George Yutaka Shimabuku, who served more time than any other inmate in the Hawaii prison system, has finally completed his long sentence. Convicted of a homicide before statehood, Shimabuku died this month at age 84 after being transferred to an Arizona hospital from the Saguaro Correctional Center.
Shimabuku was originally convicted of manslaughter for a 1958 stabbing outside the former Pink Elephant Bar on North Beretania Street, and in the years that followed was twice found guilty of first-degree murder in two separate shootings.
He was sentenced to two life terms without possibility of parole in those cases, and was imprisoned continuously in state or federal correctional facilities for more than 56 years, from 1964 until he died on Dec. 4.
Shimabuku was no criminal mastermind, but he was a violent survivor in an era when Hawaii’s prison system was so wildly dysfunctional that inmates had access to guns. One of Shimabuku’s murder convictions was for shooting a fellow convict to death in the hobby shop of the former Hawaii State Prison.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin observed that a witness who testified against Shimabuku in 1964 was stabbed repeatedly at HSP less than two months later, and Shimabuku was part of a crew of inmates armed with knives who tried to escape from the old Halawa jail the same year. The escape attempt failed.
Hawaii authorities considered Shimabuku to be a maximum security inmate and a diagnosed sociopath, and declared in 1969 that he had one of the worst conduct records in the state prison system, according to federal court records.
He was transferred to Leavenworth Penitentiary later that year under an agreement between the state and federal government for handling particularly dangerous convicts, and served the next 45 years of his sentence in the federal system.
Court records show that while he was at Leavenworth, he was questioned as one of four suspects in the fatal stabbing of a convicted bank robber whose body was dumped in a tank in the vegetable preparation area of the prison kitchen in 1972.
He was later transferred to the maximum security United States Penitentiary at Marion in southern Illinois, which was built as a replacement for the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.
Described in newspaper accounts as a stone mason or a farmhand, Shimabuku was born Feb. 12, 1936, and drafted into the U.S. Army in 1956.
He trained with the 25th Infantry Division, and represented the Division Armor unit in a Schofield Barracks boxing tournament in 1957. He fought at 119 pounds, losing in a third-round knockout.
His known criminal career began on May 30, 1958 after a session of drinking at the Pink Elephant in the Aala area.
By one account, the 22-year-old Shimabuku was part of a group of three men who began fighting in the early morning hours with a fourth man on the sidewalk outside the bar. Witnesses testified that Joseph Emperado, a mechanic who was described as a kenpo karate expert, intervened to break up the melee.
Emperado was stabbed in the back, chest and arms, but apparently did not realize how badly he was injured. He drove himself back to his Kalihi home after the fight and was later rushed to St. Francis Hospital, where he died.
According to The Honolulu Advertiser, Shimabuku admitted to police he stabbed Emerado with a six-inch pocket knife, and a Territorial Grand Jury charged him with second-degree murder. He was convicted of manslaughter in 1958, and sentenced to five years probation and a 10-year suspended prison term.
Shimabuku, also known as “Shima,” was released less than three years after that conviction. About five years after the Emperado stabbing, Shimabuku was arrested and charged with another killing that played out in Aala less than two blocks from the Pink Elephant.
According to the Advertiser, Shimabuku had a disagreement with a barroom bouncer named William R. Medeiros after Medeiros slapped a 15-year-old girl during an exchange on the street. Police said Medeiros had previously dated the girl, and she later testified she had lived with Medeiros for a time.
Shimabuku intervened and told Medeiros, 23, that he should not slap girls. The quarrel that followed was broken up by police, but the two agreed to meet later to fight it out in a vacant lot on Hall Street. Spectators gathered there to watch on Nov. 23, 1963.
Medeiros had asked a friend named Harold Huber to accompany him to the fight, and Huber realized Shimabuku was armed. Huber testified that “I saw the guy had a gun. I told Medeiros, but Medeiros told me, ‘If you want to bug out, bug out now.’ I told Medeiros I would stay for the bruises.”
As Medeiros and Shimabuku squared off three feet apart from each other, Shimabuku produced a pistol and fired three shots. Two bullets struck Medeiros in the chest, and Shimabuku then turned the gun on Huber, who fled. Shimabuku fired three times at Huber but missed, according to trial testimony.
Police later recovered the .38-caliber Colt revolver used in the shooting where it had been dumped behind a local bakery, and arrested Shimabuku on Beretania Street as he waited to catch a taxi.
Shimabuku’s lawyer argued at trial the shooting was self-defense because Shimabuku believed he was in “great danger” from Medeiros. But the jury convicted Shimabuku of first-degree murder. He was 27 years old when the court imposed the mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In a vicious footnote to that case, Huber was stabbed in the chest, abdomen and hand in the maximum security section of Hawaii State Prison two months after Shimabuku’s trial. Huber had a robbery conviction, and had been returned to the prison for a parole violation.
Huber survived, but refused to say who attacked him. Shimabuku was being held as part of the general population in another part of the prison at the time, according to prison officials.
Shimabuku earned his second life sentence in the second-floor hobby shop of the state prison for the murder of Benjamin Aina Aipa, 28, a former amateur boxer from Maui.
Aipa had convictions for theft, burglary and assault, but prison guards described him as a good-natured inmate who had lost an arm in a woodworking accident at Kulani Honor Camp a year before.
An inmate witness testified at the trial that he saw Shimabuku struggling with Aipa over a pistol in the hobby shop on Aug. 19, 1967, and watched as inmates Robert Fraticelli and Melvin Titcomb joined in the scuffle.
Shimabuku shot Aipa once, and the inmate witness said he advanced on Shimabuku with a two-foot length of pipe. Shimabuku brandished a .38-caliber revolver and told the witness it was not his “beef,” and ordered him out of the shop.
The inmate witness, who was identified by the Advertiser as George Pai, testified that as he was leaving, he heard two more shots. Aipa died, and another prisoner named James Marquez was shot in the stomach but survived. The prison superintendent said he believed the killing stemmed from “an old fight.”
In the middle of the trial for those shootings in 1968, Shimabuku agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder in the Aipa case, and Fraticelli and Titcomb pled guilty to manslaughter. Shimabuku received another mandatory life term without possibility of parole, while Fraticelli and Titcomb were each sentenced to 10 years.
Shortly before Shimabuku’s sentencing, state Corrections Division Administrator Ray Belnap was asked by the Advertiser what was to be done with an inmate such as Shimabuku, who had “nothing to lose.”
Hawaii had abolished the death penalty before statehood, and Belnap warned the Hawaii prison system “can not handle on the long basis the extremely rebellious and recalcitrant man such as this.”
Shimabuku was transferred to the federal prison system in April 1969, and remained there for decades until he was finally returned to the Hawaii system in June 2014, according to a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.
By then, he had been mostly forgotten. While Shimabuku’s cases were covered in the newspapers in the decade after statehood, other inmates who served many years in the Hawaii system said they had never heard of him or met him. His reputation was erased by his decades in federal prisons.
Hawaii holds nearly 1,000 inmates at the privately run Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, and Shimabuku was serving time there until Oct. 25, when he was admitted to an Arizona hospital.
He died at the hospital in Maricopa County on Dec. 4, one of seven Hawaii inmates who died this year while serving prison terms at Saguaro.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.