Florence M. Puana, a 99-year-old great-great-great-grandmother with an eighth-grade education, testified in a videotaped deposition aired Tuesday that she trusted her attorney/granddaughter, Katherine Kealoha, to manage a reverse mortgage on Puana’s home only to discover that $23,976.69 of the money went to a lavish breakfast for then-Police Chief Louis Kealoha at the Sheraton Waikiki.
Puana did not appear Tuesday in U.S. District Court on the ninth day of the federal corruption trial of the Kealohas and three current and former Honolulu police officers.
But in her nearly daylong deposition on April 30 in anticipation of the trial, Puana teared up when asked about her relationship with Katherine Kealoha.
“She was a loving, loving gentle person, and I trusted her,” Puana said. “She knew that I didn’t know much about legal things. … She said, ‘Grandma, don’t worry. I’m the attorney and you can trust me.’”
Later, Puana testified, the trust between grandmother and granddaughter disappeared — along with the money from the reverse mortgage.
The value of the 2009 reverse mortgage was $534,596.01.
“I did not get any money,” Puana said.
As time passed and reverse mortgage notices kept coming to her Wilhelmina Rise home on Nioi Place, Puana’s suspicions grew.
But Kealoha would not answer any of Puana’s repeated phone calls.
“I could never get ahold of her, and I called her mother,” Puana said. “Katherine’s mother said, ‘Do not call here anymore because Kathy is very busy.’ So that’s the response I got. I was so afraid that something was going on.”
Puana’s home on Nioi Place, which is at the center of the reverse mortgage dispute, was built by her late husband, “master plumber” John Kenalio Puana Jr., and some of his friends, Puana said.
Puana and her husband raised all of their nine children at the house and lived there so long that Puana could not recall when they first moved in.
She was born on Maui on Aug. 24, 1919, grew up in Makawao and never made it beyond the eighth grade at “Makawao public school,” Puana said.
But she continued with her education on her own.
“My teacher gave me ninth-grade books, and I taught myself with the help of my sisters,” Puana said.
Later, on Oahu, Puana worked at Star of the Sea Church for 32 years.
During her deposition, Puana — who is blind in her left eye and cannot see well — needed oversize magnifying glasses to read from documents she was asked to review.
Sometime around 2009, Puana said, she “got a call from the mainland” about the possibility of taking out a reverse mortgage on her house.
The main detail that Puana remembered from the pitch was that “they told me that I could live there as long as I live, and that’s about all that I really understand. There was no one to talk to me about it and how to go about it.”
Sometime later, Puana’s son, Gerard, wanted to buy a condo, but there was no money.
So Puana said Kealoha discussed taking out a reverse mortgage on the Nioi Place property. Some of the equity would buy Gerard’s condo, some would pay off Kealoha’s bills and Puana believed she would be able to live out the rest of her life in her family home.
The plan meant giving Kealoha power of attorney over Puana’s finances and having Kealoha help Puana set up a joint bank account at Bank of Hawaii. But Puana said she had no bank card, checks or even an idea how to access any of the money in the bank account.
Correspondence about the reverse mortgage kept coming, and Puana began pestering Kealoha about whether she had actually paid it off.
Sometime later, Puana said, Kealoha helped her set up a post office box on Waialae Avenue, and the troubling notices stopped coming to Puana’s house.
But then she got a letter at Nioi Place dated February 2012 saying the reverse mortgage had not been paid off as Kealoha had promised.
A tense family meeting followed.
“We said, ‘Now, Katherine, did you pay off the reverse mortgage?’” Puana testified. “And she was angry and said, ‘I told you guys that the reverse mortgage is paid off.’ But she got the mail going to her.”
“I knew that if I wouldn’t do something about it, that I would lose my home,” Puana said. “Rather than losing my home, I decided to sell it.”
Eventually, Puana moved in with her daughter in Kailua.
On Sept. 12, 2012, Puana dictated a letter to one of her daughters to Kealoha asking to talk — “and ask her why she did this to me,” Puana said.
Asked to read the last line of her letter, Puana said, “It says I am still willing to work this out with her.”
Instead, Kealoha replied with a 16-page letter dated Sept. 15, 2012.
Asked to characterize the tone of the letter, Puana described it as “an angry letter, I would say.”
“She said she never, never cared for us,” Puana said.
In one paragraph Kealoha wrote, “I will seek the highest form of legal retribution against anyone and everyone who has written or verbally uttered these lies about me.”
In another passage Kealoha wrote, “They will rue the day that they decided to state these twisted lies.”
After receiving the letter, Puana testified, “I knew that she wasn’t the person that I thought I knew and I respected.”
The letter made Puana “very depressed, thinking that she told me that she — to trust her, that she would help me out,” Puana said.
At one point, Puana said, she had to pay $243 in cash to Bank of Hawaii to access bank statements from the joint account she shared with Kealoha.
After reviewing the account, Puana said, “She spent it all. … She spent it all.”
Kealoha challenged Puana’s competence, requiring Puana to visit medical professionals.
In 2015 Puana unsuccessfully took her granddaughter to court, and a jury awarded Kealoha $658,787 in damages.
In preparation for the civil trial, Puana sat in on Kealoha’s deposition on June 19, 2013 — three days before Kealoha reported the theft of her mailbox at the Kealohas’ Kahala house, which is at the center of their federal conspiracy trial.
At one point during Kealoha’s deposition, Puana said, “I was ashamed of myself, what I did. But I turned around to my son (Gerard Puana) and said, ‘She is lying. She was lying.’ And I shouldn’t have done that.”
Her attorney suggested that the Puanas leave the deposition. In the lobby of the building, Gerard Puana went to get the car and told defendant Honolulu police officer Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, “Stay with Grandma,” Florence Puana remembered.
Kealoha’s niece was married to Nguyen.
While Gerard Puana went for the car, Florence Puana said, Nguyen “asked me what kind of car did he drive, and I said a white car. Bobby was texting someone while talking to me.”
Video surveillance of the mailbox theft that Nguyen helped retrieve showed a white car in the vicinity.
But Puana later said she was mistaken about the color of her son’s car.
“Gerard’s car is actually silver,” she said.
Testimony is scheduled to resume today.