Two years before Gerard Puana was accused of stealing Louis and Katherine Kealoha’s mailbox, he was arrested at his home on Wilhelmina Rise for illegally entering a neighbor’s house after a disagreement over parking.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors focused on this June 27, 2011, arrest while making the case the Kealohas had targeted Puana — Katherine’s uncle — so that they could stop him from uncovering their alleged financial crimes, which included stealing from him and his elderly mother.
In 2011, Loius Kealoha was the chief of the Honolulu Police Department and his wife, Katherine, a high ranking city prosecutor.
The Kealohas are on trial with three current and former Honolulu police officers for allegedly framing Puana for the June 21, 2013, theft of the mailbox.
But federal prosecutors are now making the case that the conspiracy started much sooner.
Much of Wednesday’s testimony focused on Puana’s 2011 arrest and prosecution for unauthorized entry into a home.
Among the witnesses were relatives of Puana, who said Katherine Kealoha called them in advance of his arrest and later entered his home with police officers after he was in jail so that she could search his apartment.
Another witness testified that Kealoha also orchestrated an attempt to overturn a judge’s decision to wipe the conviction for the 2011 incident from Puana’s record.
Wednesday’s testimony highlighted how the Kealohas began implicating Puana of possible criminal wrongdoing around the time that he and his mother started suspecting Katherine of stealing their money.
One of the first witnesses to testify was Sean Naito, now an assistant chief in the police department.
In 2011, Naito was the commander of the Criminal Intelligence Unit, a secretive division charged with investigating organized crime and terrorism. He said Louis Kealoha handpicked him to run CIU in 2010 and that he held the position until August 2011.
Naito said Louis Kealoha once called him to his home in Kahala to show him a broken window on his front door.
Kealoha eventually told Naito he suspected the culprit was Puana, although he never revealed that the two were in a bitter fight over money.
Naito said the CIU began performing 24 hour surveillance on Puana while also keeping an eye on the chief’s house. He said 12 officers were assigned to the detail, which was split into two 12-hour shifts of six officers each.
Assistant Attorney Michael Wheat, the special prosecutor from San Diego leading the federal investigation, asked if Naito had done anything else to help in the investigation.
Naito said he offered Kealoha the option of installing HPD surveillance equipment at the house as well as increasing the number of patrol units in the area.
According to Naito, Kealoha told him he wanted to keep the patrol units out of it and that he’d prefer not to file any police reports because then it would make it official. The CIU, Naito said, was known for being discrete by communicating almost exclusively by word of mouth.
“He wanted to keep it confidential?” Wheat asked.
“Yes,” Naito said.
Gerard Puana’s 2011 arrest has come up before.
In December 2016, Puana filed a lawsuit against the Kealohas and several Honolulu police officers, including Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen and Daniel Sellers, accusing them of abusive police tactics and malicious prosecution.
Puana’s lawsuit alleged that after his 2011 arrest, Katherine Kealoha “unlawfully” entered his home with the help of Nguyen and Sellers.
Puana said in the lawsuit that Kealoha stole approximately $15,000 in cash, a cap gun, two knives, a memory card, clothing and hats emblazoned with HPD’s logo that had been given to him by either his niece or her husband, the chief.
For 72 days, Puana was incarcerated while the unauthorized entry charge was pending against him.
During that time, he said Katherine Kealoha would set up meetings with him at the courthouse even when he didn’t have any hearings. He said he was transported by the Sheriff’s Division of the state Department of Public Safety.
In the lawsuit, Puana said Kealoha tried to convince him to enter a residential drug treatment program even though he didn’t have a substance abuse problem. She also told family members not to post bail or talk to him because she was “taking care of everything.”
Federal prosecutors called several witnesses Wednesday who spoke to many of the allegations contained in Puana’s lawsuit.
They included his niece, Jaunette DeMello, and her mother, Gerard’s sister, Carolyn DeMello, both of whom lived down the street from him.
Jaunette DeMello said that before Puana’s arrest she received a phone call from Katherine Kealoha telling her that their uncle was about to be arrested.
“She wanted to warn me,” DeMello said. “She told me that Uncle Gerry was going to be arrested and she didn’t know if he was going to act violently or if there was going to be any commotion so she told me to get out of the house.”
