Charlys Ty Tang was only 5 when the Khmer Rouge took control in Cambodia. Ty’s family, like millions of others, was forcibly evacuated to the countryside, from the capital of Phnom Penh to a northwestern province. 

Four years later, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and quickly routed the Khmer Rouge, ending a nightmare of famine, repressive social engineering and mass killings. But in the chaos, Ty was separated from his family.

His parents made their way across the border to a refugee camp in Thailand. From there, they got permission to settle in Honolulu. 

For almost a decade, from more than halfway across the Pacific, they sought word of their son. At last, the coconut wireless of the Cambodian diaspora produced an answer: All this time, Ty had been in a refugee camp in Vietnam.

Now 18 or 19, Ty reunited with his family, squeezing into a studio apartment on Kapiolani Boulevard with his parents and siblings. It was anything but luxurious, but it was a safe haven a world away from the chaos they had escaped. And by comparison, it was a land of plenty, where used furniture someone left on the curb could be dusted off and made perfectly serviceable.

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Charlys Ty Tang, left, with his good friend Hongly Khuy, who lived next door to his family on Kapiolani Boulevard and met Ty when he arrived from a Vietnamese refugee camp. Courtesy: Hongly Khuy

Ty found a job where his father had been working, Kapiolani Coffee Shop, famous for its oxtail soup, and stayed there for several years. But he wanted to spend more time with his two young children, and so he started driving a cab. 

Then, late one night in 2010, on his 41st birthday, Ty was found beaten to death next to his cab in the parking lot of a Times’ Supermarket in Waipahu. He had escaped one of the most notoriously savage episodes in recent history only to meet a violent death in the seeming peace of paradise.

It didn’t take long for the police to identify suspects, and within two years, two young men had been convicted of beating Ty to death after riding in his cab from Waikiki to Waipahu and getting into a fight after trying to skip the fare.

But more than a decade later, one of those men — Michael Robles — has recanted his testimony against the other, Kilani Derego, who as the alleged instigator had been sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

And after a series of legal twists and turns, Derego is scheduled to be retried in a Honolulu courtroom starting this month. Many of the witnesses and police experts have moved on, making the case challenging, but the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office still believes that justice for Ty Tang depends on convicting Derego again.

A jury may agree, at last settling the case and giving some sense of finality to Tang’s family and friends.

Or it will find Derego not guilty — finding, in effect, that he has been wrongly imprisoned for most of the past 11 years. 

And that would mean the events outside the Times Supermarket in Waipahu that spring night in 2010 had derailed not just one life, but two.

‘Your Son Has Been Arrested For Murder’

In 2010, Angel Kayona got a phone call from a Hawaii Child Welfare Services worker about her son, Kilani Derego. Kilani had been in foster care because of Angel’s drug problems.

“I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news,” Kayona recalls the worker saying. “But your son has been arrested for murder.”

Through the tears and the shock, her first and most persistent thought was that she needed to see him, look him in the eye and ask what happened. She believed her son was incapable of such a crime, but needed to hear it directly from him.

It took a while to track him down through the labyrinth of incarceration. But when she did, she got on the next plane from Hilo to Honolulu and met him in a room with glass on all sides at the Kapolei Juvenile Detention Facility. 

She asked him to tell her what happened. If this was an accident, a dispute that had spiraled out of control, she wanted to know.

“He was kind of hurt that I even doubted him for a second,” she said. 

Kilani said he wasn’t even there, much less the instigator of the fatal assault. Since that time, she said, “his story has never changed. Not once.” And her belief in her son’s innocence has never wavered, as she has pored through depositions and pursued alternative explanations. Even after Kilani, out on parole, botched an armed robbery of an illegal gaming room, she and others in their family have stuck by him.

This Honolulu Police Department mug shot of Kilani Derego was taken at the time of his arrest in 2010. Screenshot/Hawaii News Now

Angel remembers Kilani, the youngest of her five children, as “a rascal kid.” Struggling with attention deficit disorder, he didn’t take to school. But he liked to do things with his hands. At the age of 5, he got a shovel and a pick, dug up some banana tree roots and planted them in a garden he had made for them. They grew into trees. He taught himself the ukulele. He liked to draw and could conjure likenesses of people from memory.

Kilani was raised on the Big Island. But when his mother’s drug habit landed her in jail, he ended up in a series of foster care homes. Kilani, who talked to Civil Beat from Oahu Community Correctional Center, said he was constantly running away and rebelling against his foster parents. 

