Case Dismissed: 8 Years, No Conviction And A Honolulu Man’s Life Derailed

Sefo Fatai drove to a Chuck E. Cheese in Pearl City one day in 2011 to run an errand for his boss, picking up some money she said she was owed.

Instead, he said, the woman who jumped in his car in the parking lot that day tried to hand him something else.

“It was a small bag full of meth,” he said.

That was the beginning of an eight-year descent into Hawaii’s criminal justice system, including four stages of preparing for trials and more than two years in jail when he couldn’t make bail.

Ultimately, a state court in 2018 dismissed the meth trafficking case — this time with no possibility of the charges being filed again — and issued a bench warrant for the informant whose testimony was the sole evidence against him when she failed to show up in court for trial.

The case raises a host of questions about how the Honolulu Police Department and prosecutors handled the methamphetamine trafficking case. Civil Beat reviewed more than seven years’ worth of case files, court transcripts, police reports on the investigation and interviewed people involved with the case.

 
 

An excerpt from the old Honolulu Police Department narcotics investigations policy that Sefo Fatai’s attorneys obtained through discovery during trial.

The buy money, for instance, was never found and the narcotics used as evidence were never linked to him because they were not fingerprinted. The officer in charge of evidence dumped the box the drugs came in, court records showed.

Fatai says a search of his car turned up nothing incriminating, even as the police gave conflicting testimony about whether the car was even searched. Police reports show multiple discrepancies.

In the end, the case that derailed Fatai’s life relied entirely on one witness, a confidential informant who had an incentive to name him — or someone — as her meth supplier in exchange for her own freedom from arrest.

“It sounds like they pretty much violated all the national standards of how to conduct a controlled buy,” said Gregory D. Lee, retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration supervisory special agent who went over the details of the case at Civil Beat’s request. He now works as an expert witness in police procedures.

Eight years of fighting the charges unraveled Fatai’s life.

He lost his livelihood as a car mechanic, forced to sell his tools to pay legal fees. The car he was driving was seized by police through asset forfeiture and never returned even after his case was dismissed. While he was in jail, his fiancée married another man.

Fatai had no prior drug-related or violent crime charges or arrests. Yet this ordeal left him with a lengthy court record, making it hard for him to find steady work and rebuild his life. He became homeless following his time in jail, and now deals with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The world just collapsed all of a sudden,” he said.

Sefo Fataai fixing truck out in Maili Waianae. Sefo holds water pump parts for a truck he is fixing outside along the road.

Sefo Fatai, now 44, said he is trying to rebuild his life after years of fighting the meth trafficking charge in court.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The case rippled into other lives as well. The former boss who sent him on the errand in 2011, Tanya Waller, offered money for his legal defense against the wishes of her husband, which she said ended up ruining her marriage.

“I felt so responsible,” she said. “What if it was me?”

Now, Fatai is seeking vindication.

He is accusing the Honolulu Police Department of wrongful arrest and illegal search and seizure, among other civil rights violations. He’s also pointing the finger at the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for going after him over and over again, relying solely on the testimony of an informant who he says repeatedly proved herself to be unreliable and untrustworthy.

Multiple attempts to reach the informant were unsuccessful.

Fatai’s cause has been taken up by the Hawaii Innocence Project and the Hawaii Civil Rights Project, a new Honolulu-based nonprofit, which plan to file a lawsuit on his behalf. The Innocence Project typically only works on wrongful convictions; Fatai was not convicted, but The Innocence Project felt the case was so egregious it took it on anyway.

University of Hawaii Law Jennifer Brown in interview with Yoohyun at the UH Law school.

Jennifer Brown, associate director of Hawaii Innocence Project, is helping Fatai build a case against the Honolulu Police Department.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“From the informant to the police to his attorneys — so many mistakes happened along the way,” said Jennifer Brown, associate director of Hawaii Innocence Project and an attorney with the Hawaii Civil Rights Project, who is taking the lead on the case. “Nobody was like ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ at any step of the way, really, and it went on for years and years, and it ruined his life.”

