Joshua Spriestersbach spent more than two years locked in a state mental hospital after a Honolulu police officer mistook him for Thomas Castleberry, a convicted felon who had long been gone from the islands.

But Honolulu Police Department reports show that Spriestersbach had been arrested several times before the incident that landed him in the Hawaii State Hospital and correctly identified. On at least two occasions they considered whether he was really Castleberry and both times they decided he was not. Once they even acknowledged in the police report that his fingerprints did not match Castleberry’s.

During a third arrest, however, a police officer incorrectly identified Spriestersbach as Thomas Castleberry and tied him to an outstanding warrant for Castleberry.

Although Spriestersbach insisted he was not Castleberry, no one believed him and no steps were taken to figure out if he was telling the truth. Instead he was locked away in the state hospital until a doctor finally checked on his claims and determined he’d been telling the truth.

The case, when it came to light, captured the nation’s attention, and raised questions about how such a horrific error could be made.

Fence runs along some of the Hawaii State Hospital's bordering area with the Windward Community College campus. The fence ended on the Kahaluu side along where the road met up with the road that runs thru Windward Community College.
The Hawaii State Hospital, located in Kaneohe, is where Joshua Spriestersbach spent more than two years trying to convince authorities they had the wrong man. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

“These records show that it was HPD that gave him that alias,” said Ken Lawson, who’s a co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project that’s now working to clear Spriestersbach’s name. “This is a mistake that they caused, not our client. Joshua didn’t create this mess. They did.”

Interim HPD Chief Rade Vanic did not respond to a Civil Beat request for an interview for this story.

The Innocence Project laid out many of the facts of Spriestersbach’s case in an August petition seeking to set the record straight and ensure that Spriestersbach is never again arrested for the crimes of Thomas Castleberry.

According to the petition, Spriestersbach, who suffers from mental illness, was arrested in 2017 while sleeping on a sidewalk outside a Chinatown homeless shelter after an HPD officer thought he was Thomas Castleberry, who was wanted on a 2009 probation violation stemming from a prior drug conviction.

Spriestersbach was eventually booked into the Oahu Community Correctional Center where the guards repeatedly referred to him as Castleberry despite his protestations.

Once Spriestersbach arrived in court to face charges, he repeatedly told his public defenders that he was not Thomas Castleberry, yet no one listened to him, according to the petition. Instead, he was held at the Hawaii State Hospital, where even those who evaluated him refused to believe he was not Thomas Castleberry.

That all changed in 2019 when a hospital staffer discovered the mistake, notified the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office and released him back onto the streets of Chinatown with 50 cents and a new ID identifying him as Joshua Spriestersbach.

Spriestersbach is now living in Vermont with his sister, who has said he is afraid to leave her property for fear of being arrested again for Castleberry’s crimes.

Police reports obtained by Civil Beat, however, show the mix-up began many years before Spriestersbach’s 2017 arrest and prosecution as Thomas Castleberry.

In fact, HPD first identified Spriestersbach as Castleberry in 2011 and had repeated the mistake on at least two more occasions.

According to the records, the first slip up came just after midnight on Oct. 14, 2011 when two police officers, Raleigh Lopes and Kevin Arakaki, arrested Spriestersbach for trespassing after he was caught sleeping in a stairwell at Kawananakoa Elementary School.

When Lopes asked Spriestersbach for his name he replied only with, “Castleberry.” That’s Spriestersbach’s grandfather’s name, Lawson says.

Joshua Spriestersbach moved to the mainland to live with a sister once he was released from the state hospital. Submitted

Lopes wrote in her report that she pressed Spriestersbach for more information, including his first name, but that he began acting cagey.

“When asked to spell his last name the male did not answer,” Lopes said. “This writer then asked the male for his first name and he replied ‘um, um’. This writer again asked the male for his first name and the male replied ‘um, um’ (as if thinking of a name to give).”

Spriestersbach eventually relented and said his name was “William Castleberry.” The reports indicate Spriestersbach also provided his actual date of birth and social security number.

Lawson said William Castleberry is the name of Spriestersbach’s grandfather, and is of no relation to Thomas Castleberry. But when the officers ran William Castleberry’s name through their criminal database, the only return was for Thomas Castleberry, who Lopes noted in her report did not have the same name or identifying information that Spriestersbach provided.

Thomas Castleberry’s photograph, Lopes wrote, “matched the suspect.”

Spriestersbach was arrested for Thomas Castleberry’s outstanding warrant, but court records indicate he was never charged for the violation.

It’s not clear why he was never charged but Lawson said he suspects HPD or the prosecutor’s office realized the mistake.

At that point, in the eyes of HPD and Hawaii’s judicial system, Spriestersbach was also known as Thomas Castleberry.

In 2015, Spriestersbach was again arrested by HPD for violating park closure rules.

The arrest report notes that he initially refused to give his name and was processed as a “John Doe.” Eventually, HPD identified him as Joshua Spriestersbach, but noted that he had the aliases of William and Thomas Castleberry.

According to a report written by HPD officer Mikne Ibrao, Castleberry’s warrant was initially linked to Spriestersbach, but a check of his fingerprints verified they weren’t the same person.

Still, the records weren’t corrected.

“Once they figured out their mistake they never fixed it,” Lawson said.

The reports related to Spriestersbach’s May 11, 2017 arrest — the one that ultimately sent him to the state hospital — don’t provide much detail about what exactly happened that day.

But Lawson said the police should have again determined his fingerprints didn’t match Castleberry’s.

Officer Abraham Bruhn wrote that he arrested Spriestersbach for Castleberry’s outstanding warrant, saying that his “prior knowledge” of the 2009 bench warrant is what led to the arrest.

Lawson argues that’s a dubious narrative. For one, it supposes that Bruhn would have been on the lookout for Castleberry for a warrant that was six years old at the time. Not only that, he said, Castleberry had already left the islands by the time Bruhn made the arrest and was serving time in an Alaska prison for separate crimes.

Ken Lawson arrives at District Court.
Ken Lawson, a co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, is trying to clear Joshua Spriestersbach’s name. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Most officials have refused to speak substantively about the case, and have generally dodged meaningful questions about what’s being done to ensure accountability and that a similar situation doesn’t occur again.

Lawson and the Hawaii Innocence Project, who believe state and local officials tried to cover up what happened to Spriestersbach, have pointed to a number of irregularities in the case, including a closed door meeting that the judge overseeing Spriesterbach’s case held with the lawyers involved, including from the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office, shortly after Spriestersbach was released from the hospital.

There’s no public record of what occurred during that secret gathering.

Photos in the Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center have also been switched out to make Spriestersbach’s mugshot look more like Castleberry, which occurred only after Spriestersbach was set loose.

“The question is why did the officer in 2015 follow HPD protocol and the one in 2017 didn’t,” Lawson said. “When you look at these records it could be a cover up. Because what’s his excuse going to be? That he didn’t fingerprint Joshua because he already knew who he was? That’s some bullshit.”

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