37 years ago, her murder gripped Oahu. But from the start, the investigation went astray

Updated: Apr. 17, 2019 at 11:10 AM HST

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Thirty-seven years ago, a 19-year-old Kailua hairdresser was found dead on Tantalus.

Those old enough to remember the tragic case of Lisa Au might also recall the fear that spread through the community following her death ― when a policeman was suspected of her murder.

Law enforcement pursued that theory for years, overlooking other evidence.

Lisa Au's body was found after a massive islandwide search. No one has ever been charged in connection with her death. (Image: Family)

But now that other evidence ― much of which has never been made public ― is finally coming out thanks to the former head of homicide at the time. And the new revelations underscore the mistakes made in an investigation so botched some experts say it likely foiled any chance for justice.

The story starts on Jan. 20, 1982. It was pouring on Oahu ― flooding rains ― when Au finished up work at the Susan Beers Salon in Kailua. Heading out the door into the bad weather, she told co-workers she was going to see her boyfriend, Doug Holmes, at his sister’s apartment in Makiki.

On her way, police reports show, she stopped to buy poke for the occasion. And after dinner, she headed home to Kailua. But she never got there.

And no one would ever see her alive again.

The next day, Au’s parents called Holmes at his University of Hawaii dorm. He told them he would go out to look for her, and it was Holmes who called police to report he’d found her car: A 1976 Toyota parked on the shoulder of the highway in Maunawili near the old Kailua Drive-in.

Lisa Au's car was found in Maunawili after a night of heavy rains. (Image: KGMB)

The driver's side window was rolled down about halfway, and the officer who met Holmes noted that there was about “2 to 3 inches of water” on the floor of the vehicle and that the seat was “soaked and drenched.”

But oddly, Au’s purse on the seat appeared to be completely dry.

The officer expressed concern that the purse may have been placed on the seat after the torrential rain had stopped. He also reported seeing scratches on Holmes’ face. Crime scene technicians would later determine that Au’s car had been “wiped clean” of any evidence.

Word quickly spread of Au’s disappearance, and thousands of flyers were distributed island-wide, as her friends and family hoped against hope that the teen would be found alive.

In interviews with the media, Au’s family struggled to thank the hundreds of volunteers searching for their daughter. “Thank you is not enough,” said her exhausted mother, holding back tears. “Everyone wants to help so much. The support has just been great.”

Lisa Au's parents speak to the media as the search continued. (Image: KGMB)

The search would go on for 10 grueling days.

And then, the worst was confirmed: On Jan. 31 1982, Au's nude, decomposing body was found in a ravine off Tantalus Drive.

That was the day the case moved from the Missing Persons Unit to homicide detectives – and when the Honolulu Police Department’s Bert Corniel would get involved.

At the time, Corniel was the lieutenant assigned to the Criminal Investigations Division.

Thirty-seven years later, he’s 72 years old, retired in Florida and the Au case still plagues him. Despite the passage of time, he said he remembers the case clearly – and all the problems surrounding it.

Days after Au’s body was found, homicide detectives had a suspect: One of their own.

And their theory became public, causing an island-wide panic: Women feared that a policeman was pulling over women to attack them.

So how did they come to suspect that an officer was involved? And why were they so focused on him?

For about a year, an investigative grand jury heard evidence against the Honolulu police officer suspected in the case. But then-city Prosecutor Charles Marsland wasn’t able to secure an indictment.

Corniel said the grand jury proceedings were a waste of time. And he contends the push to go after an officer was all due to intense public pressure for an arrest.

"They had formulated premature conclusions,” Corniel said, adding they jumped on any clue that pointed to the police officer’s involvement.

Au’s temporary license missing from her purse and her car window rolled down halfway, in their minds, meant she was pulled over and had passed the license to the officer.

After the suspected officer's name leaked out, another woman from the Windward side claimed he also pulled her over and that he’d used blue lights on his unmarked car.