The Honolulu Police Department, based on its review of the police reports, said it did not believe any policies, procedures, or civil rights were violated in the investigation.

“Working with confidential informants is problematic at best, especially if the case drags out,” said Deputy Chief John McCarthy.

Mark Ramos, the lead investigator on Fatai’s case, retired from HPD and declined to be interviewed.

“I don’t recall anything about that case,” he said.

The Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ayla Weiss, who led the case, also declined to be interviewed, but provided a statement.

“There is sufficient information in the court records to explain trial delays, the change in the charge against Mr. Fatai and the ultimate dismissal of the case against Mr. Fatai,” according to the statement.

A Hawaii State Judiciary spokeswoman said in a statement that most of the trial delays that extended Fatai’s case were caused by his attorneys, pointing out that he repeatedly waived his right to a speedy trial.

The authorities, in other words, say they are not to blame for what happened to Fatai.

Yet, when he finally got out of jail in January 2018, Fatai felt otherwise. He walked for about seven miles from the Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi to Waikiki where Waller, his boss who sent him on the errand that started it all, was living.

He needed to borrow some money, he said. He didn’t have a dime to his name.

It was a long walk, but it didn’t seem so, he said, because Fatai’s head was busy trying to answer questions.

What was he going to do? Where was he going to sleep?

Why did this happen to him?

Aug. 24, 2011

Standing at 5 feet 9 inches tall, the stockily built man smiles sparingly. Most of the time, Fatai said he’s just trying not to be angry.

An auto mechanic by trade, he moved to Hawaii from California in 2010 in the hopes of finding work, he said. The job with Waller at Green Thumbin’ Inc., the vacation rental cleaning business, was just one of the many gigs he had taken to save up to pay for his mechanic tools to be sent here.

Sefo Fatai works on a truck in Waianae. Sefo is a trained auto mechanic although he works doing masonry.

Fatai is a trained auto mechanic from California, but he says he mostly does day labor jobs now to get by because he no longer has his tools.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The accused man had no criminal convictions other than a DUI decades ago. A Department of Public Safety background check included in his case file pointed out that he had no outstanding warrants or prior arrests aside from the meth trafficking case.

Fatai was loyal to his friends and didn’t hesitate to do favors, Waller said. He could be counted on.

“He would pick up stuff, jump off to do things that I asked him to do,” she said. “Little things like go to stores, buy stuff for the stores, drop off things, pick up people.”

So it wasn’t unusual for Fatai to drive to the Chuck E. Cheese parking lot on Aug. 24, 2011 to pick up money that a woman he knew only as “Misty” owed Waller.

Misty, whose real name  is Kristine Medford, was an acquaintance of Waller’s who had come to her looking for a job. Waller said she didn’t hire her, but did lend her money one time to buy food for her children.

Waller called Medford several times over the course of the next few months to try to get her money back, but heard nothing until that August day. According to Waller, Medford said she would meet her at the Chuck E. Cheese and pay her back.

But Waller said she was stuck downtown working, and couldn’t make it in time through rush hour traffic, so she asked Fatai, who lived on the west side, to go instead.

“I just said that I have a friend that’s coming to meet you,” she said she told Medford.

The Briefing

That day, at about 4 p.m. at the Kapolei station of the Honolulu Police Department, Officer Mark Ramos was briefing a team of officers.

They were setting up a controlled buy operation between Medford, their confidential informant, and her alleged supplier, whose identity they did not know.

Sefo Fatai Kapolei Police Station HPD .

The Honolulu Police Department’s Kapolei Station is where officers were briefed before a narcotics buy operation that snagged Sefo Fatai.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

 

The mysterious identity of the buyer posed problems for the police, said Lee, the retired DEA special agent who reviewed the case at Civil Beat’s request.

For one thing, it could be dangerous for police to deal with someone with an unknown criminal record who might be prone to violence.

“You have to do your homework,” Lee said.

