Months after they were stolen, tip leads police to 'priceless' Niihau shell lei

PC: Panna Cappelli
PC: Panna Cappelli

MAKAWAO, MAUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Business owner Panna Cappelli was overcome with emotion Tuesday when a Maui police detective brought back 12 Niihau shell that were stolen in July.

The lei are now back on display at her Makawao Store, Maui Hands.

"He came in and he opened the bag ... and we all just started crying," Cappelli said. "We were all crying and hugging Detective Schmidt and he was all embarrassed and it was a very beautiful reunion."

Store surveillance video recorded the crime on July 17, when a man broke the glass door and climbed through.

He put on a ski mask, then went to work, smashing a display case.

In one minute, he was able to grab 25 of the Niihau shell lei, valued at about $100,000. Also taken: Five, hand-carved hunting knives.

Two of the knives were dropped outside the store and returned in the days after the crime.

A tip to Maui police helped identify the man in the surveillance video and at least one arrest has been made.

Cappelli hopes to get the entire collection back, but is thrilled to have the ones with the biggest shells on display again.

She estimates the value of the 12 returned is about $70,000 but because the shells are so hard to find, she describes them as "priceless."

"They are rare," she said. "These larger pieces, it's very difficult for any of the lei makers anymore to get the shells, get this many shells."

In 2004, state lawmakers passed a bill that prohibits the sale of items described as "Niihau" unless 100 percent of the shells are from that island and the necklace, bracelet or other product must be made entirely in Hawaii.

In the wake of the theft, Cappelli has upgraded the security of her upcountry store, installing steel grates and stronger glass.

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