Two members of a task force specializing in forensic analysis will be assigned to the new detail that will reexamine dozens of unsolved cases.

Members of a special Maui police task force working to track down and identify people reported missing after the deadly wildfires of Aug. 8 will soon pivot to investigating cold cases.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier has created a cold case detail that will focus on reexamining the department’s 23 unsolved homicide cases as well as dozens of missing persons cases going back decades. 

Creating a cold case unit was one of Pelletier’s priorities when he was appointed chief in 2021, Maui police spokeswoman Alana Pico said in an email. Before, unsolved cases were investigated only when time permitted. 

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier answers a question during a press conference, Aug. 29, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier created the Morgue Identification Notification Task Force following the Lahaina wildfires. Two task force members who are experts in forensic analysis will be assigned to the department’s new cold case detail. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

But the Lahaina wildfires, which razed much of the town and killed 99 people, prompted the creation of a task force focused on forensic analysis and identifying human remains through DNA.

The Morgue Identification Notification Task Force, which includes Maui police personnel, members of partner law enforcement agencies, doctors, dentists and fingerprint experts, is still searching for four people who remain missing — Lydia Coloma, Paul Kasprzycki, Robert Owens and Elmer Stevens.

That list has been winnowed down from more than 3,000 people who were unaccounted for in the immediate aftermath of the fire, when communications were down and survivors fled to shelters without always reporting their whereabouts.

As investigators continue searching for the four missing people from Lahaina, the goal is to narrow down their last known locations so searchers can recover their remains or find out if they are still alive. These are not considered cold cases because they are open and active.

“With all hopes, we’ll find them alive somewhere,” said Maui Capt. Nelson Hamilton, who will oversee the new unit. “The main thing is just find them, and if they have passed, then be able to identify them.”

Lydia Coloma, top left, Paul Kasprzycki, top right, Robert Owens, bottom left, and Elmer Stevens, bottom right, are still missing since the Lahaina fire. (Maui Police Department)

Since members of the task force have skills that translate well to cold case investigations, Pelletier saw an opportunity to form a team focused on unsolved cases.

Two task force members who were former officers in Maui’s police traffic unit will be assigned to the cold case detail, Hamilton said. 

The county also approved two new part-time positions for the unit. Hamilton said the department will seek to hire retired law enforcement professionals or others with investigative experience. Salaries for the positions have not yet been determined.

Once the Lahaina investigations wind down, members of the cold case detail will start reexamining evidence from unsolved homicides that date back to 1971. The oldest case involves a person who was found dead outside a Lahaina bar and may have been killed in a fight, Hamilton said. 

Advancements in DNA analyzing technology allow detectives to glean more information from evidence, such as hair strands or articles of clothing, recovered from crime scenes. 

“Back in the 80s, DNA (analysis) was in its infancy, and now it’s so much better,” he said. 

New technology was key to solving the case of Moreira Monsalve, a mother of three who went missing from Wailuku in 2014, he said. Over the course of the five-year investigation, technology used to extract information from her cellphone improved to the point where detectives could tell someone had accessed Facebook on her phone from her ex-boyfriend’s IP address around the time of her disappearance.  Her ex-boyfriend, Bernard Brown, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in January.

“Back 10 years ago you wouldn’t have been able to get this kind of information,” he said.

Search crews spent weeks after the Aug. 8 fire looking for human remains in the ash and rubble in Lahaina. Many people who were initially reported missing turned up alive after communications were restored. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Other departments in the state have cold case units and post information about the cases online.

The Honolulu Police Department launched a “Never Forgotten” project in 2018 to review 41 cold cases dating back to the 1960s. Hawaii island and Kauai police departments also have information about cold cases on their websites. 

The Maui Police Department has a list of missing people on its website dating back to 1993. The department has a separate running list of those who were reported missing after the Aug. 8 fires.

Hamilton said once detectives finish reviewing all of the department’s cold cases, information about some of them will be publicized so anyone with leads can provide assistance. He said he wasn’t ready to go into detail about any of the cases. 

“One of the things we can definitely use the public and the media’s help with is keeping people’s faces and names fresh,” he said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author