Louis Kealoha has ‘a temper’ and other things we learned in week 1 of the ‘mailbox trial’

Louis Kealoha has ‘a temper’ and other things we learned in week 1 of the ‘mailbox trial’

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The public corruption trial against Honolulu’s former police chief and his ex-deputy prosecutor wife resumes Tuesday after an explosive first week of witnesses.

Defense table Sketch: Carley Shimizu
Defense table Sketch: Carley Shimizu

The so-called “mailbox trial” kicked off Wednesday.

And on Friday alone, the government called up a parade of eight witnesses ― all connected to the Honolulu Police Department.

Here are highlights of their testimony against the Kealohas and their co-defendants: Lt. Derek Hahn, Officer Bobby Nguyen and retired Maj. Gordon Shiraishi.

The 'pain in the okole’

The most damaging testimony last week against former HPD Chief Louis Kealoha came from John McCarthy, the department’s current deputy chief.

McCarthy once headed the white collar crimes unit and testified that Katherine Kealoha, a former deputy city prosecutor, went to him to try and launch an investigation into her uncle, Gerard Puana, who she’s accused of trying to frame with the theft of her mailbox.

McCarthy said Kealoha made the request just days after the mailbox theft in June 2013.

Puana was subsequently accused of stealing the Kealoha mailbox and brought up on federal charges.

The government alleges the mailbox theft was staged because the Kealohas needed to get Puana arrested in an effort to discredit him ahead of a civil suit between the family members.

HPD Dep. Chief John McCarthy leaves court after testifying in the Kealoha mailbox trial.
HPD Dep. Chief John McCarthy leaves court after testifying in the Kealoha mailbox trial.

On Friday, the jury was shown text messages that Katherine Kealoha sent McCarthy.

One of the texts: “Its ur pain in the okole-kat Kealoha! Help!”

McCarthy said Kealoha then met up with him to say she suspected Puana was possibly stealing money from his mother, Florence Puana.

McCarthy testified that she brought a box of bank documents with her that she felt was evidence of her claims.

But McCarthy said he started looking through the documents and grew suspicious because most of the documents had Katherine Kealoha’s name on them.

He also told the jury that Kealoha was very nervous during this meeting and wouldn’t sit down.

He testified that she told him, “I f***ed up,” and that, “If Louis found out, he’d kill me.”

Katherine Kealoha told him to keep the financial records that she had brought to make an elder abuse or fraud case against Puana. But when McCarthy told her that he’d have to get his own records straight from the banks, “That sort of ended the whole conversation," he said.

McCarthy also told the jury that Kealoha did open up about the civil suit with the Puanas and said her husband told her if they lost that civil trial, Louis Kealoha said he’d shove the money “up Gerard’s ass.”

In cross examination, McCarthy was asked about those statements and McCarthy said that it was known that “Louis Kealoha has a reputation of having a temper.”

McCarthy was the last to testify Friday, something HNN legal analyst Ken Lawson says was likely damaging to the defense.

“I used to hate that as a defense lawyer," he said.

Lawson said McCarthy was the strongest witness so far in the case and that good prosecutors typically will save that one for last on a Friday so that the jury remembers it over the weekend.

“That was the last thing they heard," he said.

‘Big, refrigerator-type guys’

While McCarthy was the final witness on day three. Nalei Sooto was the first.

Sooto, who arrested Gerard Puana while Puana was heading to church, testified that he and his partner, both large men, caught Puana off guard.

In a previous interview with HNN, Puana described the arresting officers as “big, refrigerator type guys.”

Nalei Sooto, former HPD officer who arrested Gerard Puana for the mailbox theft in 2013, heads to federal court to testify
Nalei Sooto, former HPD officer who arrested Gerard Puana for the mailbox theft in 2013, heads to federal court to testify

Sooto said he and his partner first viewed the black-and-white, grainy surveillance video of the mailbox theft at the Kealoha home in the days after Katherine Kealoha reported it stolen.

According to several of the witnesses, viewing the evidence at the chief’s own home was not a questionable practice even though the video had already been taken to HPD.

Sooto left HPD in 2016 and moved to Seattle.

While there, he said, the FBI contacted him because he was rumored to be the actual mailbox thief.

But on the stand he said, “It was clearly not me,” noting his walk and build were different than that of the man in the video.

The burn pile

Capt. David Chang took over in the Criminal Intelligence Unit after Louis Kealoha was ousted.

Chang said he found documents connected to the mailbox theft investigation in a “burn pile” in CIU after he received a federal subpoena for information on the case.

A burn pile is a place where documents go to be shredded or sometimes, literally burned. He said there were about 15 boxes in that room so he knew many of the items had been there for awhile.

Capt. David Chang testified that he found documents in a CIU 'burn pile' that were connected to the mailbox theft investigation
Capt. David Chang testified that he found documents in a CIU 'burn pile' that were connected to the mailbox theft investigation

Some of the documents were shown to the jury.

