The woman who died in a Banyan tree fire last month was once an award-winning coffee farmer. But she struggled with mental illness.

Deborah Ann Cohn-Hoomalu of Hilo grew up in a California family of doctors. Her mother was a psychiatrist, her father was a cardiologist and her two brothers are also physicians.

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Despite the medical environment she was raised in, Cohn-Hoomalu, 59, forged a different path. She established a flooring company, worked as a pharmacy tech and eventually became an award-winning coffee farmer on the Big Island.

She also became homeless.

Firefighters discovered Cohn-Hoomalu’s charred remains inside the burning trunk of a banyan tree on the morning of Jan. 2.

Deborah Ann Cohn-Hoomalu
Deborah Ann Cohn-Hoomalu grew award-winning coffee on the Big Island before falling on hard times. (Courtesy: Robert Hoomalu)

Cohn-Hoomalu struggled with bipolar disorder, according to her stepmother Bonnie Mercer Cohn.

“She was estranged from her family,” she said. “She had dropped contact with us quite a few years ago.”

Court filings show a judge ordered Cohn-Hoomalu to undergo a mental fitness and capacity exam in 2019. She had some minor run-ins with law enforcement. They included traffic violations, a minor theft charge, violation of a protection order, and a terroristic threatening charge in the second degree.

Cohn-Hoomalu was known to patrol officers who canvass the area along Banyan Drive, a popular spot for people without housing.

Once a jewel of East Hawaii, Banyan Drive has seen better days. People experiencing homelessness pass the time at a nearby golf course and woods, Reed’s Bay Beach Park and a dilapidated hotel, Uncle Billy’s.

Police don’t suspect foul play, but they have not reached a final determination in Cohn-Hoomalu’s death. An autopsy showed no signs of trauma beyond the fire. Toxicology results and the outcome of additional autopsy tests remain pending.

“It’s unclear at this point if she was alive or not when the fire started,” said Capt. Rio Amon-Wilkins of the Hawaii Police Department.

Deborah Ann Cohn-Hoomalu died inside this banyan tree in Hilo on Jan. 2. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

Police found cans of butane inside the tree where it appeared Cohn-Hoomalu had been camping.

“There’s no indication it was intentionally set,” Amon-Wilkins said, referring to the fire.

Mercer Cohn said the family cared about her “very, very much” but it was hard to help her because she had pulled away from her loved ones.

“It’s tragic,” she said. “She had a nice childhood.”

In her online bio, Cohn-Hoomalu said she lived a simple farmer’s life and considered herself “an honored caretaker of one of God’s most sacred places in Hawaii.”

Deborah Ann Cohn-Hoomalu’s stepmother said her mental illness got in the way of the nice life she should have had. (Screenshot/Instagram)

She is listed on LinkedIn as the owner of Hoshide Coffee in Captain Cook, from 1995 to 2013.

In 2008, she took first place in the Gevalia Kona Coffee tasting contest.

“We were very excited for her that she had won the prize,” Mercer Cohn said. “She was a brand new farmer.”

She moved on from coffee growing to the flooring industry in 2013. Cohn-Hoomalu and her husband, Robert Hoomalu, launched Palaka Flooring in Henderson, Nevada, outside Las Vegas.

Cohn-Hoomalu touted the move in her professional bio, expounding on the “wonderful opportunity to enhance the community by improving homes that need help.”

Hoomalu could not be reached for comment. 

Kristen Alice, director of community relations at HOPE Services in Hilo, said it’s incredibly difficult to access mental health resources on the Big Island. There’s no residential facility for psychiatric services on the island, and outpatient providers are hard to come by, even if a person is housed.

“We don’t know the circumstances that led to her death. I don’t want to speculate what kind of challenges she was facing but one thing we know is we really, really need mental health care here and this is something we’ve been talking about for years at the state Legislature or whenever we get the chance,” Alice said.

Mercer Cohn said her stepdaughter’s untreated emotional and mental health challenges “got in the way of the nice, normal life that she should have had.”

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