He remembers one home in particular, where he had grown attached to the mother. But, with no explanation — Kilani thinks it was probably his behavioral problems — “They said ‘Pack your bags, jump in the car, we’re going to take you down to the main office.’ Pretty much, they gave up. It kind of broke my heart. It was like losing another mom again.”

When another foster care placement with a cousin on Oahu didn’t work out, Angel brought him back to Hilo. He wanted to earn his GED diploma and take the test to enter the Hawaii National Guard. With no foster placements available to him on the Big Island, the state agreed to let him live at Hale Kipa, a home for at-risk youth in Manoa. At this point, Kilani said, he had “anger issues” and a juvenile record he describes as “extensive.”

Michael Robles was also at Hale Kipa, and the two, who Kilani said had known each other slightly in elementary school, started hanging out together. Kilani was working as a dishwasher at the Hilton Waikiki Beach and, according to Angel, doing everything she asked him to, including regularly attending church. He had a girlfriend he hoped to marry. Everything seemed to be on track.

When Kilani got his GED diploma, “I ordered a cap and gown and I was supposed to walk the line with McKinley Community School for Adults,” he said. “I already thought my future was looking bright and I was going to have those pictures with all those leis around my neck for graduation that all these other kids have … All of that got stopped when I got arrested for this murder.”

From The Killing Fields To An Apartment In Salt Lake

Ty never spoke much about his experiences in Cambodia.

He didn’t seem damaged by it, his son Jarvis said.

“Looking at him, I never would have thought he went through experiences like that,” Jarvis Tang said. “He never showed it to my sister and me. He was just kind of a dude.”

Hongly Khuy became good friends with Ty after he arrived in Honolulu. Hongly had moved in next door to Ty’s parents on Kapiolani Avenue — they discovered they were from the same area just outside Phnom Penh — and learned about their missing son. When the Tangs heard that he had been located in a Vietnamese refugee camp, Hongly got involved in the effort to bring him to Honolulu.

The two friends talked about having to eat frogs and earthworms to fend off hunger during the Pol Pot regime. Ty did not dwell on his experiences. But Hongly assumes that it was much like his own. Families were forced to leave the cities, told to move in with strangers in the countryside. Children were separated from their parents, assigned to groups that worked and slept together. 

The groups were forced to attend indoctrination sessions each evening. They knocked down temples and gravestones with hammers, so that every corner of the country could be turned into productive cropland. And yet, almost everyone went hungry. Hongly’s father collapsed and died while crawling from his hut to get his daily ration.

Hongly had been a healthy young man when the Khmer Rouge took over. But over those four years, he’d sometimes look at his arms and see nothing but bone and skin. Today, when he sees pictures of starving children, he breaks down and cries.

“I had thought I would die the next day, many times,” Hongly said.

In the chaos of the war with Vietnam, the Tangs took whatever possessions they could carry and headed for Thailand. “Ty was someplace else, and during the confusion, you don’t know where the family went,” he said. He believes that Ty probably returned to the Tangs’ original home, just outside Phnom Penh, and waited, but when no one arrived, made his way to the refugee camp in Vietnam.

“Looking at him, I never would have thought he went through experiences like that. He never showed it to my sister and me. He was just kind of a dude.” — Jarvis Tang

When Ty arrived in Honolulu, he could barely write Cambodian, Hongly said. The Khmer Rouge had suspended much schooling. But Ty had picked up a surprising proficiency in English at the refugee camp. And once he arrived in the U.S., he quizzed people endlessly about English expressions and grammar, jotting down the answers in a notebook. 

He had an insatiable curiosity about other things as well. Once, he and Hongly were jogging around the soccer field at Kaimuki High School and Ty said something had been puzzling him. How, if everyone who had ever lived was resurrected after The Second Coming, would there be room on the planet for all of them?

He also learned about the stock market — Hongly is not sure how — and managed to make a substantial profit. He bought an apartment in Salt Lake. 

Another friend, Thomas Riddle, recalled in a written remembrance of Ty, “There didn’t seem to be anything that didn’t interest him and when he talked about things he actually knew what he was talking about. If he told you something, you knew it was true.”

Riddle, like others, recalled that Ty didn’t show any obvious scars from his youth.

“I had the impression that although his life had not been easy at all, he had never been sad for one day or even for one moment!” he wrote. 

Ty once offered to give him a ride to the airport, Riddle said, and he was struck by how much pleasure he took in being able to offer help. He was no longer the helpless refugee dependent on others.

Though Ty worked all the time, he took off a couple of weeks to return to Cambodia with Hongly, who had organized annual trips to help build a church and provide aid to those still struggling to recover from the years of disruption, handing out toothpaste, rice and other necessities of life.

