Sunday’s Diamond Head neighborhood blaze, stabbing of a woman and killing of two Honolulu police officers possibly could have been avoided — if Hawaii had a more robust mental health system.

But in truth, it has few options for handling someone like Jerry Hanel.

That’s according to Eddie Mersereau, deputy director of behavioral health at the Hawaii Department of Health.

It’s unclear whether suspect Hanel had a diagnosed mental illness or if he ever sought psychiatric treatment. Jonathan Burge, Hanel’s defense attorney in numerous disputes with his neighbors, did not respond to requests for comment about his client’s mental health status.

But court records and an attorney retained by Hanel’s neighbors describe a longstanding pattern of the handyman’s bizarre and harassing behaviors.

And as long ago as 1997, his wife at the time alleged in divorce filings that Hanel had a severe drinking problem and that she was worried about her safety. The two had met in Massachusetts a decade earlier, where they lived in a house that burned down. The divorce record does not suggest that the house fire was the result of foul play, and an insurance company paid to have it rebuilt.

HFD and Honolulu Police Department officers respond to a shooting near La Pietra. Police watch as fire erupts from homes nearby.
Neighbors say they feared Jerry Hanel long before he was alleged to have killed two police officers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Hanel case “is a really good example of somebody who fell in that gap where previously he had never, as far as we can tell, he had never risen to the level where he appeared to be imminently dangerous in his previous contacts with police,” Mersereau said. “But all the warning signs and all the risks were there.”

Hawaii’s mental health system is fractured and lacks a broad spectrum of treatment options, according to a recent legislative report by the DOH and psychiatric treatment providers. The DOH has proposed a sweeping series of psychiatric care reforms, including a new unified coordination system for mental health resources. This would include an around-the-clock call center to match people with immediately available mental health treatment services congruent to their specific need level.

“To me, the biggest tragedy here is that the police officers — both the two that were killed, as well as the ones that had intervened with him in the past — probably didn’t feel like they had a lot of resources to divert him to,” Mersereau said. “To some extent the resources are there, but they aren’t coordinated enough to have been of use in this case.

“Law enforcement is too often left to be social workers or mental health counselors in the field, and that just should not be their burden,” he added.

Access to limited state-sponsored mental health services is now available by calling the Crisis Line of Hawaii — On Oahu, call 808-832-3100; on neighbor islands, call 1-800-753-6879.

But there is no comprehensive system linking people in the throes of mental illness to a library of available treatment options across the public and private sectors.

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole said one of his goals for this legislative session is to address this and other shortfalls in the mental health system.

“What happens after you come to the clinic? What happens after you spend 48 hours in a mandatory involuntary commitment? We don’t have that stuff worked out yet and that’s what we’re going to try to do this year,” Keohokalole said.

“There’s no guarantee it would have addressed what happened at Diamond Head,” he added, “and it’s going to take a lot of coordination all the way around to make it better, but we know it’s a glaring gap that’s been exposed.”

Hanel’s Wife Feared Him

Hanel, who was born in Czechoslovakia and is also known as Jaroslav or Jarda Hanel, was living in Massachusetts in 1985 when he met April Queen, a native of England. Hanel bought a house in Needham Heights, Mass., with his employer and lived there with Queen. A year or so later, he bought out his boss and became the sole owner, according to Hanel’s later divorce case.

A year-and-a-half after that, on Valentine’s Day in 1989, the house caught fire and became unlivable.

Hanel and Queen found a nearby place to live, but a few weeks later they had an argument and Hanel moved into a trailer on the lot with the burned house. He used insurance money to rebuild it, and later sold it.

Hanel moved to Hawaii in 1992 and a year later persuaded Queen to join him. The two were married in 1993.

But four years later, Queen filed for divorce, saying that Hanel’s excessive use of alcohol made her concerned for her safety.

During the better half of the last decade, Hanel’s neighbors were frightened of him, said attorney David Hayakawa, who has represented three neighbors in restraining orders against Hanel since 2014.

“He would get off on freaking them out,” the lawyer said. “It was this unknown time bomb type thing. He was just fixated and angry at those he was angry at. There was no apparent trigger.”

