Mixed verdicts in Ha‘ena incident

LIHU‘E — Three charges against a Hanalei man were found to be somewhat excessive, but he still received guilty verdicts on two felony counts Wednesday in 5th Circuit Court.

Following a three-day bench trial, wherein the judge renders the verdict from evidence, testimony and attorney arguments, William Keoua Puulei, 52, was found guilty of using scare tactics to take food from a vendor and threatening a tourist in a Ha‘ena Beach incident last March.

Chief Judge Randal Valenciano found Puulei guilty of first-degree terroristic threatening for brandishing a knife while arguing with a beachgoer who intervened in the incident on behalf of the vendor.

Valenciano questioned the two attorneys at length about the charges and how they fit the series of events. He rolled three charges into one second-degree robbery charge to include reduced second-degree terroristic threatening and third-degree attempted extortion charges.

Puulei was found not guilty of first-degree robbery and not guilty of first-degree terroristic threatening against the food wagon employee. His sentencing hearing is set for July 26.

County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Melinda Mendes represented the state. She said were it not for the intervention of a good Samaritan, the outcome of the incident might have been far worse.

Deputy State Public Defender Stephanie Sato called the charges “over-zealous.” She asserted that testimony showed Puulei did not threaten bodily injury toward either victim.

In the end, Valenciano said the extortion charges were an attempt to use fear tactics to get the food wagon vendor to let him take items. It was the knife in his hand while encountering the tourist that brought the most serious verdict.

The incident began just before noon on March 29, when witnesses placed Puulei at the roadside food wagon near Ha‘ena Beach Park. It is owned by the sister and brother-in-law of Ruethai Olson, who was working alone that day.

Olson spoke with the assistance of a Thai interpreter. She said Puulei approached the snack wagon with a boy who wanted chips.

After the boy walked off, she said, Puulei began to ask baiting questions that she did not answer. When it appeared Puulei was going to steal some items, Olson asked him to put them back.

He allegedly reacted by tossing the items on top of the food wagon and removing the pole that held the sales window open.

Olson came out of the van to get her phone and grabbed the pole from the ground to try and push him away from the area.

As the two were shouting, visitor Michael Bedard was walking by and asked if Olson needed some help after sending his wife and 2 year-old boy to a dry cave across the road. Olson said yes.

A firefighter and emergency medical technician on the mainland, Bedard said he was trying to turn a tense setting into a dialogue. He said Puulei turned toward him and invited a fight.

Puulei was still holding a knife, but put it back in its sheath after Bedard asked if he was pulling it on him; Puulei said he wasn’t.

• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or tlaventure@thegardenisland.com.

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