Police lights like these were eventually taken off police cars in the wake of the Lisa Au case. (Image: KGMB)

The new details triggered widespread fear among women that a traffic stop could be deadly.

The department even sought to reassure women that they didn’t have to stop for unmarked police cars and eventually, HPD banned flashing lights on car grills altogether.

In the meantime, investigators continued their focus on the police officer.

The primary pieces of evidence against him: The Windward Oahu woman’s suspicious traffic stop and a sex harassment complaint against him from a young woman during a police ride-along.

He also lived near Au’s home.

When the grand jury failed to indict the officer, Corneil says, it tainted the case, exposed mistakes the detectives had made, and that discouraged other prosecutors from trying again.

To this day, many still believe it was a police officer who killed Au.

Corniel argues that a shoddy investigation closed the door on evidence against others.

Trying to get answers for the family, Corniel started his investigation over. He interviewed witnesses that he says detectives failed to track down, or simply ignored.

He also found evidence that seemed to debunk the killer cop theory.

Remember Au’s missing temporary drivers license? Its absence was an important clue that a police officer stopped Au that night.

Corniel found it months later while re-tracing Lisa’s movements. Turns out, after she left the hair salon about 9:45 pm and stopped to buy poke, she showed her ID to write a check ― and forget it at the store.

Lisa Au's body was recovered off Tantalus Drive 10 days after she went missing (Image: KGMB)

After Corniel’s discovery, the ID was turned over to police. Corniel says he knew then that Lisa was not pulled over by an officer.

He also found a security guard at the Makiki apartment building where Doug Holmes’ sister lived ― and where Lisa Au was last seen alive. Thomas Thornburg would not been contacted by police until after Corniel interviewed him.

He told police he saw the couple arguing about 11 p.m. Thornburg reported that Holmes then drove off after Lisa left.

Holmes had told police he’d gone back to his UH dorm room.

Corniel also tracked down another witness: Charlotte Kamaka, a newspaper delivery driver.

She later testified before the grand jury about what she saw on Tantalus in the hours after Au went missing. She said she was on her regular route about 2:30 a.m. In police records, she said a man drove past her in a blue car with a female passenger who “appeared to be asleep” or unconscious.

“What alerted me was her head fell,” she said. “When the car made the turn, her head just fell."

Later, she said she got a good look at the driver as he turned around in a paved lookout. She said when the car made the turn, he just “stopped and stared” at her.

But now, the female passenger was gone.

After Au’s body was found in the same area 10 days later, Kamaka went to the police station to report what she saw.

She said the detective “wrote down information” on how to contact her. But she never got a call back. She kept contacting the police anyway “to see what they were doing.”

Her questions went nowhere.

One key clue in the case was Au’s car, which broke down in Maunawili near a mudslide that happened during those torrential rains.

Officer Michael Rehfeldt was directing traffic and says he didn’t remember seeing Au's Toyota.

But months later, he was asked to tell the grand jury that he did and report that he saw a patrol officer at the car. Rehfeldt says he refused to lie and never testified.

A former HPD detective, now retired, has spent years investigating the Lisa Au case. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

By 1985, three years after Au’s death, the lead detective on the case ― Nelson Lum ― wrote in a sworn statement that his “massive and extensive investigation” into Au’s death had produced no evidence against a “city employee acting within the course of their employment.”

In other words, a police officer didn’t kill Au.

The admission showed HPD’s lead suspect in the case for years was an innocent man.

Lum also said there was actually "no direct evidence as to who caused the death of Lisa Au." But he said that there were “one or more suspects” in the case.

In a recorded interview, Au’s boyfriend ― Holmes ― acknowledged that he knew he was one of the suspects. Court documents show Holmes even agreed to two, lie detector tests ― and failed both.

He had an explanation: That he felt guilty.

And in a sworn statement, Lum said that explanation was good enough for him and he didn't have any other reason to suspect Holmes.

