21-year-old man charged in strangling death of girlfriend

WAHIAWA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A 21-year-old man has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, a 19-year-old Wahiawa woman.

Kaniala Avilla-Rapoza remains behind bars. His bail has been set at $500,000.

Meanwhile, his family continues to raise questions about the case. They say he has Asperger Syndrome and isn't capable of murder.

"My nephew is sitting in Module 11 right now, some place he's never been, terrified! You can see it when he was standing in the courtroom, he's shaking," said his uncle, Benjamin Christiansen.

Family and close friends of Avilla-Rapoza believes he is being framed for the strangling death of his girlfriend, 19-year-old Nelibeth Albert.

They say Avilla-Rapoza's disorder prevents him from driving or even leaving the house alone and they believe he was coerced into a false confession.

"His mind is not there. It's there...but not where you and I are. We can think straight, under pressure. He not going be able to do that. So he just going admit just to get them off his back," said Avilla-Rapoza's best friend, Koa Akau.

But police are pushing back against the allegations, saying that investigators "go to great lengths to ensure that a suspect who is interviewed is provided with and understands his constitutional rights to ensure that any statements obtained are voluntary."

But Avilla-Rapoza's family says he has the mental capacity of a 13-year-old and likely didn't understand what he was being asked.

Avilla-Rapoza's defense attorney, Myles Breiner, said his client and Albert were both in the special needs program at the school and went to prom together.

"His demeanor is that he didn't do it and he's innocent ... he wouldn't injure, harm or threaten Nelibeth," said Breiner.

Police said Avilla-Rapoza led them to Wahiawa State Freshwater Park where they found Albert's body and he confessed to choking her to death.

"They came Thursday to question him. He didn't run. They came Friday, asked him to go with them. He told his brother that he's gonna go look for his girlfriend ... so of course he went to help them look for her," said Christiansen.

Christiansen said Avilla-Rapoza was able to speak to his father after he was arrested and denied taking police to the park.

"He said, 'Dad, I would never do this.' And then he said he didn't take them to the Freshwater Park ... I just think that the HPD did a real poor investigation. I think they cut corners to close the case fast. Hey we did it, we got someone to admit," Christiansen said.

Breiner argued in court on Monday that his client belongs in a psychiatric hospital instead of jail.

"I'm concerned about his safety ... I urge the Prosecutor's Office to be responsible and not housed in an environment where he's going to be subjected to threats and intimidation," Breiner said.

Christiansen said Avilla-Rapoza's family can't afford to post his $500,000 bail and they are struggling to just pay attorney fees.

"The dad is selling every single thing he has, his bikes, his 4Runner, his fishing poles, everything to pay for this. For something he didn't even do! It's frustrating," said Christiansen.

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