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Vandalism cases at papaya farm turn into dead end for police

By Paige L. Jinbo

LAST UPDATED: 1:54 a.m. HST, Jul 28, 2011

Question: Whatever happened to the investigations into widespread vandalism at papaya farms on Hawaii island and in Mililani last year?

Answer: Hawaii County and Honolulu police have been unable to identify any suspects in the cases. The investigations, though officially still open, have fallen dormant for lack of leads.

The first major case was on May 25, 2010, when Jerry Punzal discovered that vandals had chopped down 397 of the 500 papaya trees at his 35-acre Mililani farm.

Five weeks later, on June 30, Kapoho farmer Laureto Julian found that vandals had chopped down about 8,500 of his 14,000 papaya trees. The loss was set at $100,000.

In both cases the vandals left the fruit on the ground with the decapitated treetops. No equipment or other property was taken.

Honolulu police spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter said the detective investigating the case exhausted all leads and is no longer actively pursuing the case.

Karen Umehara, a manager with the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, said Hawaii County police told her the case remains open but that it is not actively being pursued because there are no new leads. Hawaii police did not respond to a Star-Advertiser request for information.

Julian said he believes at least five people chopped down his trees because he noticed the tree stumps indicated five patterns of machete or knife cuts.

He said his farm hasn't recovered from the attack. He is no longer farming and is collecting unemployment benefits.

"It's been really hard," Julian said. "They've (the vandals) ended my love of planting papaya."

Punzal declined an interview request by the Star-Advertiser.

While Punzal said in 2010 he believed the act was just "strictly vandalism," Julian, however, said he believes other farmers were jealous of him. Julian's brother William speculated the destruction was done by people who oppose the growth of genetically modified organism crops since Julian grew a GMO strain of papaya.

Umehara said most Hawaii island papaya farmers grow a GMO variety.

Myrone Murakami, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, said it's difficult to determine a motive for this type of vandalism.

"All I know is that you have to rule out other farmers," Murakami said. "It's hard for me to believe that a farmer would want to hurt another farmer."

The issue resurfaced last week when vandals chopped down papaya trees on three adjoining farms near Tangerine Acres, not far from Julian's former farm. No one has been arrested.

"This devastates everyone and it's all such senseless acts," Umehara said. "(Papaya) farmers are all so fearful now."

People may call in tips to 911 or to CrimeStoppers at 955-8300 on Oahu and 961-8300 in Hilo.

This update was written by Paige L. Jinbo. Suggest a topic for "Whatever Happened To..." by writing Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Suite 7-210, Honolulu 96813; call 529-4747; or email

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