As part of a lawsuit filed years after Au’s death, Lum was deposed and asked why other suspects weren’t looked at more closely. Lum said he did question Holmes about the results of the lie detector, asking him, “Why are you failing these tests?”

Holmes’ response, according to Lum: Because he felt guilty for not driving Au home in the heavy rain because she was an inexperienced driver.

Later, Lum said he didn’t think Holmes had any motive to kill Au because “there was no third party involved,” which ruled out jealousy, “there was no money involved. There was no baby coming.

"There was no reason for him to do it.”

But Lum said Holmes admitted he was trying to end the relationship, saying he was "going to college, being educated” while Au was “more or less staying still” education-wise.

Seven years after Au’s murder, Lum described the case as “open, ongoing and unsolved.” That description remains today.

More than a year after Lisa Au was killed, her body was exhumed.

(Image: KGMB)

Police took her skull and jawbone, and asked the coroner in Los Angeles to do what Honolulu’s Medical Examiner could not do: To determine the cause of her death.

Forensic anthropologist Robert Mann, of the University of Hawaii, said a human skull can provide so many clues but a less experienced examiner could easily miss the signs.

Forensic anthropologist Robert Mann said an inexperienced medical examiner can easily miss the small clues that make all the difference. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

“There’s so much that you can tell from the skull that you can’t tell from the neck down,” said Mann, who helped to analyze remains of those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks and examined the remains of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims.

"If you miss that one little mark, that one little indicator of possibly cause of death, you're going to go, ‘We don't have any evidence of what this person died of.’ But it's there so you have to be very careful."

By the time Au’s body was exhumed, Corneil ― the homicide detective ― had left the police department and was working as a private investigator for the Au family.

He believed the Honolulu coroner did not do a thorough job on the first autopsy. And he was right. When the body was exhumed, investigators learned her remains were still in the police body bag.

He was also appalled to learn there were still "leaves and dirt and rubbish ... inside.”

He says the body was never even washed.

Corniel's report says the medical examiner was "pretty red faced ... and embarrassed" when all those details were revealed.

A second opinion was sought by the Los Angeles coroner, who took a look at the skull and jawbone. The results of that exam were never made public, but the coroner did say that advanced decomposition meant making any conclusions would be “very difficult.”

Mann, of the University of Hawaii, said he’d be willing to take another look.

That is, if he could have access.

The problem: There is some dispute about where the skull and jawbone are now.

The Honolulu Police Department says they’re in the hands of the Medical Examiner's Office, but the ME says they were returned to the casket with the rest of the remains.

Au's family wonders if the items were indeed returned.

The only way to be sure would be to disturb her grave ― again.

Despite that painful process, Au’s family will ask HPD to do it again, and re-examine her remains.They want to know if time, technology and better skilled forensic anthropologists can finally determine how she died.

Au's sister, Mei Li McIntyre, says any answers at this point would be a relief.

Mei Li was just 7 years old in 1982, when her big sister went missing.

"I saw lots of flyers with my sister’s face, her graduation picture, black and white you know. And it said the word missing,” McIntyre said.

For days, she stayed with relatives ― until her sister’s body was found. "I was brought home and that’s when my mom and my dad took me in the room. My parents told me that she went to heaven,” McIntyre said.

The two were 12 years apart, but McIntyre has fond memories of her sister.

In the years after Au’s death, the family sheltered McIntyre from all the news reports and the gruesome details. But she saw the ripple effects and the impact on the family.

“It was hard on my parents, I watched it,” she said. “Whenever it came up to Lisa’s birthday or the anniversary of her death or somewhere ... you could tell.”

Over the years, McIntyre and her aunt would visit Au’s gravesite at Valley of the Temples, cleaning it and leaving lei.

Next to Au, her father ― Chester ― is now buried. Her mother is buried at Hawaiian Memorial Park.

The two divorced in 1990, and McIntyre says her sister’s murder drove them apart.

When McIntyre became a teenager, she began reading the old newspaper clippings that her mom saved and she started asking questions.

