City and federal law enforcement officers are pursuing two crime rings that they suspect are responsible for a portion of the recent wave of property and violent crimes that has put Oahu on edge.
City Acting Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto said his office has been working with the Honolulu Police Department over the past six months to use “intelligence-based” prosecution against an organized group, made up of about 25 members ranging from teens to early 20s. Police suspect the group of committing crimes like purse snatchings, robberies and carjackings, under the guidance of a much older male, “Uncle,” in his 50s.
Think Fagin in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.”
“Some of them are brothers,” Nadamoto said. “They all live in the same area. It’s kind of a loosely knit gang. They would always make bail and while they were out there they would commit more crimes. We assigned two of our best prosecutors to the case. We got ‘Uncle’ on a drug charge and turned him over to the feds.”
Deputy Police Chief John McCarthy said law enforcement officials also are cooperating to bring down another group, which includes suspects that police believe are involved in some of the more serious robberies, involving firearms. It’s the one referenced by U.S. Attorney Kenji Price during a December press conference about the role of organized groups in a rash of recent crimes.
During the press conference, Price discussed four complaints, including the arrest of a suspect, who stole a safe in November containing 30 guns from a Waialua residence of an “avid hunter.”
Court records show that law enforcement officers are investigating a possible relationship between the burglary and recent violent crimes on Oahu. The suspect also is thought to be involved in stealing several military utility terrain vehicles and a cargo trailer from Schofield Barracks and looking to distribute meth.
Price mentioned several other crimes, but did not say that they were connected, such as an October carjacking in Aiea involving at least four suspects who stole a victim’s truck after pointing a handgun at him.
Price declined Friday to elaborate on remarks made during his press conference; however, his office shared another Jan. 7 complaint regarding a suspect whom agents allege acted as an accessory after the fact to attempted carjacking.
“We think that some of these incidents are related. … Some of the violent incidents (are) organized in some fashion,” Price said at the press conference.“We’ll continue to go after … this criminal group that I believe is trying to wreak havoc around the islands.”
Statistics can’t back it yet, but there seems to be a perception in the community, even among some law enforcement officials, that violent crime is rising. Nadamoto said, “We have noticed an increase in violent crimes coming to the prosecutor’s office, probably within the last year, certainly the last couple of months. We have gone to the neighborhood boards and things like that and you know people are afraid of what’s going on. They are hesitant when they leave their house.”
Certainly, current cases seem to be getting more attention. Only time will tell if heightened awareness of crime is the result of an actual uptick or more a facet of social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and that locals are being victimized along with tourists.
“Uncle’s group” behaves a lot like one that operated in the late 1990s, when Japan’s consul general of Hawaii threatened to issue a travel warning because a ring of about 25 Waimanalo-based criminals had targeted Japanese visitors in a series of violent purse snatchings.
Here’s how it worked in the 1990s: the group separated into teams of three or four members and would cruise tourist districts in stolen vans or cars looking for victims. Often, someone in the perpetrators’ vehicle would grab the victim’s bag and if the victim held on to it he or she might be dragged alongside the vehicle or beaten.
McCarthy said a key difference is that the current group, which has committed some purse snatchings, is more brazen. Members are targeting locals as well as tourists, and they’ll strike in daytime and with witnesses, he said.
Nadamoto said in some carjackings they have actually struck while the victims were home so they could take their car keys. Sometimes they are armed.
Still, McCarthy said, the number of these types of crimes committed today doesn’t even begin to rival past levels. Nowadays annual robbery counts tend to hover in the 800 range; back in 2000, the count was about 1,000.
Purse snatchings turned robberies got so bad back in the late 1990s that the U.S. attorney and the Federal Bureau of Investigation used the Hobbs Act, typically reserved for organized crime, to prosecute criminals and make them face harsher penalties. A coordinated effort between these federal agencies and the Honolulu police finally brought down the ring.
McCarthy said similar strategies are at play again and represent “major inroads” in fighting property crime and violent crime. Although, he acknowledged that it doesn’t come close to halting everything because there are still “individual actors,” who are harder to catch than groups.
Brooks Baehr, a spokesman for the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office, said so far the use of “intelligence-based” prosecution against “Uncle’s group” has resulted in 20 criminal cases, representing 37 criminal charges, including eight stolen vehicle cases, seven burglary cases, six unauthorized entry into motor vehicle cases, and two robbery cases.
Steven Alm, a former judge and U.S. attorney, who is running for Honolulu prosecutor, expects the capture of “Uncle,” the heavy in a current crime ring, could represent the kind of turning point that he and other law enforcement officials realized in the late 1990s.
“I think they are on the right track. They are using good old-fashioned policing. Working together and capturing the heavy is huge,” Alm said.
Key to stopping the 1990s purse-snatching ring was the Aug. 27, 1997, indictment of four men involved in a series of robberies involving foreign visitors, Alm said. Other arrests, indictments and prison sentences followed.
“Once we got the heavy, he faced significant federal prison time and turned on the others to reduce his sentence,” Alm said.
While no one knows why organized rings have emerged again, a factor could be that youth gangs still are active, although they aren’t at the zenith they were at in the 1980s and 1990s, said Deborah Spencer-Chun, president and CEO of Adult Friends for Youth.
The nonprofit, which was formed in 1986, works to prevent teens from engaging in destructive behavior such as fights, substance abuse and other criminal activity. The nonprofit is working with close to 500 kids a week and has identified as many as 23 organized groups islandwide, but that’s just “the tip,” Spencer-Chun said.
Spencer-Chun noted that the recent crime epidemic involves teens, although she said she doesn’t know if any of the teens that the nonprofit serves are part of that group.
“Over the years, we must have dealt with more than 60 gangs,” she said. “Most of our groups at one time were in Kalihi, but now it’s all spread out. Most of them won’t end up graduating from regular high schools unless we interrupt the cycle of violence. When I first started many years ago, many of our youth were in the system. We want to intervene before it gets to that point. We’re making headway, but we need more resources.”
Alm theorized another reason for the current spate of violent crimes might be that Honolulu police are short-handed and “people don’t really have trust in government.”
To be sure, the recent federal court convictions of former HPD Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha for conspiracy and obstruction have cast a negative light on the Honolulu police department and the prosecutor’s office.
Honolulu police are short 318 officers, with another 268 eligible to retire. They’ve got 123 recruits. Still, Police Chief Ballard has said the department is so short-handed that if someone reports a burglary the department might not send someone right away.
“That is not the greatest message, and I’m not blaming (Chief Ballard). She’s just being honest ,and they are doing what they can to recruit more officers,” Alm said. “I think people are saying, ‘Why should I report this (if) it’s not going to get investigated and, if it does, it’s not going to get prosecuted?’”
Alm said law enforcement officials rely on the public to provide license plates and other crime- solving details in real time. When the public isn’t doing that, it’s more challenging to solve crimes, he said.
That’s one of the reasons Honolulu City Councilman Tommy Waters (D, Waikiki- Hawaii Kai) recently held a town hall meeting on violent crime in Hawaii Kai, which was attended by 250 people, and has plans to hold a similar one in Waikiki.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said Waikiki stakeholders also are gearing up to host their third crime summit in March. The first was held in 2018 after the military issued a stern warning to clean up Waikiki or it would be put off-limits to military members, Hannemann said.
There’s been some improvement in Waikiki violent crimes since that time, but Hannemann said there’s still cause for concern.
“We are finding that crime is much more organized than in the past. There are teams doing it —not just people needing to get a fix,” he said. “I’ve always said you can never have enough eyes and ears out there. Law enforcement can’t be everywhere. We really need to get the community involved. We need cooperation and collaboration.”