The case of a Cambodian man who survived the savage regime of the Khmer Rouge as a youngster only to be killed years later in Honolulu has led to a manslaughter verdict more than a decade later.

A jury Friday convicted Kilani Derego of manslaughter in the case of Charlys Ty Tang, who was beaten to death in Waipahu by two young men he had picked up in his cab in Waikiki late one night in 2010, on his 41st birthday.

Derego had been convicted of second-degree murder in the case in 2012 and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. But an appeals court overturned the verdict. After many twists and turns, the case was finally brought to trial again this month, leading to the manslaughter conviction. Derego is scheduled for sentencing Oct. 5. A manslaughter conviction carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, and Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm said he would seek that term because of the seriousness of the offense.

“The Department is pleased with the verdict and we hope that it brings some measure of closure to Mr. Tang’s family,” Alm said in a prepared statement.

Kilani Derego maintained his innocence in the death of cab driver Charlys Ty Tang Courtesy: Angel Kayona

The two-and-a-half day trial posed a challenge to the prosecution because many of those involved in the original trial had moved on, including six Honolulu Police Department detectives. The homeless man who found Tang’s bloodied body while he was collecting cans at night has since died.

The case hinged, as it did almost a decade ago, on the testimony of a bus driver who said he witnessed Derego and his friend Michael Robles, who remains in prison after being convicted of manslaughter in Tang’s death, get into Tang’s cab after the bus driver told Derego he didn’t go to Waipahu.

The prosecution also focused on red marks on Derego’s knuckles after he was arrested, and a swollen right foot, which it said was consistent with him beating Tang outside his cab at in the parking lot of the Waipahu Times Supermarket.

Tang’s family and friends waited for years for the case to be resolved after the appeals court reversal. His son, Jarvis, told Civil Beat of his anger and frustration at Derego being released for a time after his conviction was overturned.

In 2011, Robles was sentenced to 20 years after telling police that Derego got into a fight with Tang over the fare. Robles said he kicked Tang while trying to break up the fight.

But at Derego’s trial the following year, Robles shocked the courtroom by recanting what he had told police and testified to at his trial, calling it “a bunch of lies.” Robles refused to answer questions from attorneys on both sides, asserting his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

Derego was nonetheless convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.

An appeals court, however, found in 2015 that the trial court judge had erred by allowing the prosecution to introduce Robles’ statements to police after he had refused to testify, denying Derego his right to cross-examine him.

Further complicating matters was an affidavit Robles signed in in 2016, explaining, “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.” He said another friend had taken part in the assault.

Robles did not testify in this trial, and his earlier statements to police and the affidavit were not introduced as evidence.

Tang’s death marked a premature end to a remarkable life. He was only 5 when the Khmer Rouge gained power, and his family, like many others, was forcibly evacuated from the city to the countryside.

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

Though he did not dwell on the hardships of those years, his friend Hongly Khuy recalls talking to Tang about having to eat frogs and earthworms to avoid starving.

When Vietnam invaded Cambodia four years later, Tang was separated from his family in the chaos. His parents made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand, and from there, to a studio apartment on Kapiolani Boulevard in Honolulu.

But for almost a decade, they had no word of their son. Then, they heard through the network of Cambodian emigrees that he had been in a refugee camp in Vietnam the whole time, and brought him to Hawaii. Ty had picked up a surprising proficiency in English at the camp and soon got a job as a cook at Kapiolani Coffee Shop, where his father also worked.

He rarely spoke of the past, but showed a boundless curiosity about the present – teaching himself, for instance, how to buy and sell stocks, making enough money to buy an apartment in Salt Lake. In his last years, he returned to Cambodia on trips led by his friend Khuy to provide aid and help to build a church.

Tang decided to start driving a cab so he could spend more time with his children, heading out just before their bedtime and returning in the morning when they were waking up.

Derego, who spent years in foster homes as the result of his mother’s drug issues, said in an interview with Civil Beat that, at the time of the killing, he had “anger issues” and an “extensive” juvenile record. But from the beginning, he adamantly maintained his innocence, saying he was with his girlfriend at the time and a couple of her friends on Schofield Barracks. The three alibi witnesses, who said they spent the whole night at the apartment and ate pancakes and bacon in the morning, testified in Derego’s first trial in 2012, but not in this one.

Derego said he had just gotten his GED diploma and believed his future was bright when police surrounded him in Wakiki and arrested him for Tang’s killing.

Much of the trial centered on the testimony of Philip Butay, a Honolulu bus driver who identified Derego as the young man who stepped into his bus late one night in Waikiki and asked if the bus went to Waipahu.

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

After telling him it did not, Butay said that he saw Derego and Robles get into a cab.

While drinking coffee and massaging his wife’s feet the next morning, he mentioned the two young men. Butay told his wife that he had wondered how the two would afford the fare between Waikiki and Waipahu. When the story of Tang’s killing made the news, his wife encouraged him to contact the police.

Prosecutor Scott Bell also focused on the testimony of a staff member at Hale Kipa, a home for at-risk youth in Manoa where Derego and Robles were both living, saying that she thought that police sketches released by CrimeStoppers resembled the two young men. After the sketches came out, Bell said, Derego and Robles cut each other’s hair and fled from the facility.

“The defendant and his good friend Robles ran,” Bell said. “The only explanation was that they realized the jig was up.”

Derego told Civil Beat he left because of a bitter ongoing conflict with a staff member.

His attorney, Nelson Goo, called an expert witness to testify on factors that affect the reliability of witnesses’ memories in an attempt to undermine the bus driver’s testimony.

Goo said that no direct evidence linked Derego to the crime – DNA, blood, or witnesses to the killing itself.

“What they’re trying to do, the prosecution, is throw mud on the wall and see what sticks,” he said.

Derego’s bail was set at $250,000. He is also awaiting sentencing in another case in which he was convicted of trying to rob an illegal game room while he was out on bail in the Tang case.

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