One was a report that showed co-defendant Derek Hahn had done research on Gerard Puana just hours just after the mailbox was reported stolen on June 22, 2013.

Puana had not been named a suspect at that point.

The jury also learned that officers in CIU were also already doing research on Puana’s neighbor, whose car they suspected was used to steal the mailbox. That later turned out to be not true.

In cross examination, Chang told the jury that many of the burn pile documents are shredded because they contain personal information, not because someone is trying to hide something.

Sketch: Carley Shimizu
Sketch: Carley Shimizu

Who is the man in the video?

Sgt. Malcolm Lutu also took the stand last week, saying that that he’s known Gerard Puana for years.

At the time of the mailbox theft, he was working in CIU but he was never consulted or recruited to work the case. He said he did not believe the man in the surveillance video looked anything like Puana.

He said Puana was built similar to him: barrel-chested and “without a neck.”

The man in the video had a longer neck and appeared to be younger than Puana, Lutu said.

Sgt. Malcolm Lutu testified that he did not believe the man in the surveillance video was Gerard Puana
Sgt. Malcolm Lutu testified that he did not believe the man in the surveillance video was Gerard Puana

Lutu never told anyone he didn’t think Puana fit the description.

During cross-examination, Randy Hironaka ― attorney for defendant Bobby Nguyen ― asked why Lutu didn’t bring up his concerns at the time of the investigation.

Lutu responded that he wasn’t part of that case and didn’t know what other evidence CIU had. He said he heard the identification had been made so he stayed out of it.

Other CIU members take the stand

Other members of CIU also took the stand Friday, including Landon Tafaoa, who said he was assigned to follow Gerard Puana before he was named a suspect in the mailbox theft.

Tafaoa said the unit had a 24-hour surveillance running on Puana for five days, but that they often lost him in traffic.

He also said Puana caught on to the surveillance. He called 911 and captured pictures of their vehicles using his cell phone camera.

Those pictures, obtained by Hawaii News Now, show a pickup truck and SUVs, which the government says were HPD-subsidized police vehicles.

Vehicles that were following Gerard Puana ahead of him being named the suspect in the mailbox theft
Vehicles that were following Gerard Puana ahead of him being named the suspect in the mailbox theft

Sgt. Sean Asato also testified and told the jury most of their work in CIU was not documented.

Asato said the officers in the unit communicated mostly through word of mouth and not by writing reports, as officers are required to do in every other unit.

Sgt. Sean Asato, formerly of the CIU division testified that CIU officers did not do reports but communicated mostly by word of mouth
Sgt. Sean Asato, formerly of the CIU division testified that CIU officers did not do reports but communicated mostly by word of mouth

The ‘secret police'

From opening statements, the government has referred to CIU repeatedly as the “secret police," something the defense team continues to try to dispel.

They say the unit wasn’t “secret” but classified because the officers were specialized and gathered intelligence or sensitive information.

CIU was a hand-picked group of police officers. Tafaoa says he never applied to be in CIU, and never even knew there was an opening when he was asked to join CIU by Danny Sellers.

Sellers was a defendant in the case but has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime of providing confidential information to Katherine Kealoha. Sellers will testify against the others.

Former Assistant Police Chief Richard Robinson told the jury Friday that he was not happy that homicide detectives were also being used to investigate the mailbox theft.

Fmr. Assistant Chief Richard Robinson complained when detectives from the Homicide unit were tasked with investigating the chief's mailbox theft
Fmr. Assistant Chief Richard Robinson complained when detectives from the Homicide unit were tasked with investigating the chief's mailbox theft

Robinson told the detectives that they would be forced to work a “sh**ty” assignment.

The government had said homicide detectives were also hand-picked because the chief and his wife were the victims.

‘Why us?’

Homicide Detective Dru Akagi took the stand Thursday, day two of the Kealoha public corruption trial.

Akagi told the jury he remembered asking “Why us?” after he and his partner were assigned to investigate the theft of the Kealoha’s mailbox.

Homicide detective Dru Akagi with his attorney Michael Green
Homicide detective Dru Akagi with his attorney Michael Green

He also told the jury he felt it was a conflict to be working the case and that he has never worked a stolen mailbox in his time in homicide.

Akagi was the officer who told Nalei Sooto to arrest Puana, but Akagi said it wasn’t because he could identify Puana from the grainy surveillance video.

He said the arrest was made because Katherine Kealoha identified Puana as the thief.

Kealoha sent postal inspector gifts

U.S. Postal Inspector Brian Shaughnessy testified in the trial that it was actually Danny Sellers who had contacted him regarding the mailbox theft.

Shaughnessy said the only ones to identify Puana as the person on the video were Katherine Kealoha and co-defendant Bobby Nguyen.