Suspect Jerry Hanel.
Jerry Hanel had a penchant for disconcerting his neighbors, according to their lawyer. HPD/2020

In one example, Hayakawa said his client noticed Hanel trailing behind him on a bicycle as he was traveling to cast his vote on Election Day. At the time, the neighbor had a restraining order against Hanel that required him to keep a certain distance away from him in public, Hayakawa said. Hanel was sure to maintain this distance as he trailed him to the polling place.

But Hayakawa said Hanel followed his client into the polling place, violating the order.

“He did this whole, ‘I’m exercising my right to vote,’ thing and made a whole scene,” Hayakawa said. “It was this constant fixation on finding the gray areas in the restraining orders and exploiting them.”

In another instance, Hayakawa said one of his clients erected a tall, solid fence between his home and the house where Hanel was living in a bid to achieve a sense of privacy. Hanel responded, Hayakawa said, by erecting a device that he used to bang loudly on the wall at night.

When a judge ordered Hanel not to touch the wall-like fence, he built a platform taller than the fence on his side of the fence line and put a barbecue grill on top of it. On days when the wind was blowing toward his client’s house, Hayakawa said Hanel would ignite a pile of wet leaves on the grill to smoke out his neighbor’s house.

Hanel was also obsessed with surveillance, Hayakawa said. He mounted cameras around the exterior of the house and wore his own version of body cameras — a GoPro strapped to his forehead, a pair of Google glasses.

“In our trial he was able to document every time the woman who was my client had passed in front of his house over something like a year-and-a-half,” Hayakawa said. “What kind of library of footage does this guy have?”

Hanel seemed to think his neighbors were spies and was paranoid about the FBI and the CIA, according to Hayakawa. He fancied himself the “neighborhood watch cop” and indiscriminately videotaped, followed or chased people who passed by his residence — be it a Japanese tourist or a neighbor he was feuding with, Hayakawa said.

“I discouraged a bunch of people from filing (a restraining order) against him because they weren’t squarely on his radar screen and I told them, ‘Folks, if you file, it’s going to be a living hell for you like these other people. It’s not worth it.’”

None of the neighbors knew Hanel had access to a gun, Hayakawa said.

Limits On Forcing Psych Care

Hawaii law allows authorities to force a person to receive psychiatric care only if they are found to be dangerous to themselves or others, or so gravely disabled that there is no alternative to hospitalization. In such cases, the hospital has the right to administer psychiatric treatment against a person’s will for up to 48 hours.

This strict criteria for forced treatment functions as a safeguard to protect people with mental illness from losing their civil right to determine for themselves whether they wish to receive mental health care. The law protects a person’s civil liberty to refuse psychiatric care — even when they’re too sick to recognize they are suffering from mental illness.

But Mersereau said last weekend’s bloodshed at Diamond Head begs the case for a more proactive approach to forced treatment.

“We definitely don’t want to roll up in a black van and grab everybody that looks mentally ill,” he said. “And obviously it is true that the percentage of people that are suffering from mental illness that would rise to that potential danger is relatively small. But we do need to have a little bit less conservative approach to intervening with people who are severely mentally ill but are refusing help.”

Most people with psychiatric disorders are not violent, according to a growing body of research. Studies show other factors, such as substance abuse, a family history of violence and access to firearms, as more likely contributing factors to destructive, brutal behaviors.

In recent weeks, it appears Hanel’s behavior, particularly in relation to his landlord Lois Cain, reached a tipping point.

The state Department of Human Services confirmed Wednesday that a concerned individual reported Hanel to Adult Protective Services on Dec. 30 for alleged psychological abuse toward his 77-year-old landlord.

But based on the information the hotline caller provided, the landlord did not meet the standards required by law for being considered a “vulnerable adult” and the situation did not qualify for APS intervention.

APS is charged with protecting adults with a mental, developmental or physical impairment who are unable to communicate or make responsible decisions about their care, carry out or arrange for essential activities of daily living or protect themselves from abuse.

But in an abundance of caution, APS contacted HPD to perform a wellness check on the landlord. HPD confirmed to APS that an officer completed the wellness check that same day.

Hawaii passed a law last year that enables family members, medical professionals, colleagues and other people to prevent someone from accessing guns when they appear to be unstable or pose a threat.

But neighbors in the Hanel case say they didn’t know he had access to a gun, so the law would not have been of any use.

Civil Beat reporters John Hill and Yoohyun Jung contributed to this report.

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