Two former members of an elite Honolulu police investigative unit who helped frame a man for the theft of a mailbox are headed to prison.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright sentenced Derek Hahn and Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen to 42 months and 54 months, respectively, after a jury found their “fingerprints” all over one of the biggest scandals in Hawaii history.
Seabright repeated what he told Louis and Katherine Kealoha during their sentencing hearings on Monday about the gravity of their offenses, and how their actions have devastated the perception of law enforcement in the community.
“This case is staggering given its breadth, given its scope and given its audacity,” Seabright said. “It reached the highest levels of government and it has shaken our confidence in government institutions, including HPD.”
Hahn and Nguyen were convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in June 2019 along with former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, who was a deputy prosecutor for the city.
Join Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube and Alexander Silvert, a federal public defender who cracked the Kealoha case open, as they discuss the recent sentencing of Katherine and Louis Kealoha and the police officers who helped carry out their crimes. Tuesday, Dec 8
Join Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube and Alexander Silvert, a federal public defender who cracked the Kealoha case open, as they discuss the recent sentencing of Katherine and Louis Kealoha and the police officers who helped carry out their crimes.
Tuesday, Dec 8
Together they were found guilty of trying to frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle Gerard Puana for stealing the Kealohas’ mailbox in 2013 as part of a vendetta meant to keep him quiet about other financial crimes.
Puana and his mother, Florence, had filed a lawsuit against Katherine Kealoha several months before the attempted set up, accusing her of bilking them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars via a fraudulent reverse mortgage and shady investment scam.
The lawsuit threatened to undermine both Katherine Kealoha and her husband’s careers in law enforcement as well as put an end to a lavish lifestyle the two had grown accustomed to.
Seabright sentenced the Kealohas to prison on Monday, giving Katherine 13 years behind bars and Louis seven years.
In addition to the mailbox case, they had pleaded guilty to a series of other charges including bank fraud and identity theft.
Katherine Kealoha also pleaded guilty to using her position as a prosecutor to cover up for her brother, Rudolph Puana, who has been accused by federal prosecutors of running an illegal prescription drug ring.
Both Hahn and Nguyen were members of the Honolulu Police Department’s secretive Criminal Intelligence Unit when they framed Puana. The CIU is made up of officers who are hand-picked by the chief, and the unit has a long history of scandal and abuse.
During trial, former members of the unit testified about the 24-hour surveillance Puana was subjected to before his arrest, noting that HPD had assigned more than two dozen officers to follow him around the city.
Hahn did not address the court during Tuesday’s hearing.
Victor Bakke, who Hahn recently hired as his defense lawyer, asked Seabright to go easy on his client. Bakke described Hahn as a “soldier” who was only following orders, and blamed Katherine Kealoha for orchestrating the frame job.
“Obviously this wasn’t his idea,” Bakke said.
Seabright appeared to have little patience for the argument.
Hahn, he said, was a lieutenant in the CIU, which means he had command over the other officers in the unit.
As a police officer of 23 years, Seabright said Hahn also should have known the difference between right and wrong.
Seabright pointed out that the evidence presented at trial showed how often Hahn had interjected himself into the conspiracy to frame Puana.
He said it was Hahn who ordered Nguyen to attend a deposition in the Puanas’ civil case so that he could find out from Florence what kind of car her son, Gerard, was driving so that they could better execute the frame job. He also told another officer to falsify police reports and lie on the federal witness stand during Puana’s criminal trial to aid in the cover up.
“I don’t doubt for a second that Mr. Hahn thought that this was OK, that he was doing the right thing. Nobody would think that,” Seabright said. “But it’s also clear he didn’t say, ‘Timeout, chief, we can’t do this. We can’t be doing this. It’s not who we are. It doesn’t represent our values.’ That apparently never happened.”
Seabright imposed an even harsher sentence on Nguyen in part because he was caught multiple times lying, including to the Honolulu Ethics Commission and the federal grand jury that was investigating the Kealohas.
“It’s clear to me that he was all in,” Seabright said.
Nguyen’s court-appointed lawyer, Randall Hironaka, had argued that his client, who he described as a “footman,” was simply following orders.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat pushed back, saying that was the same argument used by the Nazis during the Nuremberg trials.