And how well did HPD know Medford? The department’s policy then and now required officers to understand their informants thoroughly and seek their supervisors’ permission before using them.

The record provides contradictory answers.

Ramos had pulled over Medford a few days before and found meth in her car, according to court documents and testimony. Ramos offered her a deal: set up a buy from her own dealer and avoid arrest.

Yet, Ramos wrote in an affidavit that she had been working with him for the last six months and the information she provided resulted in two meth trafficking cases and two ongoing investigations. That document did not include case numbers or other identifying data.

“Information provided by the Informant has been found to be truthful and has been corroborated through investigation and independent sources,” he wrote.

HPD officers also did not properly search the informant before going into the controlled purchase operation and failed to document the search in their police reports.

Ramos and another officer, Fumikazu Muraoka, searched her and her car at a park-and-ride in Kunia some time between the briefing and the buy to make sure she was not concealing drugs of her own.

Sefo Fatai Kunia Park and Ride.

HPD officers Ramos and Muraoka searched the confidential informant at this park-and-ride in Kunia on Aug. 24, 2011, but failed to document it in their police reports.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

They testified in court that by policy, a female police officer was required to pat her down. But one was not available.

Policy also dictated that the male officers could not touch her. Fatai’s attorneys raised the possibility that they missed something. One, public defender Lesley Maloian, pointed out that they never checked under her arms or bra or between her legs.

However, HPD argued it would be impossible for Medford to conceal a two-ounce bag of meth.

“The amount of narcotics that we’re purchasing, we can tell if it’s on her visually, just by looking, because it’s not going to be a small bag,” Ramos said during his testimony in 2015.

The ‘Buy’

By about 5:20 p.m., officers were set in their posts outside Chuck E. Cheese.

As Medford got into Fatai’s silver Lexus sedan, five Honolulu police officers were nearby, with at least three in line of sight.

And although one officer had an unobstructed view of Fatai’s and Medford’s vehicles, no officer would later testify that they saw drugs or money change hands.

Sefo Fatai Pearl City Chuck E Cheese.

Five HPD officers were in the Pearl City Shopping Center parking lot where the Chuck E. Cheese is located. But none of them saw an exchange of drugs.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I could not see their hands or anything, they were just talking, and they kept looking over into the lap area of the defendant,” Officer Mark Kealoha, who said he sat directly in front of them inside the restaurant, testified.

And police had no audio. Medford was not wired or equipped with a recorder, as is standard police practice in undercover purchases.

Ramos testified that he didn’t wire her because HPD did not want informants to know what equipment police use.

Lee, the retired DEA supervisor, said he could see no good reason not to use a wire.

“Why not? It solidifies your case. It keeps everybody honest,” including the confidential informant, he said.

Wires and recording devices aren’t the only thing Medford did not have on her. Kealoha also testified that Medford was not carrying a purse or a bag when she left Fatai’s car.

Fatai’s attorneys argue that Medford could not have carried the $1,900 buy money, nor the two ounces of meth she allegedly bought from him — which police said was contained in a cardboard box — in and out of the car without a purse or a bag.

“And she didn’t appear to be clutching anything is that correct?” Maloian, Fatai’s public defender, asked Kealoha during her cross examination in the 2016 trial.

She wasn’t, the officer said.

The Discrepancies

After Fatai left the Chuck E. Cheese parking lot, HPD pulled him over about two miles away in Aiea.

But here again, HPD provided contradictory information about how that traffic stop went down — or whether it included a search.

Fatai said he was stopped, patted down and searched by two motorcycle officers and they found nothing — no drugs, no money. Muraoka wrote in his report that he followed Fatai out of the parking lot immediately, had sight of him the whole time and stopped him after observing an illegal right turn.

Muraoka mentioned no motorcycle officers, and no search.

Sefo Fatai Honomanu Street Kamehameha Hwy intersection HPD2.