She learned that a policeman was suspected, and then cleared and that he wasn’t the only suspect. Now, almost four decades later, she’s asking HPD to take one last look.

"I want to know and I want them to try again,” she said. “And if cannot, cannot at least we tried I want to try. "

There is no statute of limitations on murder, but the longer it takes for law enforcement to gather evidence the harder it is for the case to move forward.

The case weakens as time passes ― and witnesses die.

Kamaka, the longtime newspaper carrier who reported suspicious activity on Tantalus the night Au went missing, died a year and a half ago at the age of 73.

Thornburg, the security guard at the apartment complex where Au was last seen alive, has also died. He is buried at Punchbowl.

But others are still around, including the officer who was initially targeted as the suspect but was never indicted. And the lead detective is still living on Oahu’s Windward Side. He declined a request to comment on this report.

The retired officer who says he was asked to lie to the grand jury says he would be willing to cooperate with any future investigation.

And Corniel, who has spent years investigating the case, says he would return to Hawaii from Florida to assist in any way he can.

Meanwhile, Holmes ― Au’s former boyfriend ― has been living in Australia.

According to his LinkedIn page, he attended UH and then a college in Melbourne, where he remains. He is an executive with an investment firm.

HNN reached to Holmes and his family and they issued this statement: "Lisa and her memory deserve justice and it's good to hear that HPD now has a cold case squad."

That cold case squad was started last year.

But even if they zero in on a suspect, legal experts say it would be a bold move to try to get an indictment now an “all or nothing” for law enforcement.

Even with 37 years already passed, it’s a risk that some believe would be worth taking.

Ronette Kawakami, associate dean at the University of Hawaii’s Richardson School of Law, was about Au’s age in 1982, and remembers the fear she felt after word spread that a police officer was suspected.

At HNN’s request, Kawakami went through the court documents, police records, and Corniel’s report in the case. She concluded it will be tough to get an indictment now.

"When witnesses have died there's really not much you can do in terms of hearsay evidence,” she said. “There's certain exceptions to hearsay but these statements probably don't fall within those exceptions."

So even if a case came to court, it would be easy for the defense to pick apart without witnesses or a clear cause of death and a flawed investigation.

“It still has to link together seamlessly so that you can reach a conclusion of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Kawakami said. “And there’s just too many holes, too many breaks in the links a lot of it has to do with a lot of the witnesses passing away.”

Attorney Roy Chang represented Au’s parents, who both died without answers.

He said they were never the same after Au’s death.

"It would have been wonderful if it could have been resolved,” he said. "Not having it resolved and not knowing for sure what happened … I don’t think they had peace of mind.”

Both Chang and Kawakami understand why later prosecutors didn’t take the case to another grand jury. It’s risky. But after all these years, there is also nothing left to lose.

“If you succeed, that’s fantastic,” Kawakami said. “If you fail, at least you made a try.”

Au’s sister agrees.

"My parents are gone and they know what happened now,” Mei Li McIntyre said. “Now just the living want to know. A lot of our family and our friends close to us want to know."

Will law enforcement try again?

The city Prosecutor’s Office ignored HNN’s request for comment on this special report.

The Honolulu Police Department, meanwhile, remains hopeful.

In a statement, Police Chief Susan Ballard said that cold case detectives “are looking for anything that may have been overlooked at the time or whether new technology can provide new information."

The department also said: "Relationships shift over the years, and it’s not uncommon for people to want to clear their conscience. One individual and possibly more know what happened to Ms. Au."

Police urged anyone who knows what may have happened to come forward.

“It’s a heavy burden to live with the knowledge of someone’s murder all of these years,” the department said. No one was ever arrested in the Au case, and time is running out.

It’s why Corniel dusted off his box of files for Hawaii News Now ― after all these years.

“I never lose hope, that’s why I kept the file,” he said. “I felt that someday, somebody would come to the realization that there is an answer ... whether they believe it or not.”

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