A 67-year-old decorated American military veteran who lost his home in the 2009 Samoa earthquake was defending himself when he injured a NOAA employee with a machete during a dispute over where he could rebuild his home, the man’s lawyer said yesterday in federal court.
Simeti Lualemaga is on trial in U.S. District Court for last year’s March 29 attack on Mark Cunningham, station chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observatory on Tutuila island in American Samoa.
The government says Cunningham had previously told Lualemaga he could not build his home on land NOAA leases from the area chief for its observatory.
In opening statements to the jury, federal prosecutor Larry Butrick said the two men got into an argument when Cunningham was out taking pictures of the property for his annual report. Butrick said Cunningham threatened to call police and as he held his cellular telephone up to his ear, Lualemaga hit him with a machete.
Cunningham lost the lower part of his left ear and suffered a laceration to his neck in the attack.
Lualemaga’s lawyer Salina Althof said Lualemaga doesn’t dispute causing Cunningham’s injuries. But she said Cunningham started the fight then lied about what happened.
Althof said the animosity between the two men dates back to 2006 when Cunningham became the stations chief. She said Lualemaga didn’t like what Cunningham was doing to the land, asked NOAA to replace him and threatened to end the lease if he became chief. She said Cunningham doesn’t like Lualemaga and supported Lualemaga’s opponent who became chief in 2008.
Following the 2009 earthquake that destroyed his home, Lualemaga lived with his wife in a tent given to them by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on land bordering the NOAA-leased property and built a cooking shack across the boarder. Althof said Lualemaga believed the land was under the control of a different chief, got that chief’s permission and a government permit to build his home there.