- Special Projects
Private detective Steve Goodenow likes to tell a story about a trip out to a Kahuku nudist colony nearly 40 years ago to help serve court papers on a scammer who had fled from town and was hiding out among the nudists.
As they traipsed through the beachfront colony in the dark, clinging to their flashlights, Goodenow was accompanied by his client, the developer Chris Hemmeter, Hemmeter’s partner, Diane Plotts, and his attorney, John Edmunds — all of them fully clothed.
Hemmeter wanted to be there in person to see his slander suit for $1 million in damages served on Drew Rahal. Rahal, aka Ray Hall, falsely claimed to be Hemmeter’s business partner when Rahal had allegedly offered a $30,000 bribe to then Maui mayoral candidate Wayne Nishiki. Nishiki had reported the attempted bribe to reporters.
When they heard a rustling sound, Goodenow told Hemmeter and others to wait as he slogged over the sand, shining his flashlight to find a naked Rahal in the bushes having sex with another nudist.
The couple froze. They were absolutely still. Goodenow said, “Rahal, I know this isn’t a good time, but I’m here to serve you papers.”
This story is in Goodenow’s memoir “Hawaiian Eye: My Fifty Years as a P.I. in Paradise,” in print next month.
Goodenow, the founder of The Hawaii Investigative Group, is probably the most well-known PI and certainly one of the longest working sleuths in the islands.
When then U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was in Honolulu on a visit in 2004, waiting in the line by a concession stand at a University of Hawaii basketball game, a friend introduced Goodenow to the future president as “the real Magnum P.I.”
Goodenow says he likes the new TV character Thomas Magnum because of the fictional private detective’s focus on old-fashioned gumshoe investigating rather than the explosions and multiple shootouts that TV detective Steve McGarrett survives in Hawaii Five-0.
Goodenow says instead of high speed chases, much of his work as a PI has been sedentary, centered on surveillance, sitting for hours in a car with a camera, waiting to photograph a cheating husband or a suspected insurance scammer pretending to be in too much pain to work.
He also has watched the homes of people who have threatened to harm others or to take revenge on an employer who has fired them to make sure the saber-rattler doesn’t drive out in the middle of the night to make good on his threat.
Goodenow says one of the secrets of successful surveillance is remaining still, hour after hour, as he watches for a transgression. Humans detect motion, so if you remain still he says you can usually avoid detection.
And a key skill that goes with that, he says, is knowing how to take a bathroom break without getting out of the car, which involves a lot of motion. His longest stakeout was 48 hours.
In earlier times, he used to bring along a mayonnaise jar to pee in. But that was risky. He had to make sure to cover himself with a blanket to avoid attracting the attention of a passerby.
Just as the internet has revolutionized detective work, so has another relatively modern invention: Depends.
Goodenow writes in his memoir. “Depends might be the best thing ever invented for surveillance operatives. You could pee in your pants and not even notice it.”
In spite of the internet’s value for detective work, Goodenow says one of the most old-fashioned investigative tools he still uses is disguises.
Goodenow keeps a bag of costumes and hats in his car.
One of his favorite cases is also a great favorite story of my own, which I covered as a KITV News reporter. That was his use of a disguise in an undercover operation to recover $500,000 worth of Indian jewelry stolen from the Honolulu Academy of Arts (now the Honolulu Museum of Art). One of the stolen items included a valuable emerald that once belonged to the man who built India’s Taj Mahal.
Stephen Little, who was director of the museum then, hired Goodenow to discreetly track down the homeless man who had stolen the jewels from the museum’s Jhamandas Watumull Gallery of Indian Art on May 14, 2006.
It was the first art heist in the museum’s history. Officials were embarrassed by how easily the thief had pulled it off. They wanted the mishap kept secret but one of my sources tipped me off about it.
A homeless fellow had visited the museum on an admission free Family Sunday, walked back into the Watumull Gallery, broke open a case holding jewels and then calmly walked out of the museum without a single guard stopping him.
By the time any of the guards realized what had happened, the thief had hopped on a city bus in front of the museum and taken off down Beretania Street.
Museum director Little gave Goodenow pictures of the homeless man from security footage that nobody had bothered to watch while the theft was happening.
Goodenow donned a hoodie, an old shirt, a tattered backpack and smeared his face with dirt. He became a mealtime regular at the Institute for Human Services, chatting with homeless diners to find out more about the suspect.
He and his associate, John Veneri Sr., following another lead days earlier, had climbed over the fence to sneak into an abandoned building in Waikiki inhabited by zoned out homeless druggies who showed them where the suspect had once slept.
Goodenow gathered enough information to track down the culprit to Ewa Beach where he was hiding out at Kahi Mohala after checking himself in for mental health treatment.
The culprit confessed, but the jewelry was gone. He told Goodenow he had sent the jewelry by FedEx to his mother in North Carolina as a Mother’s Day gift.
Goodenow had found out that the suspect had prior felony convictions. By threatening him with more prison time, he got the phone number of the fellow’s mother. Then Goodenow, after many more threats of incarceration, was able to persuade the mother of the suspect to send back the jewels from North Carolina by FedEx.
Goodenow says one of his happiest moments was seeing the surprised faces of the museum employees who gave him a large cheer when they opened up the FedEx box.
“I was the hero. Some of them had given up hope of ever seeing the jewelry again.”
A key difference of real detective work and what you see on TV, Goodenow says, is that there are not always such happy endings.
He is still haunted by the case of Kimberly Ann Cardarella, a 35-year-old musician and songwriter, who lived in Kalapana Seaview Estates on Hawaii island.
Cardarella had a medical condition that prevented her from getting a driver’s license. She hitchhiked everywhere. On July 27, 2007, a witness saw her getting into a car headed toward Pahoa. She was never seen again.
Her father, a wealthy California businessman, hired Goodenow to find her. The father refused to give up on his daughter.
Goodenow says he worked closely with Big Island police interviewing every possible witness. He is certain if Cardarella were still alive they would have found her. He still considers the case open and occasionally returns to the now dilapidated house where she once lived.
Goodenow says looking back the best part of his work has been knowing that there is hope, even if not all the time. That includes the hope that just because someone’s story started out bad, it doesn’t mean they will always be a criminal.
“Most people who have committed crimes carry a huge weight on their shoulders,” he said. “When I urge them to confess, I tell them ‘Now you can start a new phase of your life. Your burden has lifted. You have the opportunity ahead to change things for the better.’”
“If I were in this for the money, I would have been bankrupt long ago. It is for the moments of knowing you might have made things whole again. Maybe put someone on a better course of life.”
Our small newsroom believes wholeheartedly that news and information is a public service – not something to be hidden behind paywalls or diluted by ads. Your donations ensure that our reporting remains free and accessible to all communities, regardless of a person’s ability to pay. For a limited time become a Civil Beat donor and we’ll throw in a limited-edition Civil Beat t-shirt!