Ty’s two children, who lived with their mother, would visit their dad on weekends. Just before bedtime, Ty would head out to drive his cab, returning in the morning when the kids were waking up, his son Jarvis recalls. 

If he ran into dicey situations in his cab, he never mentioned it, both Hongly and Jarvis recall. In fact, he never talked about the job at all.

A Dramatic Courtroom Turnaround

In his 2011 trial, Michael Robles gave his account of what happened the night that Ty was murdered.

Robles said he snuck out of Hale Kipa to meet Kilani in Waikiki, where they both drank. In the cab from Waikiki sometime after midnight, he said, Kilani told him to get out and run when they got to Waipahu. Robles said he followed the plan and ran, but turned around to see Kilani and Ty arguing. As he walked back towards the two, Robles said, “I saw Kilani throw the first punch … And then the guy went down,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported at the time. 

A homeless man found Ty Tang lying face up in the parking lot of the Waipahu Times Supermarket in a pool of blood next to his cab, whose engine was still running. He died a few hours later. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Robles said he tried to intervene as Ty held onto one of Kilani’s legs. He testified that he kicked the cabbie to try to get him to let go, but Kilani pushed him out of the way and kept beating Ty, causing his head to bounce off the ground. 

A homeless man collecting cans who saw two men running found Ty next to his white, four-door Crown Victoria, with the engine still running and the driver’s door open. Lying face up with blood coming out of his ears, he was gurgling and mumbling unintelligibly, according to a summary of the case by the Intermediate Court of Appeals. He died a couple of hours later.

Robles and Kilani both left Hale Kipa a day or so later, and were living on the streets. Kilani said he ran away because of an ongoing conflict he was having with one of the staff, and Robles insisted on coming with him. He claims that, at that point, he knew nothing about Ty’s murder.

He had been sought by the police before for running away from home, but when 20 police cars cornered him in Waikiki, he knew that something far more serious was going on, he said. He was handcuffed and put in the back of a patrol car, and it was only when he arrived at the cell block, he said, that he got an inkling of what he was facing. “What is this guy coming in for?” he remembers an officer asking the driver of the patrol car.  “Homicide,” the driver replied.

Robles was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years. (Civil Beat tried to contact Robles in prison, but he did not respond to a request for an interview.)

At Kilani’s trial the following year, the defense presented three witnesses, including Kilani’s girlfriend at the time, who testified that he had not even been in Waikiki that night. Instead, all three said, he and the girlfriend were at a party with her hanai sister and her fiancee at Schofield Barracks. They testified that they spent the whole night at the apartment and ate pancakes and bacon together in the morning.

The prosecution offered testimony from a bus driver, who said he saw Kilani and Robles get into the cab in Waikiki after finding out his bus did not go to Waipahu. 

Police experts said they examined Kilani a week after the murder and noted red marks above and below his eyes, on his calf, on the top of his right hand and knuckles and elsewhere. 

But when it came time for Michael Robles to testify, he shocked the courtroom by recanting what he had told police and testified to at his trial.

Michael Robles, photographed here during a court hearing in 2017, was a co-defendant in the Tang murder case but has since recanted his story. Screenshot/Hawaii News Now

“With all due respect to the court and to the jury and the judge, I would like to say that everything that I said in the statement and everything that I said in my trial were all a bunch of lies,” he said. 

Later, Robles refused to answer questions from Derego’s attorney, asserting the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination. The judge ruled that the jury could consider the statements that Robles had made to the police, but did not allow the prosecution to bring up what Robles had testified to at his own trial.

Despite the surprising about-face, it took the jury less than four hours to reject Kilani’s alibi defense and find him guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. 

But Robles’ bombshell would keep sending out shock waves. 

In 2015, an appeals court overturned Kilani’s conviction, saying the judge had erred by allowing the prosecution to introduce statements Robles had made to the police even after Robles had taken the Fifth, depriving the defense of the right to cross-examine him. It sent the case back to the trial court.

In 2016, Robles signed an affidavit, explaining his actions.

“I decided to state that Kilani was the other person because that is who the police thought was involved and by agreeing with them, it would help me out,” according to the affidavit. “I continued stating this at (his own) trial so that it would not look like I lied when I was questioned by police.” 

He stated that another friend had been with him that night and initiated the assault. 

An Armed Robbery Of A Game Room

Kilani’s conviction had offered some degree of satisfaction to Ty’s family.

Though his son Jarvis said the family did not discuss it often, “I’m pretty sure that everyone had pretty much a similar feeling that, yeah, that’s the best that we can get right now, to have him put in prison.”

So it was a nasty jolt to learn that his conviction had been overturned and sent back to the trial court. 

