James “Jimmy” Pflueger, a maverick Hawaii businessman who pushed limits to often thrilling and sometimes disastrous outcomes, has died.
The founder of several local car dealerships, who spent time in jail for the deaths of seven people killed by a flood from a Kauai reservoir he altered, died early Monday morning in Honolulu.
Pflueger was 91, and spent his last moments at home after being moved from a hospital following a stroke a few days before.
Though he was from well-to-do families holding a fortune in real estate, the part- Hawaiian Pflueger made his own success in the auto industry, including establishing the first U.S. Honda dealership. He also was an accomplished motor vehicle racer on land and water, built Hawaii Raceway Park, pursued real estate development and tangled with the law in a few high-profile cases.
Pflueger’s family described him in a statement as a “true son of Hawaii” who learned to surf and paddle canoe with legendary waterman Duke Kahanamoku.
“Jimmy lived an extremely disciplined life and tried to pass that discipline on to younger people,” the family said. “He never drank or smoked during his lifetime and tried to set an example for those around him. Jimmy was a man of his word; that’s all it took for him to make an agreement. If you needed help and support or a word of encouragement and strength, it took just a handshake and a mutual understanding.”
Local attorney Jim Wright said his friend cared more about a person’s word than a written contract.
“He was out of place with his generation,” Wright said. “He was both a generation ahead and a generation behind, and it got him into trouble.”
Wright said Pflueger, who went to Punahou School but dropped out to join the Marines, overcame dyslexia and developed an incredible memory and unique way of thinking.
“He was an original thinker,” Wright said. “He would look at things in a way that nobody else did.”
Pflueger was born March 5, 1926. By the time he was 30, he was described as “one of Hawaii’s foremost sportsmen.” He had been a star football player at Punahou, and after his stint in the Marines went on to Menlo Junior College and St. Mary’s in California.
In 1962 Pflueger won a race up the rocky slope of Mauna Kea in a Jeep. Pflueger also raced power boats, and in the 1960s developed Hawaii Raceway Park near Barbers Point.
“Jimmy had a love affair with motorized vehicles — a love affair with machines,” said nephew Paul R. “Ricky” Cassiday Jr. “He was one of the most extraordinary machine operators of his time.”
After college Pflueger joined Universal Motors as a shop mechanic and then became a top-producing salesman at the Chrysler, Plymouth and Fargo truck dealership, according to a Honolulu Advertiser story in 1956.
In 1963 Pflueger established his own company, Pflueger Lincoln Mercury Inc. on Kalakaua Avenue just outside of Waikiki. Then, in 1969, Pflueger signed a franchise agreement with Honda and became the first Honda dealer in the United States. Later, Pflueger opened and acquired other dealerships.
Besides his passion for car, motorcycle and boat racing, Pflueger also was a pilot and once crashed a helicopter in the ocean after taking off from his Niu Valley home. The 1985 accident happened when Pflueger reportedly flew into a flock of birds off Makapuu Point and ditched the helicopter on the leeward side of Rabbit Island. According to a Honolulu Advertiser story, Pflueger swam to shore.
Another pursuit of Pflueger’s was real estate development. The businessman was involved with a group that owned the land that became the residential community of Hawaii Loa Ridge in East Honolulu. He also planned 1100 Alakea, a downtown Honolulu office tower. Pflueger sold the property for $33 million to a Tokyo-based developer that carried out the plan in 1993.
Pflueger’s family owned much valuable land in the Niu Valley area as well as on Kauai, where Pflueger controlled about 2,500 acres of family lands that were once part of the C. Brewer sugar cane plantation. His land management practices there contributed to environmental destruction and death.
In 2002, neighbors sued Pflueger and the County Council asked a prosecutor to look into possible criminal charges over a 2001 incident where a landslide partially buried a nearby home and polluted the beach and reef after Pflueger graded his property without permits. The state fined Pflueger $4 million, and he settled claims by the federal government and community groups for $7.8 million.
Then, in 2006, the Ka Loko Dam on Pflueger’s property burst after 40 days of near constant rain, and 350 million gallons of water from a reservoir killed seven nearby residents. A Kauai grand jury indicted Pflueger on seven counts of manslaughter in 2008 based on his allegedly filling in the dam’s spillway, which is supposed to divert water if it rises too high.
Pflueger pleaded no contest in 2013 to reckless endangering, and a year later a judge sentenced him to seven months in jail and five years of probation. Pflueger was released in mid-2015.
Federal prosecutors also went after Pflueger in 2013 for tax evasion that allegedly involved not reporting personal expense payments from his former company as income. Pflueger was exonerated. But his son Charles Alan Pflueger was sentenced to 15 months in prison and fined $40,000 after pleading guilty in the case.
James Pflueger is survived by his partner of 32 years, Cynthia Foster; children Sandy Pflueger Phillips, Tracy Pflueger Allen, Charles Alan Pflueger, Ryan Foster and Hugh Foster; and 14 grandchildren. Pflueger also is survived by wife Nancy.
Services will be held privately when all family members are able to travel to Hawaii.