents should be held accountable for the actions of their children. If Hawaii’s law goes too far, he said, fine — someone should try to change it.
He could keep trying to go after the other perpetrators. But they either don’t have assets or have moved to other parts of the U.S. Wong said he can’t afford to continue tracking them down. Villa, he said, should sue them to recover their share of the damages.
But Villa said she can’t afford to track them down, either.
“I understand the law,” she said. “This is something my son did. But I’m going to be on the street.”
Still, she tries to keep her head up.
“It’s going to work out,” she said. “I have faith.”
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