“Initially, I was pretty angry,” Jarvis said. “How did this happen? How could it be overturned? I was pretty frustrated at how this one little thing is keeping Derego from being locked up.”

Jarvis was in Texas, getting ready to deploy to Kosovo with the Hawaii National Guard, when he learned that Kilani had been released from prison. He had just gotten out of a class. “I was very surprised at what I heard,” he said. 

In fact, Kilani was released twice from prison. 

In 2017, after he had been out for five months, he flagged down a police officer in Waikiki to tell him he had cut off the ankle monitor used by the bail bondsman to track him, saying he “wanted to go back to jail.”

Then, in 2018, his grandmother bailed him out again, but didn’t cover the full amount, leaving it up to Kilani to make up the difference. This time, things went even worse.

Wearing a ski mask, he went into an illegal game room and pointed a revolver at the bouncer, the Star-Advertiser reported, telling everyone to get on the ground. He took money from the cashier and tried to flee out the front door. But it was locked, and a patron and the bouncer managed to subdue him and get his gun, which fired three times into a wall. By the time police arrived, Kilani was lying in a pool of blood and had to be taken to the hospital in serious condition for facial fractures. 

It certainly was not the best of looks for a man who was trying to exonerate himself in a murder case. 

Kilani, who admits that he did the armed robbery, says it was the result of his inability to navigate the world outside of prison, where he’d been since the age of 17. When he was released, he said, “All I had was the clothes on my back and a bag of mail … When I bailed out, I didn’t know how hard it was to live as an adult. I never did pay rent. I never did have to worry about buying food. I didn’t have to worry about hygiene, clothes, where I was going to stay.”

Kilani Derego says that he has found God since he was sent to prison in 2012. Courtesy: Angel Kayona

He needed an ID to work, he said, but his had expired while he was in prison and he needed a birth certificate to get a new one. But he couldn’t get a birth certificate without an ID. He had a part-time job cleaning restaurants at night in Waikiki and Ala Moana, but the boss said he couldn’t keep working without an ID.

The bail bondsman had made him sign a contract to pay $500 every Friday, he said. He didn’t have the money, and so decided to rob the game room, thinking if he didn’t, he would be going back to jail anyway and reasoning, “Because it’s illegal it’s fair game.”

Now, Kilani is back in prison, and at long last, his retrial is moving forward, with jury selection scheduled to begin later this month.

The prosecution blames the long delay on Kilani and his lawyers. In 2019, Kilani’s lawyer tried to withdraw as his counsel. Scott Bell, a deputy prosecutor, wrote a memo opposing the move, pointing out that Kilani had had three different lawyers in the four years since his conviction was overturned. 

In the meantime, many of those involved in the original trial have moved on, including six detectives who had retired or left the Honolulu Police Department, two of whom relocated to the continental U.S.

“Coordinating their schedules has been a Herculean task,” Bell wrote.

The homeless man who found Ty has since died. Two other homeless men who the state wanted to call as witnesses had been located, but “years on the street have not been kind to either man.”

Kilani did get a new lawyer, and the two sides have continued to fight over what can be said in court about Robles’ words and actions. This month, a judge ruled that Robles’ affidavit pinning the blame on another man could not be introduced as evidence if Robles does not testify, which he has said he will not do.

Meanwhile, this year, Kilani wrote a letter to Robles entreating him to tell what Kilani claims is the truth about what happened that night.

“Dearest Mikey,” he wrote, “Tonight, like countless other nights, I lay in my bed restlessly peering into the dark solitude of my room just thinking over and over about how could my life have ended this way …

“11 years of my life has been taken from me because of what you’ve said. I wanna know the truth from you and why you said what you said. Not only for me, but for the family of the man who died …

“Bro, please respond to me. Work with me to prove my innocence in Charlys Tang’s death and give me my life back. Make things right. That’s all I ask. I have nothing to offer except my love.”

 ‘They Need To Know The Truth’

Before Kilani was tried the first time, Angel had been sent to jail for a few days for a violation of the HOPE probation program, which she credits for eventually getting her sober. She was assigned to help the acting warden in her office. Angel started talking about her son’s case, when the warden stopped her and asked, “What case was that again?”

The cab driver who was killed in Waipahu, Angel explained. “Oh my god,” the warden said, and pointed to a man outside her office window who had been teaching GED classes in the jail. It turned out that Ty had donated his organs, and the GED teacher received his lungs. 

“He’s a hero,” Angel says of Ty. 

His family and friends, she said, “need closure. They need to know the truth …

“All we want, everybody wants, is the truth.”

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