LIHUE >> Retired car dealer James Pflueger pleaded no contest this morning to a charge of reckless endangering related to the 2006 Ka Loko dam breach that sent hundreds of millions of gallons of water downstream and swept seven people to their deaths.
Based on the plea, Circuit Judge Randal Valenciano found Pflueger guilty of the charge.
In exchange for the plea, state prosecutors say they will be dropping seven manslaughter counts against the 87-year-old landowner.
Pflueger faced up to five years in prison on the charge, but the state Attorney General’s office issued a statement this afternoon saying that as part of the plea deal, he will serve five years probation.
However, at sentencing, scheduled for Jan. 23, the state can ask the Court to impose conditions of probation, “including community service, a fine and imprisonment for up to one year,” the statement said.
The maximum sentence for each manslaughter charge had been 20 years in prison.
As part of a plea agreement with state prosecutors, Pflueger’s company, Pacific 808 Properties, also pleaded no contest to seven counts of manslaughter.
The judge also found the company guilty based on its no contest plea. The company agreed to pay the maximum fine of $350,000 for the manslaughter charges.
The state said “proceeds from the fine are intended to be used to enhance the dam inspection and safety program administered by the Department of Land and Natural Resources under the Hawaii Dam and Reservoir Safety Act of 2007, enacted after the tragic Ko Loko Dam breach.”
Pflueger and his attorneys had no comment after this morning’s hearing.
In the statement released this afternoon, Attorney General David Louie said, “I am satisfied that by entering into this plea agreement Pflueger has accepted responsibility for his part in this tragedy. It is my hope that the events of today can provide a degree of closure for the families and community affected by the Ka Loko Dam breach.”
Teresa Tico, one of the lawyers for the families of the victims, said the plea deal had been “vetted” with her clients.
“Any conviction shows justice has prevailed to a greater or lesser degree,” she said.
Tico said she can’t say whether the agreement was a “sweetheart” deal for Pflueger.
She said no one can guess the outcome of any trial, and even if Pflueger was found guilty, there might be years of appeals.
“I’m gratified there will be some closure for my clients,” Tico said.
Seven people were killed when the dam for the Ka Loko reservoir breached March 14, 2006. Killed were Alan Gareth Dingwall, Daniel Jay Arroyo, Rowan Grey Makana Fehring-Dingwall, Aurora Solveig Fehring, Christina Michelle McNees, Timothy Wendell Noonan Jr. and Carl Wayne Rotstein.
Pflueger’s plea signals the end to more than four years of criminal litigation.
In 2008, a Kauai grand jury indicted Pflueger on the manslaughter charges.
Pflueger was accused of filling the dam safety spillway in disregard of the risk that the dam might break and thus causing the seven deaths. He pleaded not guilty and maintained that filling the spillway did not cause the breach.
The case ran into a lengthy delay when Pflueger’s lawyers appealed a 2010 decision by Valenciano who refused to dismiss the manslaughter charges.
In 2011, the state appeals court affirmed the judge’s ruling. The Hawaii Supreme Court declined later in the year to review the appeals court ruling, clearing the way for the resumption of the criminal trial proceedings.
In 2012, Pflueger’s lawyers filed another request to throw out the charges, but the hearing was repeatedly postponed until today, when it was canceled because of the plea agreement.
Pflueger’s plea to reckless endangering follows his acquittal in March on federal tax fraud and related conspiracy charges.
U. S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi found at the end of the nonjury trial that prosecutors failed to prove that Pflueger willfully filed false income tax returns and that he conspired with others to file false returns.
Pflueger was supposed agree to the plea deal in the Ka Loko case the following month, but he rejected the agreement.
State prosecutors, however, said the deal still remained on the table and it was up to Pflueger as to whether to accept it.