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Florence Puana is 99 years old and suffering from a weakened heart.
But she’s also a key witness in the upcoming trial for former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife Katherine Kealoha, a former Honolulu deputy prosecutor.
They are accused of framing her son, Gerard, for the theft of their mailbox. Gerard Puana is Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, while Florence Puana is her grandmother.
Because of Florence Puana’s condition — she was hospitalized last week — federal prosecutors have asked a judge to let them perform a videotaped deposition with her before the start of the Kealohas’ May 13 trial in case she’s unable to testify at that point.
But one of the Kealohas’ alleged accomplices, Honolulu police officer Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, wants to stop that from happening.
Nguyen’s lawyer, Randall Hironaka, filed a motion Monday opposing the government’s request to depose Puana, saying the prosecution hasn’t shown proof of the “exceptional circumstances” necessary to warrant such a maneuver.
Hironaka said the government must provide evidence of the health issues that sent Puana to the hospital beyond a vague reference to a 2014 heart valve condition that was included in their initial request.
“The Government appears to be relying almost primarily upon the fact that Ms. Puana is 99 years old,” Hironaka wrote.
Nguyen is charged along with the Kealohas of framing Puana in the June 2013 mailbox theft case.
Several other police officers have also been charged with participating in the alleged conspiracy and cover-up, including Derek Hahn, Gordon Shiraishi, Daniel Sellers and Niall Silva.
Silva and Sellers have already pleaded guilty.
According to federal prosecutors, the Kealohas wanted to frame Gerard Puana to undermine him in a civil lawsuit he and his mother filed against Katherine Kealoha in March 2013.
That lawsuit accused Kealoha of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Puanas and spending it on her and her husband’s own lavish lifestyle that included luxury cars, travel and a $26,000 party at the Sheraton Waikiki.
Federal prosecutors say the lawsuit also threatened to uncover other financial crimes perpetrated by the Kealohas, including the theft of nearly $140,000 from two children.
A second trial that focuses on these allegations — which involve additional charges of bank fraud and identity theft — is scheduled Oct. 21. Katherine Kealoha also faces a series of felony drug charges along with her younger brother Rudolph Puana, a board certified anesthesiologist, for running a prescription drug ring.
Florence Puana’s testimony is expected to play a key role in establishing the motive behind the alleged framing of her son.
For example, federal prosecutors plan to use threatening letters Katherine Kealoha sent to Puana after she accused her of stealing her money.
As one of the letters stated:
“I WILL seek the highest form of legal retribution against ANYONE and EVERYONE who has written or verbally uttered those LIES about me! They will rue the day that they decided to state these TWISTED LIES!”
But Florence Puana could also be called to testify about Nguyen’s own involvement in the alleged framing of her son.
On June 19, 2013, just two days before the purported mailbox theft, Katherine Kealoha was participating in a deposition with the Puanas’ civil attorney, Gerald Kurashima.
According to court records, Nguyen admitted to investigators that he was dispatched to the location of the deposition where he struck up a conversation with Florence Puana.
While Nguyen said he couldn’t remember what they talked about, she told the investigators that he had been asking her questions about her son, including the type of car he drove.
Federal prosecutors said Florence Puana mistakenly told Nguyen that Gerard drove a white sedan, which was the same color car used two days later by the alleged mailbox thief.
Gerard’s car, however, was silver.
Alexander Silvert is the federal public defender who represented Puana after the Kealohas accused him of stealing their mailbox.
He also uncovered the alleged frame job that ultimately led to the Justice Department’s investigation.
Silvert said Nguyen’s recent motion appears to be an attempt to keep Florence Puana from testifying against him about their June 19 conversation.
“Other parts of Florence Puana’s testimony can be corroborated either by other witnesses or other evidence,” Silvert said. “This is the one piece of her story that appears to be important to the government’s case that can only be provided by Florence Puana.”
“Any defense attorney is trying to keep as much damaging evidence out of trial as they can,” Silvert said.
“And if her deposition is not taken and her testimony not preserved — let’s say if she were to pass away prior to trial — that would be a loss for the government and strategically helpful for Mr. Nguyen.”
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