Fatai was pulled over at the intersection of Honomanu Street and Kamehameha Highway on the evening of Aug. 24, 2011. How that traffic stop went down remains disputed.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On two occasions, in 2013 and 2015, Ramos testified that Fatai and his car were searched. However, when Weiss, the prosecutor, reminded him in 2015 that he had earlier testified that Fatai was not searched until he was arrested two days later, Ramos recanted and said he misspoke.

The reports the officers made right after the operation also show inconsistencies and omissions. Their time-stamped reports, for instance, recount events that happened hours or even days later.

Ramos’ report does not say whether Medford was searched again after the buy, as required by HPD policy.

HPD Deputy Chief John McCarthy said based on his review of the police reports, he did not believe the officers falsified, omitted or misrepresented information in their reports, which made it past internal screening, the prosecutor’s office and through the court system.

At some point, too, HPD decided to let Fatai go after the initial operation rather than arresting him on the spot.

HPD policy at the time stated that officers should decide beforehand whether they’re going to arrest the suspect right away or wait until later, perhaps arranging future buys.

But McCarthy said such operations can be fluid. Officers can at the moment decide whether to arrest the suspect or not.

“There’s no set black-and-white rules on that,” he said. “Each case is different.”

But one result of HPD’s decision was that, assuming as officers did that Fatai sold the drugs, it had no way to recover the buy money or prove that Fatai had it. The serial numbers, in fact, were never documented. The cash was never found.

Clearly, it would have strengthened HPD’s case to find the money on Fatai, as Ramos testified.

“If we — when we attempted to — when we arrested him, if we did, that would have been even better for us, yes,” he said.

Lee, the former DEA supervisor, said it sounded like the investigation was riddled with mistakes — knowing nothing about the suspect, failing to mark the money so that it could be used as evidence and possible irregularities in searching both the suspect and the informant.

“If I was their supervisor, I would not be happy,” he added.

The Arrest

After Fatai’s meeting with Medford in the parking lot, Waller said she was in shock — why would Medford offer meth instead of money?

“I didn’t ask her for no drugs and I never did drugs with her,” Waller said. “I don’t do drugs. I don’t know. That’s why it’s just really weird.”

Two days later, Waller said Medford called her back and asked to meet again, saying she had cash now.

Sefo Fatai Ewa Beach Subway parking lot.

Waller said Medford asked to meet, this time at a different parking lot in Ewa Beach. Fatai would be arrested there later on Aug. 26, 2011.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“When she said she had the money this time, I thought, okay, she’s going to really give me the money now,” Waller said. “That was just some bullshit she pulled. So that’s why I sent Sefo again, because I was working again.”

Weiss said it made no sense for Fatai to show up again, after having been stopped by police after his previous meeting with Medford.

But Fatai said there’s a simple explanation: he didn’t think those two incidents were related.

“I didn’t even consider it,” he said.

But the connection would soon become all too clear. When Fatai pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall in Ewa Beach at about 1:20 p.m., about a dozen cops swarmed him, he said.

Guns drawn, they ordered him to get out of the car.

They searched Fatai and his car, but again, they found no drugs and no money.

The Informant

What the police and prosecutors did have was an informant ready to implicate Fatai.

But this informant, unlike Fatai or Waller, had a lengthy criminal history, which Weiss did not try to hide.

“There’s a saying that if you need to find out what’s happening in the sewer, you need to ask a rat,” she said during her opening statement in the 2016 trial.

Medford had multiple theft and forgery convictions, court records show. In one forgery case from 2001, she tried to buy more than $3,000 of electronic equipment at an Office Depot using a business check and identity of a business owner.

In 2014, she was convicted of a drug charge after her house was raided. The case files shows that a confidential informant blew the whistle on her to an HPD investigator.

She and two other co-defendants got four years’ probation in that case. But one other defendant — her husband — was not as fortunate. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Medford’s motivation for participating in Fatai’s case was never in dispute. It was to avoid her own arrest.

But the two sides drew different conclusions about what that meant. For Maloian, the public defender, it was pressure to lie.

