Key actors in federal ‘mailbox trial’ do a little ... acting

Key actors in federal ‘mailbox trial’ do a little ... acting
The federal public corruption trial against Louis and Katherine Kealoha continued Friday. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Trials might always have a little theater, but there was some actual acting in courtroom proceedings Friday at the public corruption trial against the Kealohas.

The unusual performance happened while federal public defender Alexander Silvert was on the stand.

Silvert served as the defense attorney for Gerard Puana as he faced charges of stealing the Kealohas’ mailbox from their Kahala home in 2013.

Federal public defender Ali Silvert took the stand Friday in the public corruption case against the Kealohas. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Federal public defender Ali Silvert took the stand Friday in the public corruption case against the Kealohas. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

Former Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife Katherine, a former deputy city prosecutor, are accused of engineering the crime to frame Puana, Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, with a felony.

At the time, the Kealohas and the Puanas were in a family feud of money.

On the stand Friday, a host of key players in the courtroom turned into actors in a bid to demonstrate to jurors a pivotal moment in the 2014 mailbox theft trial against Gerard Puana.

That moment: When Louis Kealoha said on the stand that Puana had been “convicted of breaking into his neighbor’s home.” It wasn’t true and the statement spurred the judge to declare a mistrial.

Silvert believed Kealoha intentionally caused the mistrial because the ex-police chief and his wife were concerned about inconsistencies the public defender was set to reveal about the investigation.

After the mistrial, Silvert went to the FBI with his suspicions.

In court Friday, with a packed gallery, Silvert was asked to play himself while reading a transcript of that 2014 courthouse drama.

A law clerk played the part of Chief Louis Kealoha.

U.S. Assistant Attorney Michael Wheat played the prosecutor then, Larry Tong.

And Judge Michael Seabright played the part of ― who else? ― the judge at the time.

Everyone’s acting skills may not have been Oscar-worthy, but the spectacle did serve to clearly re-create the episode for jurors.

Silvert’s testimony lasted all afternoon and touched on some of red flags he noticed about the mailbox theft and the subsequent police investigation.

Among them: That the mailbox was reported stolen hours after evidence was already picked up at the Kealohas’ home by members of a secretive HPD unit.

The Kealohas also identified their mailbox as a model that was significantly more expensive than the mailbox they actually had. The difference meant the charge would have been bumped to a felony if it had remained in state court.

The government says the mailbox theft was actually an elaborate scheme to keep Katherine Kealoha’s alleged financial crimes ― including stealing from her uncle and her grandmother ― hidden.

And prosecutors say Silvert played a key role in unraveling the conspiracy.

“Had it not been for his persistence, we wouldn’t be talking about this case today,” said HNN legal expert Ken Lawson. “Gerard would have been in federal prison for stealing a mailbox.”

Silvert has waited years for this trial to begin.

“It has been a long time for me and Mr. Puana to be able to finally get some say in court," Silvert said after he was dismissed as a witness. "I’m glad that on behalf of Mr. Puana, I got to tell some of his story.”

In cross-examination, defense attorneys worked to show that Silvert, a public defender in the federal system, wasted time on the value of the mailbox because the value only matters if the case stayed in state court. Silvert isn’t licensed in state court.

Louis Kealoha’s attorney, Russ Barbee, also pointed out that while Puana did not have a felony conviction when Kealoha said it on the stand, he briefly was convicted of a 2011 crime.

The judge reversed that decision later.

On June 27, 2011, Puana was arrested for walking into a neighbor’s home and yelling for the neighbor to move a car. Puana had said the neighbor’s car often blocked the stairway and that his elderly mother could only use that stairway to access the home.

The Puana's Wilhelmina Rise home
The Puana's Wilhelmina Rise home

Puana was arrested for unlawful entry into a dwelling.

Officer Chad Gibo testified that Puana was calm, compliant, and did not appear to be under the influence of any drugs or alcohol.

Puana’s family members say Katherine Kealoha took advantage of that arrest, trying to get charges added on.

Officer Chad Gibo arrested Puana in 2011 for unlawful entry into a dwelling
Officer Chad Gibo arrested Puana in 2011 for unlawful entry into a dwelling

Jaunette DeMello, Puana’s niece, said she went to the home and saw Katherine Kealoha and several police officers searching it. One officer was even on the computer, accessing it.

DeMello said Kealoha told her that police had recovered 100 tablets of “pure” ecstasy.

DeMello, who is now a substance abuse counselor, then asked to see the tablets. On the stand she said Kealoha told her they were already on the way to the HPD lab for testing. That’s when DeMello said she asked, “Then how do you know they’re pure?”

DeMello said Kealoha ignored that question and moved on.

Jaunette and Carolyn DeMello both testified on day 5 of the trial
Jaunette and Carolyn DeMello both testified on day 5 of the trial

Her mother, Carolyn DeMello, also took the stand. She testified that Kealoha told her not to contact Puana while he was in jail; she said Puana had a drug problem and she was taking care of everything.

DeMello said she was stunned to think her brother was on drugs but she trusted Kealoha.

Puana was never charged with any drug crimes, but he was in custody for 71 days.

