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KAPAAU, Hawaii Island – Bullets have been flying and blood has been flowing on the Big Island lately as a spike in violent crime is giving new meaning to the phrase, “March madness.”
The latest shooting occurred Thursday afternoon in a residential area of Hilo, leaving a woman in critical condition and a male suspect in police custody, according to initial media reports.
That incident followed a shooting Wednesday in this normally sleepy North Kohala town, which has suffered through a pair of lockdowns in less than a week. Two suspects, including one who escaped police gunfire three separate times, have avoided capture in the unrelated incidents.
“The trust is gone, definitely, for the people up here,” said Carol Fuertes, a 50-year area resident who feels drugs and guns have pushed the violence to a level she’s not seen before.
“The community is just reeling from all of this happening all of a sudden,” Fuertes said of a town with fewer residents than a Honolulu high-rise. “It’s so scary. I tell you, this is nuts!”
In a bizarre incident, police say they were approaching a man reported to be in distress when he was shot for what turned out to be a second time by an unknown assailant.
Fuertes said she lives a half-mile away and heard what she thinks was the second shot after having earlier passed the victim’s car.
“I’m a little nervous every time I go out because of fear,” she said.
Some people initially thought Walter Gomes III was involved. After all, he was last seen less than a week earlier fleeing on foot in nearby Hawi after twice escaping police gunfire there and also once in Kailua-Kona. Police said they started looking for Gomes after he allegedly shot a woman March 20.
On Tuesday, police arrested a Keaau man who had been sought for allegedly firing several rounds at his ex-girlfriend Monday.
No one died in any of these incidents — two victims were hospitalized — unlike way back on March 18. That’s when police say they found a fatal shooting victim lying on a Puna driveway. The alleged shooter has been caught and stands accused of second-degree murder. He’s claiming self-defense, yet allegedly fired twice into the other man’s back, stopping only when his gun jammed.
“It all has to do with guns,” said Fuertes, a hunter and firearm owner herself.
Then there is the Big Island man who stands accused of stabbing three people and punching a fourth in the mouth. That happened March 20 in the emergency room of Hilo Medical Center, the island’s largest hospital.
“I think definitely something is going on,” said Randell Kokubun, a Puna mother who said she’s grown fearful of being victimized. “It’s worrisome that we live in this beautiful place and there’s all this crime happening in my backyard.”
Kokubun said she stayed home from work briefly last summer to protect her adolescent children after hearing that accused cop killer Justin Waiki, perhaps the most notorious and fiercely hunted fugitive in Big Island history, was loose in her area.
Waiki had allegedly gunned down Officer Bronson Kaliloa during a traffic stop July 17 in Mountain View. An ensuing three-day islandwide search involving law enforcement personnel from throughout Hawaii and also from the mainland ended with police shooting Waiki near South Point. Another police officer also was shot, along with one of seven people later charged with helping the fugitive evade capture.
Another fatal police-involved shooting also occurred in October, one in November and the year’s fourth in December.
Local leaders have responded by calling for additional police.
Rural Puna and Kau would each get 10 officers from the 42 new police positions Mayor Harry Kim wants to create in his proposed $573.5 million operating budget now before the County Council.
As of Thursday, two police officers were on paid leave after discharging their firearm, Police Chief Paul Ferreira said in a written response to Civil Beat.
“A majority of all of the recent violent crimes that have occurred had some connection to illicit drug abuse by the parties involved, with a secondary cause being domestic violence situations,” Ferreira said in his letter, noting those are nationwide trends that his department takes seriously.
“The recent uptick in violent crime incidents is unusual and time will tell if this is a trend or an isolated cluster,” Dale Ross, Hawaii County’s first deputy prosecuting attorney, wrote in an email.
She said prosecutors need the public’s help.
“Don’t be afraid to call police if you believe you should,” Ross said, noting an observation could help solve a crime problem.
Big Island violence is not new. British explorer James Cook, who initiated the first Western contact with Hawaii, was killed here in 1779. Hilo’s “Bloody Monday” labor protest took place in 1938, while deadly gang battles occurred in the 1970s.
The violence, however, has changed from affecting mostly people connected to illegal activity to seemingly anyone.
“Organized crime is a thing of the past. In fact, today it’s more random,” said Calvin Enoki, a senior from Hilo.
Enoki said testifying as a prosecution witness in the well-publicized trial involving the 1977 killing of Big Island gambling kingpin Benjamin “Benny” Madamba left him terrified, but only of those involved in the crime.
Now, Enoki said he’s grown fearful of most strangers after finding two car thieves in his driveway, prompting him to spend more than $3,000 on home security.
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