“There’s something called basic human decency,” Wheat said. “What he did is he put his job ahead of his decency. … He took an oath as a police officer to do the right thing. He disregarded that oath.”
Wheat pointed out that Nguyen, who was married to Katherine Kealoha’s niece and lived with her at the chief’s house, played a key role in the conspiracy.
Nguyen knew Gerard Puana and was the first person to say that it was him who was caught on surveillance video taking the Kealohas’ mailbox even though the evidence shown at trial proved it was not him.
“Mr. Nguyen is the person who makes things happen on the ground,” Wheat said. “He puts the pieces together.”
Seabright was not alone in scolding Hahn and Nguyen. Charlotte Malott, who is Gerard’s sister, read a statement on behalf of her family during Tuesday’s proceedings.
She said she represented the victims of the Kealoha’s wrongdoing, including her mother, Florence, who died in February at the age of 100.
She told both Hahn and Nguyen that they betrayed the oaths they took as police officers, and reminded them that their actions have diminished the public’s trust in law enforcement. She said she was particularly disappointed in Nguyen, who she said targeted his own extended family.
“You aided and cooperated in the Kealoha’s evil plot for revenge,” Malott said. “I’m sure you knew that it was not my brother, Gerard, removing the mailbox that night. For all I know you may even know who really is on that video and who took the mailbox.
“My one regret is that our matriarch, Florence, did not live long enough to see this day. She cannot look you in the eyes, a police officer, and ask you why you helped cause so much pain and misery and sorrow to our family.”
Nguyen did not turn to Malott as she read her letter. Instead, he stared at the wall.
Malott said after the hearing that such a lack of acknowledgement hurt and noted that when Katherine Kealoha apologized to her family that it felt like a weight had been lifted.
Hahn’s attorney, Victor Bakke, said that while he respects the jury’s verdict and Seabright’s “well-reasoned” sentence, his client has maintained his innocence and plans to appeal.
He said at least one of the original defendants in the case, retired HPD major Gordon Shiraishi, was found not guilty, and that he considers an appeal a part of the natural judicial process.
“This was not a slam dunk case and there’s no reason for us at this time to lay down and stop fighting,” Bakke said.
Hironaka did not want to participate in an interview after Tuesday’s hearing, but did say that his client will likely file an appeal.
Several other defendants have yet to be sentenced.
Among them is Niall Silva, a former CIU officer who was the first to admit to taking part in the scheme to frame Gerard Puana for a crime he did not commit.
Jesse Ebersole, a Big Island firefighter, who lied to federal investigators about his extramarital affair with Katherine Kealoha, has also pleaded guilty and is awaiting judgment.
According to court documents, Kealoha showered Ebersole with thousands of dollars — some of it stolen from her grandmother — and paid for flights and hotels so that they could continue their secret tryst.
One of Katherine Kealoha’s victims, Ransen Taito, also faces sentencing. Kealoha stole more than $160,000 from Taito and his sister when they were children. Their father had won the money as part of a medical malpractice lawsuit, and had left it for them after he died.
Kealoha was appointed as their guardian and was supposed to set up trust accounts for the Taitos, but instead siphoned off the money for herself.
After the FBI began asking questions, Kealoha convinced Ransen Taito to lie for her before a federal grand jury and say that he had received the money when he in fact had not. She told him that if he didn’t stick to the story that his mother would go to jail. Taito eventually pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy for lying to the grand jury on Kealoha’s behalf.
Daniel Sellers, a former HPD police officer who was initially indicted along with Hahn, Nguyen and the Kealohas, has already been sentenced to one year of probation for his part in the mailbox conspiracy.
He was originally charged with obstruction of justice, but pleaded to a lesser charge of illegally disclosing information to Katherine Kealoha during HPD’s investigation into her uncle.
The remaining defendants are scheduled to be sentenced early next year.
The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, will continue its investigation into public corruption and abuse of power in the Aloha State.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro and former corporation counsel Donna Leong, who was a member of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s cabinet, have both received target letters indicating they are suspected of breaking the law. Other officials, including Managing Director Roy Amemiya, has also been notified that he is a subject of the investigation.
Wheat declined to comment about the status of those cases when asked by Civil Beat. He only smiled and changed the subject, “Particularly nice weather we’re having.”
Civil Beat reporter Yoohyun Jung contributed to this report.
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