Michael Miske wants out of the Federal Detention Center.
The Hawaii businessman and alleged organized crime boss was indicted last month on a series of federal charges, including racketeering, kidnapping and murder.
He’s been behind bars ever since, and prosecutors with the U.S. Justice Department are hoping to keep it that way during a bail review hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
They consider Miske too dangerous to the community and a potential threat to witnesses. They also worry that Miske, who faces the death penalty and has millions of dollars in assets, could flee the state if given the chance.
Miske’s lawyers, Thomas Otake and Lynn Panagakos, have a different view.
In court papers filed last week, they argued that Miske is an upstanding citizen with deep roots in the community, and that he should be allowed out on bail, albeit on a 24-hour lockdown at home, with no access to social media or the internet and surveillance cameras installed on all the exits.
They also pointed out that Miske has yet to be convicted of the crimes alleged in the indictment and that only his recent actions should be taken into consideration.
“Mr. Miske has a criminal record, but his last conviction was long ago,” Pangaskos wrote. “Since then, Mr. Miske has been an exceedingly hard-working, and successful, businessman.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they said, also makes it unsafe for Miske to stay at the Federal Detention Center. Miske suffers from high-blood pressure, which puts him at higher risk for the virus.
Virtual meetings with lawyers additionally aren’t sufficient for Miske to review evidence and prepare his defense, they say, especially given the complicated nature of his case, which involves 22 counts and at least 10 other co-defendants.
Leaving Miske locked up and forcing in-person meetings between him and his lawyers, they added, would only increase the possibility of future COVID-19 transmission within the walls of the detention center.
Miske is the owner of Kamaaina Termite and Pest Control as well as several other businesses, including the Hawaii Partners, M Nightclub and Kamaaina Plumbing and Home Renovations.
While federal prosecutors have described Kamaaina Termite & Pest Control as the “headquarters for the planning of criminal activities, the laundering of illicit proceeds, and the fraudulent ‘employment’ of individuals whose ‘work’ consisted of engaging in acts of violence or fraud on behalf of the Miske Enterprise,” Miske’s attorneys described it more glowingly.
They said the company, launched in 2000, employs upward of 100 people and over the years “has developed very strong community ties as a service provider, employer, charitable donor, and taxpayer.”
According to the attorneys, the company has thousands of customers, including the University of Hawaii, Polynesian Cultural Center, U.S. Coast Guard and Bellows Air Force Base.
In 2010, the company donated its services to the City and County of Honolulu to fumigate the Neal S. Blaisdell Center, work that was valued at $125,000, and that then-Acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell described as a “generous gift.”
One of the more serious allegations facing Miske in the federal indictment is that he orchestrated the kidnapping and murder of Jonathan Fraser, a 21-year-old who was best friends with Miske’s son, Caleb-Jordan Miske-Lee.
Federal prosecutors have argued that Fraser’s “meticulously planned and premeditated” killing demonstrates more than anything that Miske is a “clear and present danger to the community.”
The indictment says that Miske orchestrated Fraser’s killing in 2016 after Fraser and his son, Caleb-Jordan Miske-Lee, were involved in a car accident that eventually resulted in Miske-Lee’s death. Police and medical examiner records show Miske-Lee was driving the car at the time of the accident, but that Miske blamed Fraser even though he was in the passenger seat.
“Michael has a heart of gold and a passion for everything he does.” — Larry Kapu
Federal prosecutors said Miske had Fraser killed and bought a $425,000 Boston Whaler boat, dubbed the “Painkiller,” to dispose of his body. Miske and one of his half brothers, John Stancil, are also charged in the indictment with trying to murder another man who refused to kill Fraser.
Miske’s attorneys argued in their recently filed motion that the allegations in the indictment should not be taken as fact until proven in court, and similarly said the accusations cannot be used as “a predictor of a risk of future violence” when considering whether their client should be released on bail.
They instead provided letters from friends, community leaders and business associates, including a retired pastor from Kawaiahao Church, who described Miske as a kind-hearted father, dedicated businessman and lover of animals, who once donated 10,000 pounds of dog food to the Hawaiian Humane Society to help feed more than 150 puppies rescued from an illegal puppy mill in Waimanalo.
Among those vouching for Miske was Angela Varnadone, who used to work for him at the M Nightclub as a brand manager, and has known him since she was “23 years old, newly divorced, and all alone in Hawaii.”
She said Miske-Lee’s prolonged hospital stay and death devastated Miske. His granddaughter, Nila, who was born while Miske-Lee was hospitalized after the accident, gave Miske purpose.
“He is no longer living for himself, but for his baby granddaughter that was left behind,” Varnadone said. “It is his mission to be a strong father figure in her life and keep the memory of her own father alive. His bond with Nila is undeniable and truly heartwarming to witness. He is her rock, and she is his. To separate them would shatter her world.”
Other people who wrote letters on Miske’s behalf included Curt Kekuna, a retired senior pastor from the historic Kawaiahao Church in downtown Honolulu, and Makani Christensen, a Marine veteran and local tour company founder who ran for U.S. Senate against Brian Schatz in 2016.
He also received letters from a handful of employees and business partners, including Larry Kapu, Brian P.K. Marinas, Allen Lau, of Kamaaina Plumbing and Renovations, and Kurt Nosal, of Univar USA.
“Michael has a heart of gold and a passion for everything he does,” Kapu wrote. “I will always call him my friend but will forever treat him like family.”
Miske’s attorneys pushed back on the assertion their client is a flight risk.
The federal government already seized his bank accounts, they said, as well as his vehicles, including the Boston Whaler. He also doesn’t have a current passport.
Miske’s attorneys said he has known for years he was the target of a federal investigation into Fraser’s disappearance, and that he could face the death penalty if convicted.
He hired Panagakos and Otake in 2017, right around the time the FBI executed a search warrant on the Painkiller boat.
In 2018, when the agency offered a $20,000 reward for more information regarding Fraser’s disappearance, Miske similarly did not run and hide. Rather, he started assembling the character reference letters that he could use to help him once he was arrested.
Miske also hired a former forensic auditor from the IRS who specializes in investigating criminal tax fraud and money laundering schemes to analyze his business books and help in his defense.
“The government contends that Mr. Miske’s sentencing exposure makes him a flight risk,” Panagaskos said. “This government contention ignores the fact that Mr. Miske has been aware of this sentencing exposure since August 2017, and he has not made any plans to flee.”
To the contrary, she said, “Mr. Miske’s conduct during the past three years constitutes compelling evidence of his commitment to remain in Hawaii, appear as required, and mount a lawful and vigorous defense.”
So far seven of Miske’s 10 co-defendants have been detained without bail.
Civil Beat readership has more than doubled in the past nine months. That’s incredible growth for which we’re so grateful.
But for a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall, readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism. The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters.
To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?