It was 20 years ago today that Hawaii’s innocence and sense of security were shattered by the worst mass murder in island history.
Retired Honolulu Fire Department Capt. Richard Soo got emotional as he thought about that day — Nov. 2, 1999 — when he and Assistant Fire Chief Wayne Nojiri heard a call of a shooting at Xerox’s warehouse and training center on Nimitz Highway just after 8 a.m. and drove from HFD’s then-headquarters near what was then called Honolulu International Airport.
They arrived at the Xerox building to find “nothing but a sea of blue” comprised of a couple dozen Honolulu police officers, Soo recalled.
“I remember young police officers exiting Xerox and their eyes were all wide open,” Soo said. “It looked like they had been through a horror movie, a horrible event, which they had.”
Word spread that seven Xerox employees were dead inside and that their killer and co-worker, 40-year-old Byran Uyesugi, was on the loose.
Cellphones weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today, and Soo learned that HPD officers turned off the dead men’s pagers because they kept beeping as news of the shootings spread.
Soo, who was born in 1951 before statehood, was 47 at the time and the father of two boys, ages 10 and 6.
He never thought Hawaii would experience such violence, and he worried about the kind of island society his sons would grow up in.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh, no. It can’t happen here,’” Soo said.
It was the same shock experienced collectively across the state, said Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii criminologist, professor of women’s studies and president of the American Society of Criminology.
Perhaps even more stunning was the fact that the murderer looked like anyone in any corner of Hawaii, Chesney-Lind said.
“It shattered the kind of complacency that local people have about mass shootings and mass murders,” she said. “And it shattered the idea that only people from outside are going to engage in that behavior. … He was one of our own, somebody you would walk by on the street and wouldn’t have any worries about at all.”
In fact, Uyesugi was an angry and troubled Xerox copy machine repairman who used a 9-mm pistol to kill
Jason Balatico, 33; Ford Kanehira, 41; Ron Kataoka, 50; Ron Kawamae, 54; Melvin Lee, 58; Peter Mark, 46; and John Sakamoto, 36.
Crime scene investigators recovered 20 shell casings from the crime scene, suggesting that Uyesugi reloaded during the killings.
Honolulu police later cornered Uyesugi at the Hawaii Nature Center in Makiki Heights, where he sat in the driver’s seat of a Xerox van for four hours until he surrendered peacefully with the urging of his brother.
During the standoff his father, Hiroyuki Uyesugi, was asked by a reporter whether he wanted to try to talk to his son.
The father’s pain and shame were obvious in his response.
“No, I want to give him
another gun so he can kill himself,” he said.
Uyesugi was later sentenced to a 235-year prison term, sent to the Hawaii State Hospital and later transferred to Arizona’s
Saguaro Correctional Center. His life sentence came with no possibility of parole.
Capt. Soo — HFD’s round-the-clock, solo spokesman at the time — helped deal with reporters from the mainland and as far away as England and stood in front of cameras as he was peppered with concerns that Uyesugi might be in Waikiki and therefore a risk for tourists.
“I became the focus for that event,” Soo said. “I was just trying to reassure the media. It makes me emotional when I think about it. I hope I did my job well.”
Jeremy Harris was Honolulu’s mayor when the killings occurred and continues to applaud the restraint that Honolulu police officers showed in capturing Uyesugi without incident in a park where children were present.
“Our police handled it well,” Harris said. “It could have ended much more sadly.”
Harris was among an island of nearly 1 million people who struggled to reconcile the killings against Honolulu’s standing as one of the safest cities in America, with some of the toughest gun laws in the nation and a murder rate that was annually in the teens.
“We had never even believed that that kind of violence could come to our community,” said Harris, who now lives on Kauai. “It was just so foreign to our culture. It was heartbreaking to see that we had entered that era. For a lot of people, it was a wake-up call to them that even though they lived in paradise, they didn’t enjoy the protections from violence that they thought they enjoyed.”
Harris agreed to appear live on CNN that night in front of the Xerox building as rain fell, which only added to the solemn mood.
“It was just a very sad time for me to go on national TV and talk about a mass murder in Honolulu in those dreary circumstances,”
In the days that followed, Honolulu Hale was inundated with hundreds of emails,
letters and flowers from people who wanted to show support and aloha.
“People really responded,” Harris said. “It affected them as well. They wanted us to know that they still loved us.”
The building where the murders took place was later taken over by a flooring business, and Xerox moved its warehouse and training center to Kakaako, but company officials vowed never to forget the tragedy.
On Thursday, Xerox
Hawaii issued an unsigned statement that read:
“Nov. 2 is a day that will always be a part of our history. This year is no exception and marks a milestone for this day. We do memorialize Nov. 2 and have ways for our people to remember seven very special people. For our more tenured employees it can be a trying day, but most importantly we remember the very special men, fathers, husbands, brothers and friends that they were.”