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Hawaii has gotten a healthy dose of bad press as a result of Honolulu prosecutors’ decision to file a criminal complaint against U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and his special assistant, Dennis Anderson-Villaluz. The men had been cited for entering Kualoa Regional Park in alleged violation of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s Aug. 18 emergency proclamation, “Act Now Honolulu – No Social Gatherings.”
After an initial court hearing, prosecutors filed criminal misdemeanor charges against the pair. Misdemeanor convictions are punishable by up to a $5,000 fine or up to a year in jail, or both.
Adams and Anderson-Villaluz were stopped by two Honolulu police officers as the men were getting back in their car after walking through part of Kualoa Regional Park to get to the ocean on Sunday morning, Aug. 23, less than 24 hours after they arrived in Honolulu to assist the state and county with their surge in COVID-19 testing.
According to the written criminal complaints both men “did intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly enter or remain in a City and County of Honolulu park and/or botanical garden and/or State of Hawaii park within the City with intent, knowledge or reckless disregard of the substantial and unjustifiable risk …”
Since the city has chosen to proceed with criminal charges, prosecutors must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that these official visitors from Virginia “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” violated the mayor’s emergency orders.
That seems like a very high bar, and is likely a reason that most COVID-19 citations are being dismissed. Of the 37,849 COVID-19 citations resolved by the end of October, 97% were either dropped by prosecutors or dismissed in court, KITV reported recently.
Vice Adm. Jerome Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General, appeared at a press conference with Mayor Kirk Caldwell in Honolulu to announce the feds would help Hawaii with surge testing. He was later busted along with two other men when he was walking in a park, a violation of COVID-19 restrictions.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
At a Nov. 2 arraignment, the two men entered not guilty pleas through their attorney, Michael Green, one of the state’s best-known civil and criminal defense trial attorneys, whose website promises “tenacity at trial” for high profile criminal defendants and personal injury victims.
Hiring one of the state’s best known criminal defense attorneys might look like overkill in a case like this. But a criminal conviction could have more serious repercussions for Adams, who holds the rank of vice admiral in the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, one of the nation’s uniformed services. The seemingly minor incident could become a career ending blemish on his record.
Green called the criminal charges “an embarrassment to the state.”
“I’m not suggesting for a minute that because he’s the surgeon general … his rights are any greater than (any) other citizen,” Green said in a statement quoted by the Associated Press. “But he shouldn’t be treated worse because of that status. And that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
In response, Honolulu prosecutors said they are treating the case no differently than those of the thousands of other visitors and residents who have been cited for violating the Covid-19 emergency rules.
Enter The Third Man
The citations issued to the surgeon general and his assistant say they were in the park with a third man, later identified by prosecutors as Kelmer Beck, described as a “civilian eyewitness of these crimes.”
Kelmer “Kelly” Beck, 57, is a former competitive triathlete and bicycle racer. He holds a real estate sales license, currently inactive, works as a tour guide, and aspires to become a social media influencer.
Although all three men entered and left the park together and were cited at the same time for similar alleged offenses, court records show their cases have taken very different trajectories.
Prosecutors lodged criminal misdemeanor charges against all three men. The original criminal charge against Beck was reduced to a non-criminal violation, akin to a parking ticket, court records show.
Meanwhile, the misdemeanor charges still stand against the surgeon general and his assistant. Their cases have been consolidated and are moving together toward a potential jury trial. Court records indicate these cases are being handled by deputy prosecutors who usually are assigned to felony cases involving serious crimes.
Attorney Michael Green is one of the state’s highest profile criminal defense attorneys.
Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat
Beck said he is very upset by the pending criminal charges against the two.
“Here are two people who came here to help our state, to help the governor and mayor deal with COVID, and the state is trying to fry them,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
Beck said the three of them were driving to the North Shore for a bicycle tour Adams and Anderson-Villaluz had booked from him.
“I didn’t know he was the surgeon general at first,” Beck said about Adams. “He was very discreet. He never identified himself that way, even to the police officers.”
They stopped at Kualoa to take a swim, and left their car next to several others already parked along Kamehameha Highway, Beck said. After walking through part of the park to reach the beach, the water turned out to be stirred up and cloudy, and Beck said he suggested they continue to the North Shore where they were more likely to find clear water for swimming. As they walked back to the car, they stopped briefly to take a few photos.
Beck estimated they were in the park not much more than 5 minutes.
As they were getting back into their car, two HPD officers pulled up and stopped them. The officers were very cordial, explained that the park was closed, and told them they would be cited for trespassing, Beck said.
Beck said he argued that rules allowed crossing a park to get to the ocean.
“One officer said, don’t worry, it won’t be a monetary fine because there are no signs warning you about trespassing,” Beck said. “They suggested we take a few photos for our defense, showing the lack of signs.”
“I figured it would all be dismissed, but then it blew up in the media,” Beck said. “At that point, I was very concerned.”
Beck is struggling to understand why Honolulu prosecutors are insisting on pressing the criminal charges against Adams and Anderson-Villaluz, even as they are dismissing tens of thousands of similar citations.
Their case is currently set for trial the week of Dec. 14. Beck has been subpoenaed by prosecutors to appear as a witness.
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Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for more than 20 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.