Florence Puana, 99, cried when a federal prosecutor asked her about her relationship with her granddaughter, Katherine Kealoha.
“She was a loving, loving gentle person and I trusted her,” said Puana.
But Puana said that trust was misplaced. Not only did Katherine Kealoha steal her money and force her out of her home, Puana said, but her granddaughter also tried to have her declared incompetent and have her son jailed for a crime he didn’t commit.
She spoke during an April 30 videotaped deposition, excerpts of which were played Tuesday during the public corruption trial for Kealoha and her husband, former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha.
They are accused by the U.S. Justice Department of framing Gerard Puana for the theft of their mailbox on June 21, 2013. He is Florence’s son and Katherine Kealoha’s uncle.
The government has also charged several Honolulu police officers with taking part in the alleged set-up, three of whom are on trial with the Kealohas.
The deposition of Florence Puana was conducted several weeks before the trial began because of her health issues.
In the video, Puana sat before a blue background in a wheelchair while she was questioned by lawyers from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and those representing the defendants.
She used a magnifying glass to read documents that were presented to her.
Puana discussed how she was born on Maui in 1919 and attained an eighth grade education before teaching herself with the help of her sisters.
She also talked about her husband, John Kenalio Puana Jr., who built her a house on Wilhelmina Rise in Honolulu. After he died she said her youngest son, Gerard, moved into the home to help take care of her.
To repay him she said she wanted to buy him a condominium, but she knew she didn’t have the money to do so. That’s when, she said, Katherine Kealoha offered to help by executing a reverse mortgage on the family home.
The idea was that the money from the mortgage would be used to buy Gerard a condo as well as help Kealoha consolidate her own bills.
Puana said Kealoha told her she would take care of paying back the reverse mortgage. She also remembers being “confused” about the whole process, but that she considered Kealoha to be a smart and honest person. After all, Puana said, Kealoha had a law degree.
“She promised that she’d help me and I believed her,” Puana said.
“She said to trust her. She said, ‘Grandma, don’t worry.’ She said, ‘I’m the attorney and you can trust me.’”
Puana said she didn’t realize there were any problems with the reverse mortgage until she received a letter showing that Kealoha had not been making the payments and that the interest on the mortgage had ballooned.
Rather than lose her house to the bank, she said, she decided to try to sell it to recover what she could.
Puana said she reached out to Katherine Kealoha as well as Kealoha’s mother to find out what was going on, but that her granddaughter kept ignoring her phone calls.
She then went directly to the bank to find out what had happened with her money. She was told she would need to pay $243 in cash to get copies of the statements. What she found surprised her.
“After you got those bank statements did you learn what happened to your money?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin McDonald asked.
“I did,” Puana said.
“And what happened to your money?” McDonald asked.
“She spent it all,” Puana said.
Among the expenditures were a trip to Disneyland and a nearly $25,000 brunch tab at the Sheraton Waikiki that Kealoha picked up after her husband was named Honolulu’s police chief in 2009.
“If Katherine Kealoha had come to you and said, ‘Grandma, I want to spend $23,976.69 at the Sheraton Waikiki,’ would you have let her?” McDonald asked.
“I wouldn’t have,” Puana said, “because I didn’t have that kind of money.”
McDonald questioned Puana about a September 2012 letter she wrote to Kealoha severing their legal ties, at least as it concerned the reverse mortgage, and the strongly worded response she received from Kealoha.
In one excerpt from that letter, Kealoha wrote, “I HAVE NEVER, WILL NEVER OR WOULD NEVER BORROW, TAKE OR EVEN REQUEST to BORROW ANY MONEY FROM FLORENCE PUANA!”
“After all of the time and effort I put into assisting Florence and Gerard with this reverse mortgage and purchase of the Condo, HOW DARE ANYONE make such MALICIOUS and FALSE STATEMENTS against me!” Kealoha went on.
Kealoha added that she would “seek the highest form of legal retribution against ANYONE and EVERYONE who has written or verbally uttered these LIES about me!”
“What did you understand Katherine Kealoha to mean when she said she would seek the highest form of legal retribution against you,” McDonald asked Puana.
“I don’t know,” Puana said. “I could never say that because one never knows how she works.”
McDonald then questioned Puana about Kealoha’s attempts to have the courts declare her incompetent, something that Puana said was hurtful.
“I felt bad,” Puana said. “I felt like she didn’t trust me or she didn’t love me like she did.”
Katherine Kealoha wasn’t the only subject of Florence Puana’s testimony.
She also discussed a June 19, 2013, encounter with Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen in downtown Honolulu in which she said he asked her “silly” questions. Nguyen is one of the three officers also on trial.
That day Katherine Kealoha was participating in a deposition as part of the civil case the Puanas had filed against her in relation to the reverse mortgage.
Puana said her lawyer asked her to leave the deposition room after she turned to her son and told him that Kealoha was clearly lying.
Outside, she said she ran into Nguyen, who had been married to her great-granddaughter Maile Nguyen, Katherine Kealoha’s niece.
Puana said Bobby Nguyen kept asking her about the type of car her son, Gerard, drove while texting someone on his cell phone. She said she mistakenly told Nguyen that Gerard drove a white car, when in fact his car was silver.
Two days later, on June 21, 2013, a man in a white car was caught on surveillance video stealing the Kealohas’ mailbox.
Puana said that when she watched the surveillance video she knew one thing for certain.
“Whoever I saw was not my son Gerard,” she said.
The trial is scheduled to resume Wednesday.
Read a transcript of Florence Puana’s full deposition here:
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