Shaughnessy told the U.S. Attorney’s Office then that they should not pursue criminal charges against Puana, saying there was insufficient evidence and that his office shouldn’t touch the case.

He was overruled later and ordered to press on anyway by an assistant U.S. Attorney.

Shaughnessy also said he was in the courtroom during Puana’s theft trial and witnessed Louis Kealoha make improper comments on the stand that caused a mistrial.

The government insists that was done on purpose because the Kealohas didn’t want any evidence of their alleged misdeeds to come out ahead of the civil trial.

Shaughnessy told jurors that weeks later he received gifts from Katherine Kealoha, including a stainless steel water bottle and cookies.

He said he went to the ethics office and sent Kealoha a check for the value of the items.

In cross-examination, Cynthia Kagiwada, Kealoha’s attorney, asked for the date when Shaughnessy received the package of gifts. He told her it was January and Kagiwada pointed out that was during the holidays.

Shaughnessy’s testimony began on day one but continued through day two of the trial.

Also testifying on day two: Charlotte Malott, Gerard Puana’s sister. Malott detailed pictures of her brother to show he did not resemble the man in the surveillance video stealing the mailbox.

Charlotte Malott, Gerard Puana's sister testified that she knew it wasn't her brother in the surveillance video.
Charlotte Malott, Gerard Puana's sister testified that she knew it wasn't her brother in the surveillance video.

Malott said her brother was bigger than the thief and said Puana does not have a neck.

The opening day

The first witness called in the trial was Officer Frederick Rosskopf.

Rosskopf responded to the Kealoha home after Katherine Kealoha called 911 to report it stolen on June 22, 2013, at about 1:30 p.m.

Rosskopf was not aware that more than four hours earlier, about 9 a.m., someone from CIU had already taken the surveillance video and the hard drive.

Corporal Frederick Rosskopf was the responding officer after Katherine Kealoha called 911 to report her mailbox stolen in 2013
Corporal Frederick Rosskopf was the responding officer after Katherine Kealoha called 911 to report her mailbox stolen in 2013

Also last week, two Bank of Hawaii employees took the stand to discuss the bank records that Gerard Puana and his mother, Florence, paid for from the BOH.

A jury of seven men and five women were seated Wednesday morning.

Special prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat, took his entire allotted time during opening statements: About an hour and fifteen minutes.

“This case neither begins or ends with a mailbox,” he told the jury.

Wheat laid out his case, saying Katherine Kealoha told investigators that Gerard Puana took her mailbox to steal bank statements, even though the Puanas had purchased copies of those bank statements from BOH four months earlier.

Wheat also described the numerous investigations of the crime saying, “No mailboxes died during the theft of the mailbox” yet HPD’s Homicide Unit was used in addition to CIU and the Crime Reduction Unit too.

The defense attorneys were each given 30 minutes for their opening statements but not one of them used all their time.

The Kealohas, with their attorneys Cynthia Kagiwada and Rustam Barbee
The Kealohas, with their attorneys Cynthia Kagiwada and Rustam Barbee

Katherine Kealoha’s attorney, Cynthia Kagiwada, went for just eight minutes. She called Katherine Kealoha “Kathy,” saying that’s what her friends call her.

Kagiwada pointed out that Katherine Kealoha came from a very large family and that in every large family there are complicated relationships with some family members. She used the term “misunderstandings” at least three times.

Louis Kealoha’s attorney, Rustam Barbee, described Kealoha’s lengthy service to the people of Honolulu, and said the Kealohas were victims of vandalism and other crimes ahead of the mailbox theft.

Barbee also told jurors the government’s evidence is circumstantial and requires leaps of faith to connect details. He described the case as “speculation and imagination.”

Lt. Derek Hahn’s attorney, Birney Bervar, said his client didn’t even know Gerard Puana and that Hahn did his job as he was instructed and trained to do as a police officer.

Bervar distanced his client from the Kealohas in his opening statements, something Lawson thought was the right move since the others are charged equally in the conspiracy.

Lt. Derek Hahn and his attorney Birney Bervar
Lt. Derek Hahn and his attorney Birney Bervar

Officer Bobby Nguyen’s attorney, Randall Hironaka. used the same approach.

He called Nguyen a “footman” in CIU, meaning he didn’t have any authority and did exactly what he was told. Hironaka said Nguyen wasn’t a low man on the totem pole, he wasn’t even on the totem pole.

Gordon Shiraishi’s attorney, Lars Isaacson, said his client doesn’t know Puana, did not order Puana’s arrest, and had nothing to do with the theft of the mailbox.

Shiraishi is accused of lying to the ethics commission during its own investigation of the mailbox theft and is also accused of lying to federal agents.

Isaacson said his client didn’t mean to mislead anyone, but had a hard time remembering details.

Fmr. HPD Major Gordon Shiraishi and his attorney Lars Isaacson
Fmr. HPD Major Gordon Shiraishi and his attorney Lars Isaacson

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