Larry Ehukai Mehau, a Big Island rancher and former Honolulu police vice sergeant who was friend to Hawaii governors as well as some of the state’s notorious crime figures, died Tuesday. He was 86.
Mehau’s son-in-law, Tony Vericella, confirmed Mehau’s death, but declined to comment further and asked that the family’s privacy be respected. “We appreciate everyone’s positive thoughts and wishes,” said Vericella.
Mehau was a staunch political supporter of Gov. John Burns and Gov. George Ariyoshi, both Democrats, and served as a member of the Board of Land and Natural Resources during both administrations. He was also owner of a security guard business, Hawaii Protective Association Ltd.
Born in Hilo, Mehau graduated from Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu. He grew into a strong, physically imposing man, and became an accomplished martial artist. During his remarkable career he also became one of the first Americans to go to Japan to become a well-recognized and successful sumo wrestler.
Mehau was also accused of being the “godfather” of organized crime in Hawaii in a 1977 report by the Maui tabloid called the Valley Isle, published by Rick Reed, a charge Mehau strongly denied. That 1977 allegation triggered widespread media coverage of Mehau and his supposed organized crime ties, particularly after Ariyoshi publicly defended Mehau’s reputation.
The “godfather” allegation was later repeated and embellished in a 1985 speech by Reed, who had information about a federal investigation of Mehau included in confidential records Reed obtained through his job as a Honolulu city prosecutor’s special assistant.
Mehau sued Reed for libel and invasion of privacy, but in 1992 a Circuit Court jury ruled in Reed’s favor. Mehau appealed, and the case was eventually settled after Reed agreed to issue a carefully worded apology that did not actually retract his “godfather” allegation.
Mehau was never convicted of any crime, but the “godfather” label stuck with him and became part of local lore. Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro said Wednesday Mehau was the victim of an unproven allegation that was repeated over and over.
When Kaneshiro was the head of the prosecutor’s Organized Crime Strike Force he had access to the contents of the famous federal investigation called Operation Firebird that targeted Mehau, and Kaneshiro was called as a witness in Mehau’s libel case.
Kaneshiro was asked under oath if he saw evidence that Mehau was the godfather, “and I said no,” he recalled Wednesday. “I didn’t see any evidence he was the so-called godfather.”
“He knew a lot of people,” Kaneshiro said. “He knew a lot of people in law enforcement, he also knew a lot of people in the criminal community because of his role in law enforcement. Just because he knew people in the criminal community does not make him a criminal.
“It’s unfortunate that somebody makes an allegation, and it’s not proven, and the allegation sticks with that person for his lifetime,” Kaneshiro said. “I think that’s very unfair.”
A more skeptical view was offered by Jim Dooley, an investigative reporter in Hawaii for more than 30 years who devoted a chapter to Mehau in his book, “Sunny Skies, Shady Characters: Cops, Killers and Corruption in the Aloha State.”
Dooley’s book cites sworn testimony by “numerous” police officers identifying Mehau as a “mobster,” and offers accounts of Mehau hiring convicted felons who went on years later to commit more crimes, including organized crime-type felonies.
“It was certainly my impression that if he wasn’t organized crime, he knew all the players,” Dooley said. “That continues to be my impression today. Was he or wasn’t he? I don’t know.
“I always figured that he was, but I could never come close to proving it,” he said.
Jim Burns, a retired chief judge of the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals and son of Gov. Burns, said he read Dooley’s book and “had to smile” because Dooley could not prove the “godfather” allegation.
Burns said he asked his father and former Honolulu Police Chief Francis Keala about the accusation. Both said it was false, “and that’s good enough for me,” he said.
Burns said his mother and father had a deep bond to Mehau, and “we watched him, the poor guy catching hell in the press for alleged connections, but as far as we were concerned he was a really good man, a good citizen, very honest and very loyal.”
“You’ve got to realize that they were both ex-policemen” who were both former detectives who worked in the vice section, Burns said. “So the bond between them was really quite strong, and my father really respected Mehau and enjoyed being with him. They both helped each other.”
Former Gov. John Waihee recalled Mehau from the years when Waihee was growing up on the Big Island, and said he and his peers always respected the former policeman. Mehau knew Waihee’s parents and once offered some assistance to Waihee’s mother when she needed it, and “I will always be grateful for that,” Waihee said.
“He was the type of person that if he was going to help you, he would do it 100 percent, and if he gave you his word that he would be there for you, that he would be on your side, he would do it for you 100 percent,” Waihee said.
Mehau had long-standing ties to Hawaii’s entertainment industry, and would stage rallies and provide music for candidates he supported. That included at least one huge rally for the Ariyoshi campaign at Aloha Stadium where Mehau helped with entertainment, security and other coordination, Waihee said.
Waihee said he later found himself opposed to Mehau politically when Mehau supported Republican D.G. “Andy” Anderson and Democrat Cec Heftel instead of Waihee in his bid for governor.
“I had a great deal of respect for him,” Waihee said. “It’s just that we weren’t on the same side. Maybe it’s a Hawaii thing, but he was from my island, he was from my home town, he was a person that people respected, and so did I.”
Longtime Honolulu political reporter and editor Jerry Burris said Mehau “enjoyed his reputation of being the bull in the china shop,” adding, “He enjoyed his reputation of being the big guy that you have to be careful about, but I think that half the time to him it was a joke.”
Jim Burns agreed that Mehau used his tough-guy reputation to his advantage, and said the real gangsters in Hawaii were scared of Mehau. “If Larry said, ‘Don’t touch,’ then they don’t touch,” Burns said. “Nobody messed with Larry from their side of the street, and I think that’s partially where his godfather name came from.”
Emme Tomimbang Burns, Burns’ wife, said she spent a lot of time visiting Mehau’s Waimea ranch and talking with him during horseback rides.
“What I could tell from him and his life was he was a very well-connected person,” she said. “He had a lot of people that respected him because he knew people from both sides of the street, and he was always called upon to mediate, facilitate, and he always did it.
“I think the more I knew him, I realized he’s just a very well-connected, local guy, a former cop, who knew how to talk to both sides of the street,” she said.
Dooley said Mehau developed contacts in Japan during his time as a sumo wrestler, and played a role as a real estate go-between during the surge in Japanese investment in Hawaii in the 1980s.
Kaneshiro, the city prosecutor, said most people were not aware that Mehau had a keen understanding of international affairs.
“The guy was an amazing man,” Kaneshiro said. “People really don’t appreciate how smart and how well connected he was. He knew everybody in all fields, he got information and knowledge from all these different contacts that he had. He was also a very good businessman.”
Waihee said the allegations that Mehau was an organized crime godfather made for a “spectacular story,” but added that “I never saw any evidence of that at all.”
“It was never established, and in my mind it was never something I would judge him on,” he said.