Federal prosecutors want the jurors in the criminal trial of Louis and Katherine Kealoha and three Honolulu police officers to remember one thing before they deliberate.
“If you’re in for an inch, you’re in for a mile.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Orabona repeated that phrase several times through nearly two hours of closing arguments Tuesday in the conspiracy case against the Kealohas and their three co-defendants, Derek Hahn, Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen and Gordon Shiraishi.
The defendants are accused of framing Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, Gerard Puana, for the theft of her mailbox on June 21, 2013 and lying to federal investigators to cover it up.
At the time of the theft Katherine Kealoha was a city prosecutor and Louis was the chief of the Honolulu Police Department.
Hahn, Nguyen and Shiraishi were members of the HPD’s secretive Criminal Intelligence Unit, a division that’s supposed to investigate organized crime and terrorism, but that has a long history of troubles.
Orabona wanted the jurors to understand that under federal law it doesn’t take much to be part of a conspiracy — all it takes is an agreement.
That agreement, he said, doesn’t have to be written down or discussed while huddled in a conference room. Even one lie or falsified document is enough to make someone a party to a larger criminal enterprise. Sometimes it only takes a phone call.
“You have now heard the story of corruption, of abuse of power, greed and manipulation,” Orabona told the jurors.
“This story was about the crimes committed by the defendants Katherine Kealoha, Louis Kealoha, Derek Hahn, Bobby Nguyen and Gordan Shiraishi to frame Gerard Puana for the theft of a mailbox.”
Orabona told a familiar tale, one that he said began years before the mailbox was stolen. It started with a family fight over money.
He recounted how Katherine Kealoha had approached Gerard Puana and his mother, Florence, about getting a reverse mortgage on her home so that she could buy Gerard a condominium and help Kealoha and her husband consolidate their debts.
She also convinced her uncle to give her tens of thousands of dollars in cash so that she could invest it on his behalf.
It was all a sham, Orabona said. While Kealoha bought the condominium for her uncle, he said she stole the rest — about $135,000 — that she spent on a Maserati, Mercedes and a $24,000 brunch bill at the Sheraton Waikiki to celebrate her husband’s ascendence to police chief.
“She didn’t pay off the mortgage in six months as promised,” Orabona said. “Instead, her greed controlled her actions and she spent Florence’s money in six months.”
Once the Puanas began asking questions about what happened to their money that’s when the Kealohas fought back, Orabona said.
Katherine sent Florence Puana, who’s now 99, an angry letter in which she said anyone accusing her of stealing money would face the “highest form of legal retribution.”
In March 2013, the Puanas filed a lawsuit against Katherine Kealoha accusing her of fraud and financial elder abuse.
“Katherine Kealoha and Louis Kealoha, they could lose everything. That’s a powerful motive.” — Prosecutor Joseph Orabona
Orabona said that if Kealoha lost the lawsuit it would threaten her image in the community as well as that of her husband. The lawsuit could also have serious ramifications for their careers, especially if it came to light that their lavish lifestyle was built on a foundation of criminal activity.
“Katherine Kealoha and Louis Kealoha, they could lose everything,” Orabona said. “That’s a powerful motive.”
Orabona revisited the mailbox theft and poked holes in HPD’s investigation into the alleged crime to show how it was all part of an elaborate set up.
He then detailed each co-conspirator’s role in the case, whether it was taking part in the frame job itself or helping to cover it up once the U.S. Justice Department launched its own investigation into the alleged corruption.
For example, Orabona highlighted Louis Kealoha’s testimony during Gerard Puana’s criminal trial in December 2014. Orabona said that Kealoha was being deliberately false when he testified that the man caught on surveillance video stealing the mailbox was Gerard Puana.
The central theme of the defense attorneys’ closing arguments was reasonable doubt.
Attorneys for Louis and Katherine Kealoha and Derek Hahn also gave their closing statements Tuesday. They all said the trove of circumstantial evidence prosecutors have laid out isn’t enough to erase all reasonable doubt.
Rustam Barbee, who represents Louis Kealoha, deployed a brass weighing scale, which he referred to as the “scales of justice” to demonstrate that the burden of proof lies solely on the government, with one side representing absolute innocence and the other side, guilt.
The government, he said, has not been able to tilt it toward the guilty side.
Barbee pointed out that after six years of intensive investigation, the government has not been able to provide another suspect for the mailbox theft. He added that Puana has no alibi for the night of June 21, 2013, when the theft allegedly occurred.
To prosecutors’ argument that Louis Kealoha lied when he testified in Puana’s criminal trial for the theft, Barbee said his client was giving his opinion based on blurry videos.
“There’s no evidence whatsoever of a deliberate lie,” he said.
The former police chief had no motive to frame his wife’s uncle, because he was not involved in the Puana family’s financial disputes, he added.
Responding to prosecutors’ argument that Louis Kealoha conspired to stage the mailbox theft by prepping it to come off easily from its post, Barbee said the mailbox was already defective to begin with, years before it was stolen.
“What evidence do they have of that?” the attorney said. “Zero. Who did it? They won’t tell you. How was it done? Crickets. Chirp, chirp, chirp.”
Katherine Kealoha’s attorney Cynthia Kagiwada didn’t address many of the allegations that her client had stolen money from her grandmother. She asked the jury to set the “misunderstood family dispute” aside, saying that it has nothing to do with the alleged conspiracy in this case.
“There’s no evidence whatsoever of a deliberate lie.” — Rustam Barbee, Louis Kealoha’s defense attorney
Instead, she spent most of her time attacking Gerard Puana, again painting him as an angry man who dodges taxes and relies financially on his elderly mother.
“When he gets angry, he lashes out,” she told the jury.
Kagiwada brought up the time when Puana was caught on surveillance video throwing a coffee cup, which still contained liquid, at the Kealoha’s Kahala home. That happened because Puana was mad at her client, she said.
Another time, she said Puana threatened to kill his bunk mate at the drug treatment program he was assigned to after a breaking and entering incident in 2011.
The evidence presented by the government is “complex, complicated and convoluted,” she said.
Birney Bervar, who represents Derek Hahn, a Honolulu police lieutenant who was part of the Criminal Intelligence Unit, said his client was “just doing his job as a police officer.”
Bervar said there was only one piece of direct evidence against his client, which was the testimony of Niall Silva, a former police officer who has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Silva can’t be trusted, the attorney added.
“Niall Silva is living, breathing reasonable doubt,” he said.
Silva had lied to federal authorities on a dozen different occasions, Bervar said.
The government’s case leaves more questions than answers, he said, for example, why the police would wait a week after the alleged theft to arrest Puana, or why the accused co-conspirators would choose a mailbox to frame someone over other more obvious options, such as planting drugs.
“There’s no conspiracy here,” Bervar said.
Attorneys for Nguyen and Shiraishi will present their closing arguments Wednesday, followed by the prosecutors’ rebuttal.
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?