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For more than a year, Daniel Sellers says he was chasing ghosts.
Sellers was a sergeant assigned to the Honolulu Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, which is a secretive detail made-up of officers, many of them hand-picked by the chief.
In 2011, Sellers was told by his supervisor to conduct surveillance outside their boss’s home — who at the time was HPD Chief Louis Kealoha — because of concerns about vandalism, criminal property damage and other threats.
Sellers said he never saw anything that aroused suspicion. That is, until Kealoha’s mailbox disappeared June 21, 2013.
Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, are accused of framing her uncle, Gerard Puana, for the theft of their mailbox using the help of several Honolulu police officers. On Monday, Sellers testified in the federal criminal trial against the Kealohas and their alleged co-conspirators.
Although he was a witness for the defense, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat took the opportunity to cross-examine Sellers about his involvement in the alleged 2013 conspiracy and the circumstances leading up to the alleged frame job.
Wheat, in particular, homed in on Sellers’ surveillance of the Kealoha household in the year and a half before the mailbox theft.
“Why did you think you were looking for ghosts?” Wheat asked.
“Because what was being reported to me I was not observing,” Sellers said.
“Did that cause you any concern?” Wheat asked.
“A little,” Sellers said.
“Did there come a time when it caused you more concern?” Wheat probed.
“Yes,” Sellers said.
Sellers told the jury that after the Kealaohas’ mailbox was reported stolen he learned that the chief and one of his alleged co-conspirators in the frame job, Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, had identified Puana as the main suspect from HPD security cameras posted at the house.
Sellers said he was supervising the surveillance on Puana before his arrest nine days after the mailbox theft.
Over the course of that week, Sellers said HPD had assigned 25-30 officers to follow Puana around the city.
“Did you ever see him do anything?” Wheat asked.
“No, sir,” Sellers said.
Nguyen’s defense attorney, Randall Hironaka, opened the door to Wheat’s questioning when he decided to call him as a witness in the case.
Sellers was initially indicted in October 2017 along with the Kealohas, Nguyen and their other alleged co-conspirators, Derek Hahn and Gordon Shiraishi.
At the time, Sellers was charged with two felony counts of obstruction of justice.
In January, Sellers agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor for illegally disclosing confidential information to Katherine Kealoha during the HPD investigation into Puana for the mailbox theft.
Part of Sellers’ plea deal included a provision that he cooperate with the federal government, but he was never called by the prosecution to testify.
Hironaka questioned Sellers about the mailbox investigation.
He also asked him about the civil lawsuit that Puana and his mother filed against Katherine Kealoha accusing her of bilking them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars via sham investments and a shady reverse mortgage.
In particular, he wanted to know why Sellers was at the state courthouse during the civil trial.
“I was instructed to be present at Circuit Court to basically make sure that nothing went wrong, I guess,” Sellers said.
“By make sure nothing happened are you talking about in a security type of capacity?” Hironaka asked.
“Yes,” Sellers said.
When asked who ordered him to be at the courthouse, Sellers said it was Hahn, who was his lieutenant at the time.
Wheat latched onto that detail during his cross-examination, highlighting the fact that the courthouse already had security personnel who were employed with the state Sheriff’s Department.
“So there was really no reason for you to be over there during the Puana trial, was there?” Wheat asked.
“No,” Sellers said.
“But you were assigned to go over there by Derek Hahn?” Wheat asked.
“Correct,” Sellers said.
Monday was the first day back from a week-long break in the criminal trial.
The prosecution wrapped up its case early in the day by calling Laurice Otsuka, an FBI forensic auditor, as its final witness.
Otsuka testified about her analysis of a 2009 reverse mortgage on Florence Puana’s home and where the money went. That mortgage is at the center of the financial dispute between the Puanas and Katherine Kealoha, who they say stole much of the money.
The government has argued that their lawsuit against Kealoha was a driving motive behind the alleged frame job.
Otsuka testified that Kealoha would pull money from a joint account she maintained with her grandmother and spend it on her own expenses, whether it was her water bills, a trip to Disneyland or a $13,000 down payment on a Maserati.
Otsuka also showed how Kealoha used nearly $24,000 of her grandmother’s money to throw a party for her husband in 2009 at the Sheraton Waikiki after he was named police chief.
After the government rested, the jurors were excused and the attorneys for all five defendants asked Judge J. Michael Seabright to dismiss the charges against their clients, saying the prosecution hadn’t presented enough evidence to show a coordinated conspiracy.
Seabright was not convinced.
Before ruling on their request, he let Wheat stitch together the many facts he and his team of prosecutors had entered into evidence since the trial began.
He touched on how the conspiracy began in 2011 with the illegal search of Gerard Puana’s home and Katherine Kealoha’s attempts to keep him committed in a drug treatment center for up to two years.
He discussed the many phone calls and text messages between the alleged co-conspirators at key dates and times that were necessary to carry out the frame job.
And he highlighted that the mailbox theft wasn’t the only crime the Kealohas tried to pin on Puana. They once asked an officer to investigate him for elder abuse.
“A conspiracy is a living breathing thing,” Wheat said. Not every actor in it has to be involved at the same time, he said, nor do they all have to be in communication with one another.
In declining to dismiss the charges, Seabright said he’s never seen a conspiracy case in which there’s an explicit written or oral agreement to carry out a criminal act.
The cases, he said, are often made lining up circumstantial evidence. In the case of the alleged framing of Puana, Seabright said, the government has a “treasure trove.”
The trial will resume Tuesday with Katherine Kealoha’s defense attorney Cynthia Kagiwada presenting her client’s case to the jury. Kagiwada said she has not precluded the possibility of Kealoha testifying in her own defense.
Both Nguyen and Kealoha’s husband, Louis, rested without testifying.
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