“Her okole was on the line,” she said in a closing statement. “She had to produce and make it happen that day.”

But why, prosecutor Weiss asked, would Medford risk the “golden opportunity to go home to her children” by falsely incriminating someone?

Either way, Medford testified that she felt pressured.

“I didn’t want to do it, but I felt I had to do it for my kids,” the informant said in the 2016 trial. She has four children.

Medford was key to the prosecution’s case, but she proved unreliable.

In 2013, she failed to show up for trial and the case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning the charge could be brought back. Fatai said he didn’t understand that at the time, and thought the whole ordeal was behind him, until he was pulled over on a traffic stop and learned they had been refiled.

In 2015, Medford caused a mistrial when she said several times that she had previously bought drugs from Fatai, ignoring the judge’s admonition that she refrain from making that kind of statement.

“Clearly, Ms. Medford has been uncooperative,” Judge Shirley Kawamura said of her in 2015. “The record is clear as to that.”

Then, in 2018, Medford again failed to show up for trial, leading the judge to dismiss the case for good.

He Said Vs. She Said

It was another allegation from Medford that sent Fatai to jail for more than two years.

Oahu Community Correctional Center media tour 2019 tower with razor wire.

Fatai spent more than two years in Oahu Community Correctional Center because the judge increased his bail following an accusation by the informant that he threatened her in an elevator.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Fatai had been out on $50,000 bail. But in 2015, in the midst of one of his trials, Medford accused Fatai of threatening her in the court elevator, implying that a mutual acquaintance was going to kill her for testifying against him.

Fatai said he didn’t even know the supposed mutual acquaintance. And Medford was posting friendly comments to the acquaintance’s social media page as recently as a year and a half ago.

Fatai also said he didn’t recognize Medford, who he’d seen only once at the Chuck E. Cheese parking lot four years earlier.

Besides, there were two police officers in the elevator, he said. It would have been stupid to threaten her. He asked for surveillance video, but there are no cameras in the courthouse elevators.

The prosecutor wanted his bail revoked then, but the judge denied the motion. Instead, she added his conditions of release, which included a curfew. He ended up violating that curfew in October, which led to his bail increasing to $75,000.

But Fatai said he couldn’t afford another bail payment. So he was taken into custody at Oahu Community Correctional Center, where he said he spent the first six months sleeping on the floor with his head next to the toilet. He remained there until January 2018.

“My fiancée left me because of it,” he said. “She couldn’t deal with it. It was too much.”

Case Dismissed

In 2018, when Medford again failed to show up for trial, Judge Kawamura, at last, said enough was enough. She dismissed the charges, and ruled they could not be filed again.

Fatai said his attorney hugged him and told him it was finally over, but it didn’t feel real.

“That was probably the lowest point in my life,” he said. “I should have been happy, but I wasn’t.”

Fatai said he woke up every day agonizing about what happened, thinking “How do I get any freedom from this?”

A month-and-a-half later, he said he tried to kill himself.

He was sitting at the beach at night, drinking — something he said he doesn’t do anymore. He walked into the water with a cinder block, sat down and passed out, he said. He woke up some time later on the beach, coughing up sea water and sand.

“I didn’t know what I was thinking then,” he said.

Fatai said he spent the next year trying to find an attorney to help him, but couldn’t afford the fees.

He says he’s doing much better now, although he still sleeps out of his car or crashes with friends. He’s got a beat-up pickup truck and a little money, but not enough to hire a private lawyer.

Connecting with the Hawaii Innocence Project proved to be a turning point, he said. In addition to filing a suit against the Honolulu police, lead attorney Brown is also helping Fatai get his criminal record expunged.

“He deserves to have a fully clean slate and he deserves for once to be believed,” Brown said.

The Hawaii Civil Rights Project also has taken on Fatai’s case. Clients like Fatai agree not to take confidential settlements so the public will know what happened and policies can be improved.

Fatai said he wants those things, too.

But there’s something he wants even more, he said — “for people to believe that this really fucking happened.”

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