All those days, DeMello said she did not visit or contact her brother because Kealoha told her not to. During that time, the government says Kealoha pulled strings with her longtime friend — Deputy Sheriff Tommy Cayetano.

Cayetano took the stand and said that he and Kealoha have been close friends for decades and that he looked up to her. Both served on the board of directors for the Hawaii Law Enforcement Memorial Foundation.

Cayetano admitted that he used state vehicles, resources, and was on the clock when he did favors for Kealoha, which included transporting Puana to and from the Oahu Community Correctional Center to Circuit Court so that Kealoha could meet with Gerard in a cell block.

Cayetano said this happened twice, even though Puana did not have a court appearance on the calendar and there was no court order — a violation of policies.

Cayetano also said Katherine told him Puana had a drug problem and asked if Cayetano could jump the long waiting list at Sand Island Treatment Center and get Puana entered into the program.

Cayetano admitted to doing this too, even giving him the ride to the center and then a ride back when he was discharged after only a brief stay.

In cross examination, Cayetano said the only one who told him Puana had a drug problem was Kealoha but he believed she was trying to help a relative.

Cayetano, pictured behind the glass of the federal building in Honolulu on Wednesday. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Cayetano, pictured behind the glass of the federal building in Honolulu on Wednesday. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

Several high-ranking police officers also testified in week two of the trial that they were told Puana was already suspected of stealing the mailbox in 2013, even though he wasn’t officially named a suspect because Katherine hadn’t identified him.

Officers in CIU were running 24-7 surveillance on Puana and round-the-clock security on the Kealoha home because the chief reported incidents of vandalism.

Several attorneys also testified this week.

One, William Kaina Awong, worked under Katherine Kealoha at the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Kealoha was his supervisor in the career criminal unit.

William Kaina Awong once worked under Katherine Kealoha at the Honolulu Prosecutor's Office
William Kaina Awong once worked under Katherine Kealoha at the Honolulu Prosecutor's Office

Long after the unlawful entry into a dwelling case was wiped from Puana’s record, on September 19, 2013, Long says he was told to file a 'Motion to Correct Illegal Sentence"

Kealoha directed him to get the deferral overturned; the government says that was another effort to get Puana convicted of a felony crime.

Puana’s attorney in that case, Clarissa Malinao, argued that there was a clear conflict for the city Prosecutor’s Office because it was known by then that Katherine accused him of stealing the mailbox and that the family was battling over finances.

Judge Michael Wilson did not deny the motion because of the conflict, but because of a technicality.

And if all that wasn’t enough, also this week, the government used a large chunk of time on the surveillance video hard drive.

Former CIU officer Niall Silva, who pleaded guilty to lying under oath and to the conspiracy, testified against the others.

Silva said he conspired with Officers Derek Hahn and Bobby Nguyen when they agreed to lie about the mailbox surveillance video.

Silva reported that he collected the video evidence at 8:59 a.m. on June 22, 2013, but he did not. He testified that Nguyen actually collected the evidence and that they met at HPD headquarters.

Silva confirmed what others testified to — that officers in CIU were already doing research and surveillance on Puana ahead of Katherine identifying him in the video as the suspect.

Silva said “my heart sank” when he saw Puana for the first time in court during the 2014 mailbox trial. “I perpetuated a lie against someone who wasn’t guilty," he said.

Silva echoed other observations from people that Puana didn’t have a neck and was too thick to be the thief in the video.

Niall Silva pleaded guilty in 2016 to lying under oath and agreed to testify in the so-called "mailbox trial." (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Niall Silva pleaded guilty in 2016 to lying under oath and agreed to testify in the so-called "mailbox trial." (Image: Hawaii News Now)

Silva is an admitted liar, so when asked why the jury should believe him now he answered, “I wanted to come clean and not have to lie anymore.”

Silva said before he retired at the end of 2013, he put the hard drive from the Kealoha home in his desk.

He did say he made copies of the video, 30 minutes before the theft and 30 minutes after the theft.

Alexander Silvert was trying to recover more of that video while mounting Puana’s defense. He wanted to see if someone had prepared the mailbox to be removed ahead of time because it easily came off the pedestal.

He requested and got a judge to approve a subpoena on May 20, 2014, to the Kealohas for any video evidence.

An FBI video expert testified Thursday that on May 21, 2014, the very next day, someone recorded over the hard drive. For six straight days, the camera was pointed at the ceiling of the CIU office.

Subpoena May 20, 2014
Subpoena May 20, 2014

On May 27, 2014, a still image was recovered showing former CIU officer Alvin Lum’s face looking at the camera with the ceiling of the CIU office behind him.

Lum testified but was not asked if he made the recording, permanently deleting the evidence from the hard drive.

If that was intentional, it’s baffling how someone in CIU knew to do that, when the subpoena wasn’t officially put on the docket until May 22, 2014, two days after the subpoena was granted and one day after the recording started.

Lynne Uyema, the attorney for HPD, says she didn’t accept the subpoena until June 4, 2014, and immediately asked Chief Louis Kealoha and officers in CID about the video evidence. She was told it was all already turned over.

Lynne Uyema, attorney for HPD
Lynne Uyema, attorney for HPD

The government has put 38 witnesses on the stand in seven full days of trial. They have about 20 more and expect to rest next Friday.

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