In particular, she said Kealoha told her to make sure her 10-year-old sister wasn’t there when the police showed up.
“What did you think when you got this call?” Wheat asked.
“I was a little confused and, of course, upset that he was going to be arrested,” DeMello said. “I was also shocked because I don’t talk to Kathy much. I don’t even think I had her number saved in my phone.”
DeMello testified that she and her little sister went to the Kahala Mall to wait while the arrest went down. When she returned she said she was pulled over by HPD officer Maile Nguyen, Katherine Kealoha’s niece who was married at the time to Bobby Nguyen.
By the time DeMello got back she said Kealoha and several HPD officers, including Nguyen, were inside the Puana household, with one of them at Gerard’s computer.
DeMello said Kealoha told her she found over 100 pills of “pure ecstasy,” which was a surprise to DeMello. She asked if she could see it, but she said Kealoha changed the subject.
“Well, how do you know it’s pure?” she asked.
Carolyn DeMello gave her own version of what happened after Gerard Puana was arrested.
DeMello recounted a strange scenario in which Kealoha told her she wanted to get inside the Puanas’ home so she could get Gerard a change of clothes.
When they entered, Kealoha told DeMello that it looked like someone burglarized the residence. DeMello said Kealoha then pulled a gun from her waistband.
Together DeMello and Kealoha entered Gerard Puana’s apartment inside the home. DeMello said she then watched Kealoha pick locks on Puana’s file cabinet and a safe he kept inside of it. She then turned to her aunt and held her fingers up to her lips, “Shhhhh.”
DeMello said that while her brother was in custody, Kealoha told her not to visit or contact him in any way.
“Why would she tell you not to visit your brother?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Orabona asked.
“She said that it would be better that way and that she would be taking care of him and he would be fine,” DeMello said.
“Did you believe her?” Orabona asked.
“I had no reason not to,” DeMello said.
The extent to which Katherine Kealoha inserted herself into Puana’s 2011 case became clear when the prosecution called on Thomas Cayetano to testify.
Cayetano is a deputy sheriff with the Hawaii Department of Public Safety. He said that while Puana was in jail Kealoha would ask him to set up secret meetings with her uncle in the basement of the courthouse.
To perform the favor, Cayetano said he would put Puana’s name on the court calendar even when he didn’t have a hearing so that he would be transported from his jail cell to downtown Honolulu to meet with Kealoha.
When Kealoha convinced her uncle he should join a drug treatment program to avoid jail, Cayetano said he was able to pull some strings at the Sand Island Treatment Center to put Puana at the top of the waiting list.
He testified that he did it at Kealoha’s request. The two had known each other for a long time, he said, and even served on the board of the Hawaii Law Enforcement Memorial Foundation together.
“How would you describe your relationship with her,” Wheat asked.
“Pretty good,” Cayetano said. “I looked up to her.”
Neither Puana’s defense lawyer in the 2011 case nor the prosecutor who sought a conviction against him said they knew about Kealoha’s secret meetings with Puana.
Katherine Koga, who was the prosecutor, said that in general if someone in her position met with a defendant without their attorney present they could face severe penalties, including from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which oversees lawyers.
“Oh, you’d be in a lot of trouble,” Koga said.
During cross-examination by Katherine Kealoha’s defense attorney, Cynthia Kagiwada, Koga, who now works in private practice, acknowledged that the rules might be different if Kealoha was visiting Puana in her capacity as a family member.
While Puana was originally charged with a felony for unauthorized entry into his neighbor’s house over a parking dispute, his case ultimately ended with a deferred-acceptance plea in which a judge agreed to wipe the conviction from his record if he stayed out of trouble.
But in September 2013, Puana’s defense lawyer, Clarissa Malinao, said a deputy prosecutor, William Awong filed a motion to correct what his office deemed an “illegal sentence.” In essence, the prosecutors wanted the conviction to stand.
Malinao testified that she learned from Awong that Kealoha was behind the request, something that was particularly concerning because she knew Kealoha and her client were embroiled in a legal fight over money and Kealoha had just accused him of stealing her mailbox.
“It presented quite a conflict,” Malinao said.
Civil Beat reporter Yoohyun Jung contributed to this report.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?