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In the early morning darkness of April 15, 2018, Navy submariner John E. Hasselbrink lost his life to a bullet as he tried to break open his neighbor’s front door.
After a night of drinking, Hasselbrink, 41, a chief petty officer at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, had mistaken his neighbor’s door for the door to his own home. The men lived in a row of Ewa Beach townhouses where every building looks alike. His family believes an Uber driver had dropped him off at the wrong door.
While Hasselbrink was bashing his shoulder against the door and clattering the knob, 33-year-old Army veteran Gregory Farr was startled awake on the living room couch, according to court documents. It was 3:50 a.m. Afraid for his family’s safety, Farr fired a single shot that pierced the locked door. Hasselbrink died on his back on Farr’s front porch — two doors down from Hasselbrink’s home.
It was a tragic misunderstanding with dramatic and irrevocable consequences for the men on both sides of the door.
Farr was initially charged with manslaughter and two counts of possession of an unregistered firearm. The indictment claims he acted recklessly when he fired his semi-automatic rifle and killed a man he believed to be an intruder.
But earlier this month a judge dismissed the charges, ruling that Farr’s right to a speedy trial was violated in part because state prosecutors missed a deadline to submit evidence, according to court documents. In Hawaii, a case can be dismissed by the court if a trial is not commenced within six months of the charges being made.
On Tuesday, a judge is expected to decide whether prosecutors can refile the charges. The court has set the week of July 8 for a potential future trial.
If there is a trial, it will scrutinize whether Farr acted in self-defense when he fired his gun.
The use of deadly force is permitted in Hawaii when a person has an honest and reasonable belief that he is in immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury — even if that belief is mistaken.
Ken Lawson, who teaches criminal law at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law, said it’s a tough case.
“Now we know that this guy pounding on the door wasn’t trying to cause anyone any harm, he was just at the wrong house and he had been drinking and he’s thinking he’s locked out of his own home and he wants to get in,” Lawson said.
“But then imagine it’s you being woken up at 3 a.m. and there’s a military guy pounding loud and hard on your front door and he’s just not stopping?” he said. “That would scare the crap out of most people.”
This account of what happened on either side of the townhouse door is based on public records and interviews with legal experts and Hasselbrink’s family.
It was Saturday night. Hasselbrink and his best friend had hopped in an Uber and hit the bars. Both Navy men had orders to deploy on Monday, according to Hasselbrink’s family. But first, it was time to throw back a few drinks. Have some fun.
At the end of the night, the Uber dropped off Hasselbrink first. Hasselbrink mounted the stairs of the front porch and turned the front door knob. It wouldn’t budge. So he started to pound.
Hasselbrink was in the habit of leaving his door unlocked because he had a friend who from time to time would show up and crash on his couch.
On the other side of the door, there was a man asleep on the couch. But it wasn’t Hasselbrink’s friend. It was Gregory Farr, a neighbor, jolted awake by his dog barking and the racket at the front door.
“Hey,” Farr shouted into darkness, according to his statement to police that is part of the court documents. “Who is it?”
“Hey! Who is it!”
Outside, Hasselbrink continued to push his shoulder against the door.
Farr, an Army veteran, went on high alert. Healing from ankle surgery three days prior, he crawled up the staircase, foot in cast, to retrieve his gun.
The commotion woke up his girlfriend. Farr flicked on a light and told her to call 911.
Rifle in hand, Farr positioned himself strategically on the stairway landing. From this vantage point, he could see Hasselbrink’s face peering in through the window of the door, according to court documents.
“Hey!” he hollered, holding up the gun for the stranger to see.
Suddenly, Farr realized his daughter was not asleep in her room upstairs. She was sprawled out on a mattress just a couple of feet from the door.
With his ankle unable to carry his weight, Farr determined he wouldn’t be able to move down the stairs fast enough to protect her if the door were to break open.
Farr aimed his rifle. He fired a single round through the door.
By the time police arrived at Farr’s home, Hasselbrink was dead on the front porch.
No one disputes that Farr shot Hasselbrink.
But whether Farr’s use of force fits within the terms of Hawaii’s self-defense law is something that will go unresolved unless the court allows the prosecution to reinstate the charges.
In court documents, prosecutors question whether there is evidence to clearly establish that Farr acted in self-defense. Instead, prosecutors charge that Farr “recklessly” ended Hasselbrink’s life.
Marcus Landsberg, Farr’s attorney, says his client was “in terror” and was exercising his right to defend himself, his family and his home, according to court documents.
“He has never been in trouble with the law and received an honorable discharge after serving in the U.S. Army,” Landsberg writes in a court filing. “To him, this indictment is devastating.”
Both Landsberg and prosecuting attorney Wayne Tashima declined to comment for this story.
Farr declined to be interviewed for this story through his attorney.
Lawson said it’s unusual for the court to dismiss a criminal case for a speedy trial violation — especially a case in which the victim was killed.
“If I was the victim’s family, I would be upset because at least they would get to sit and hear in court exactly what happened to their loved one,” Lawson said. “And even if it came back that it was done in self-defense, at least they had their day in court and there has been some level of justice that has been attempted to be achieved on behalf of the victim.”
When Hasselbrink was a kid, he and his sister Pamela woke up suddenly in their beds to banging on the front door of their parent’s house in California.
It was the middle of the night.
Hasselbrink’s father ordered the kids to go back to bed. Then he opened the front door. Standing before him was a drunken man who had mistakenly stumbled home to the wrong door.
For Hasselbrink’s sister Pamela Kellermann, this memory from childhood has helped solidify her judgment of Farr: He didn’t have to shoot.
“You ask yourself, ‘What would I do if I had been in his shoes?’” Kellermann said. “And it’s the craziest thing because we really have been in his shoes. When it happened to my dad, he was a legal gun owner. He could have used force. But instead he went to the door and assessed the situation. He chose kindness instead.”
Hasselbrink’s family acknowledges that Hasselbrink lost his life in a great misunderstanding. It was a tragic mistake, the culmination of a series of unfortunate circumstances.
But Kellermann and her mother June Hasselbrink say they want the charges against Farr to be reinstated. They want Farr to face consequences for his choice to shoot his gun without knowing what was on the other side of the door.
But whatever happens, they know it won’t change their devastating loss. Hasselbrink, an animal lover who liked to scuba dive and run marathons and barbecue and who always held open the door, is gone.
“There’s no justice to this,” Kellermann said. “Everyone loses.”
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