If I had been called for jury duty in the Kealoha Mailbox Trial, I probably would have been rejected.
That’s because my answer would have been “yes” to question 11 on a survey given to prospective jurors: Have you ever had mail stolen from your mailbox?
My husband and I discovered someone stole the contents of our mailbox, including some checks we’d written, when we got a call from a sharp-eyed Waikiki bank teller.
The teller asked us if we had written a check for $50 to a person standing very close to him who was trying to cash it. The person had smeared out the name of our check’s intended recipient and written in his own. The teller tried to stall the thief until police arrived, but the guy bolted.
An attorney friend says the mail theft question is on the survey in the upcoming Kealoha trial because a prospective juror whose mailbox has been raided might be more kindly disposed to former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his former deputy prosecutor wife, Katherine Kealoha.
They claimed that her uncle, Gerard Puana, stole their mailbox June 21, 2013, and now they’re accused of framing him and lying about it, as well as other alleged crimes.
The Kealoha case got me thinking about mail theft in Hawaii. It’s unfortunately common.
But what isn’t common is the theft of whole boxes, says U.S. Postal Inspector Brian Shaughnessy, who brought Puana’s case to federal prosecutors.
There was a wave of thefts of those big blue USPS mailboxes bolted to concrete on sidewalks in 2016 to 2018 with five boxes stolen, including one outside the Waipahu Post Office in August 2017 and one from a quiet residential Maunawili neighborhood in July 2018.
Merrill Johnston, who frequently used the blue mailbox in Maunawili says, “It was extraordinary. It was astonishing; it was all those things. To walk out and find the blue mailbox had just disappeared.”
Michael Kitchens, who founded the popular Facebook crime watch page “Stolen Stuff Hawaii,” says he gets reports from some of his 125,000 followers about drunk drivers running over mailboxes, but never hears about people actually walking away with mailboxes.
“Thieves have such an easy time stealing mail out of boxes,” says Kitchens. “They just drive up and pull out letters usually when residents are away at work. Why would they want to go to the trouble of hauling off the whole mailbox?”
The Honolulu Police Department does not specifically track mail thefts, says spokeswoman Michelle Yu. “However, it would be safe to say that we receive dozens of reports annually.”
Kitchens says since he founded “Stolen Stuff” almost five years ago he has received “hundreds and hundreds” of reports from people whose mail has been stolen. The criminals are looking for credit cards, checks, gift cards and personal financial information they can use with software to create fake IDs and checks.
He says he gets notified about mail thrown in the trash and hears from people who are worried because their mail isn’t showing up.
He also gets reports about the practice of “fishing,” when a thief attaches something sticky to a string and drops it down one of the blue Postal Service mailboxes to fish out letters.
Mail fishing was so prevalent in New York that the Postal Service replaced the front pull-down openings on its blue boxes with narrow slits for letters.
Shaughnessy says methamphetamine addicts drive some of the theft.
“Stealing mail can be very appealing to individuals addicted to illegal narcotics,” he says. “A drug user might be paid a small sum of money for a bag of stolen mail or the mail can be exchanged for small quantities of methamphetamine or heroin. Hawaii’s meth problem has been well documented.”
In what is undoubtedly the biggest mailbox-related criminal trial in Hawaii history, the jury will have to decide if the Kealohas and three Honolulu police officers are guilty of charges of conspiracy, fraud and obstruction of justice for allegedly setting up the theft of a mailbox at the Kealohas’ Kahala home to frame Puana.
The new trial is part of a continuing drama that started in June 2013 when the Kealohas and a group of Honolulu Police Department accomplices allegedly engineered the scheme to get Puana slapped with a federal felony conviction to discredit him before he and Katherine Kealoha’s grandmother went to trial on a civil suit accusing Katherine of stealing thousands of dollars from them.
That mailbox theft trial ended in a mistrial after Louis Kealoha blurted out information about Puana that was considered prejudicial.
Federal prosecutors dropped all charges against Puana after his attorney, Alexander Silvert, showed them evidence he had planned to unveil in the trial that would have validated his allegations that Puana was the innocent victim of a criminal set-up by the Kealohas and their HPD helpers.
You have to wonder why then-U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni took up the case against Puana in the first place and why the charges were turned over to federal grand jury without a more careful review of the facts.
Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube questioned why federal law enforcement failed to find discrepancies in the alleged mailbox theft that were so immediately obvious to Silvert.
Shaughnessy, the postal inspector, seemed to have brought the case against Puana to the U.S. attorney relying primarily on evidence from HPD’s investigation.
The idea of stealing a whole mailbox from a home — instead of just its contents — is so weird that someone should have put on the brakes and said, “Hey, wait a minute.”
If Nakakuni has not apologized to Puana yet, she should.
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