HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - It took eight years and four failed trial attempts before the courts finally set Sefo Fatai free. But the Waianae resident didn’t get to celebrate after his release.
The long legal battle cost him every penny he had ― and left him sleeping on the streets.
After his release, Fatai crushed cans to recycle to get money and worked odd jobs to get by. The out of work mechanic was able to purchase a truck to fix up and live in because he refuses to go to a shelter.
He said a shelter is too much like the Oahu Community Correctional Center, where he spent years for a crime he did not commit ― meth trafficking.
It all started in 2011, when he was working as a mechanic.
His boss sent him to pick up money from a woman named Kristine Medford. Medford had been arrested many times before, including just days before the meetup, for drug crimes.
To avoid new drug charges, she became a police informant.
On Aug. 24, 2011, Fatai’s boss directed him to go to the Pearl City Chuck E. Cheese to pick up the cash from Medford. Fatai pulled up in his 1999 Silver Lexus, and Medford got in.
Almost immediately, she pulled out a small bag of drugs. Fatai protested.
“I said, ‘I’m not here to pick that up. I was here to collect $100,’" Fatai recalled. Medford, however, didn’t give him the boss' money so he kicked her out of the car. Fatai drove off, but as he was leaving the parking lot he realized he was being followed ― by two officers on motorcycles.
Fatai said he was pulled over and searched. The car was searched, too.
“The trunk, underneath my seat and when the third patrol officer pulled up I could see them talking and they seemed confused,” Fatai said. No drugs were found and no cash, either.
Fatal was allowed to leave.
Two days later, on Aug. 26, Medford tried to meet Fatai again. This time, she said, she had the boss’ money. But when Fatai parked at another shopping center, HPD officers were waiting.
“All of a sudden they just pull up, guns drawn, and they ordered me out of the car and arrested me and they asked me, where’s the drugs?" Fatai said.
He didn’t have any drugs on him. In fact, he’d never been arrested for drug crimes. That didn’t stop authorities from pursuing the case. Fatai was charged and indicted for drug trafficking.
His car was seized, and Fatai sold tools and other items to post bail.
More than a year after his arrest, in January 2013, Fatai was brought up on trial.
That trial ended up being dismissed because Medford, the police informant and only witness, never showed up to testify. She had been released from jail just months earlier for more drug crimes.
“I thought it was over,” Fatai said. “I didn’t know anything about the legal system.”
In fact, the nightmare was just beginning. In December 2014, almost two year later, the city Prosecutor’s Office re-filed the charges against him. Fatai was arrested and brought up on trial again.
That one ended in a mistrial because Medford made inappropriate statements on the stand.
After that, the city Prosecutor’s Office offered him a plea deal ― a deal that Fatai refused. He had done nothing wrong, he said. Why would he plead otherwise?
Authorities didn’t think so. His bail was revoked and he was sent to OCCC.
The days behind bars turned into weeks and then months. Incredibly, the city Prosecutor’s Office pursued a third trial in March 2016 ― nearly five years after the alleged offense.
That trial ended with a hung jury. Fatai was sent back to OCCC.
The city Prosecutor’s Office then pursued a fourth trial in January 2018. Again, Medford didn’t show up to testify and a judge dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning prosecutors could not try a fifth time.
The back-to-back trials and years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit were an incredible ordeal for Fatai. But in some ways, they were only the beginning.
When he was released, he was exhausted ― and penniless.
“When I got out that day, I was more sad. Only because I didn’t know where I was going to sleep, where I was going to be. I didn’t know how to be homeless," he said.
From the Oahu Community Correctional Center, he walked nine miles to his old boss' shop to ask to borrow money for food. He slept in parks and on beaches, and didn’t even have blankets at first.
It took him months working odd jobs before he could afford the truck.
Once he’d stabilized himself, Fatai started to come to terms with what he’d gone through.
He believed his rights had been violated so he reached out to the Hawaii Civil Rights Project after hearing about it on Hawaii News Now.
Ken Lawson, who is with the project, said the problems with the case against Fatai started with the use of Medford as a confidential informant.
“If you’re going to use an informant, you have to thoroughly search that informant," Lawson said.
He said informants have been caught planting evidence or lying about deals.
Records show Medford had been given $1,900 in police “buy” money to purchase drugs. But that money was never recovered. Police records also show there were no female police officers to properly frisk Medford before or after the August 2011 meeting with Fatai.
Fatai, with the help of the Hawaii Civil Rights Project, has filed a civil lawsuit against the city, police officers assigned to his case and the department’s disgraced ex-police chief, Louis Kealoha.
Kealoha was found guilty of conspiracy and obstruction in June 2019. His wife Katherine, a former deputy prosecutor, and two other ex-police officers were also found guilty after framing one of Katherine Kealoha’s relatives with a crime he didn’t commit because of a family feud.
Citing pending litigation, HPD and the city Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment on Fatai’s lawsuit.
The suit has faced several delays, in part because of the pandemic and court closures. The first proceeding was supposed to be early November but that has been pushed back to early next year.
The lawsuit describes incredible losses Fatai has suffered, not just economically.
When he his bail was revoked, his fiancee left him. While he was in OCCC, he got jumped by several inmates and suffered a head injury and a ruptured eardrum.
“This took a lot out of me," Fatai said. “So it’s hard to find joy.”