LIHU‘E — Nearly seven years after her murder, police have made an arrest in the cold case of Sandra Mendonca Galas.
On Friday, the Kaua‘i Police Department arrested 40-year-old Darren Galas, of Kalaheo, for the alleged murder of his estranged wife.
A KPD uniformed patrol team arrested Darren at approximately 4 p.m. Friday at the Koloa Big Save, according to Assistant Chief Roy Asher, who is also in charge of the Investigative Services Bureau.
Darren is charged with murder in the second-degree and his arraignment is scheduled for early this week. He is currently in custody at the KPD cell block and bail has been set at $1 million.
“I’m very confident in this case,” Asher said. “Obviously we are happy we can provide the family with a level of closure.”
A life cut short
On Jan. 25, 2006, 27-year-old Sandra was found dead in her car, which was parked inside the garage of her ‘Ele‘ele home. Her autopsy showed strangulation with a cord-like object and blunt-force trauma to the head as causes of death, as previously reported by The Garden Island.
She left behind two young children, who have remained in Darren’s custody since her murder, according to the Prosecutor’s Office.
Sandra married Darren in 1999, but she separated from her husband in April 2005. She filed for divorce in August 2005 and the two were involved in a legal battle over the custody of their children when she was killed.
TGI reported in 2006 that Sandra had been hit by her husband when they were married and a criminal count of family abuse was filed against Darren on Nov. 22, 2005. The count indicated abuse of multiple family members.
According to a 2006 KPD arrest log, Darren, then 34, was arrested in connection to the case for suspicion of second-degree murder on Jan. 26, 2006, but was released two days later.
“We are not ruling him out, we just need to proceed with our investigation,” then-Lt. Asher told TGI in January 2006.
Since 2006, the KPD has been following up on leads, submitting items for forensic testing and conducting witness interviews to gather the evidence needed to bring charges against Sandra’s killer, states a KPD news release.
Prosecuting Attorney Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho said Friday’s arrest was a result of new evidence compiled in the last five months by Ke Ahi Pio’ole, Hawai‘i’s first prosecutor-directed cold case murder unit, made possible by nearly $100,000 in grant funding from the Attorney General’s Office.
The emotional impact of a case like this is enormous, said Iseri-Carvalho.
“It’s hard for anyone not to be discouraged by a lengthy investigation in such a tragic case, and some members of the public may have even lost hope that the case would ever be solved,” she said. “We’re all very happy to finally be at the point where the case can move forward and we can ensure that justice is served.”
Iseri-Carvalho added it was her understanding that Sandra’s parents are “extremely happy and relieved that the case is moving forward, however they are overwhelmed with emotion at the current time and are not available for comment.”
Phone calls by TGI to Sandra’s parents on Saturday were not immediately returned.
Since Sandra’s death, her father, Lawrence Mendonca, has fought hard to make sure her killer was found. His initial reward for information leading to the murderer’s arrest was bumped from $6,000 to $20,000. In addition, he worked to get national media attention from Dateline NBC, CBS News 48 Hours and America’s Most Wanted.
In 2007, Mendonca partnered with the YWCA of Kaua‘i to begin hosting the annual Never Forget Sandy G Golf Tournament. Money raised from the events are used to help abused women and children.
Executive Director of the YWCA of Kaua‘i Renae Hamilton knew Sandra personally and says she is happy to see the case moving forward.
“We’re very pleased for the family,” she said. “I think also that we have to keep in mind this is a step. As positive as this is, it also can bring up the grief and the loss at the same time.”
Hamilton believes Sandra’s story highlights the tragedy of women losing their lives to violence.
“She was such an amazing young woman, who had courage,” Hamilton said. “She was making changes in her life. We can draw from her strengths.”
For neighbors who lived in the ‘Ele‘ele Nani housing complex where Sandra lived, they found Saturday’s news of Darren’s arrest both surprising and saddening.
One neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous, said he along with other homeowners in the area were subpoenaed at the time of the murder. The neighbor said the news came as a sad surprise.
“I feel sorry for the kids,” he said. “If it’s him, then it’s sad for him, but justice is served.”
He didn’t know the couple that well, but did know Sandra’s grandmother, who owned the house at the time.
“She was a nice gal,” he said. “I spoke to her a few times, as well as (Darren).”
The neighbor said that he saw Sandra arrive home early the morning of the murder, and was surprised to walk out that evening around sundown to police lights.
He expressed some satisfaction for the parents and family of Sandra because he knew how hard they have worked to keep this case from going unsolved.
“I always wondered who it could be, and if he was the one,” he said. “I can’t imagine. For the family, after six years (and) never giving up, I am glad they are strong.”
As far as the neighbor knew, the couple bought the home from the grandmother, and it sat vacant for some time before Darren rented it out recently. Darren would come around to mow the lawn and cut the trees when it was not rented.
It’s nice to see that the forensic science works in the real world and not just on TV, he said.
Amor Sagucio, a neighbor about two doors down, said they didn’t know Sandy well but that he knew she worked at the Grand Hyatt Resort and Spa and their children were near the same age. He expressed surprise to learn that her estranged husband was arrested for the murder.
“Are you serious?” he asked. “I knew Darren from when I worked at the gas station, so I am surprised that this happened after this long now.”
Over the years Sagucio said he wondered who killed Sandra, but said nobody seemed to know anything. He would see Darren around now and again, and everything was pretty friendly.
Mona Valdez, a neighbor across the street, said her mother lived there at the time, but she moved in after the murder. Valdez learned the story and said it was a frequent thought.
“Every time I pass by her house I think ‘Oh, did they ever catch the killer?’” she said.
“What has changed now that they were able to arrest a suspect when they couldn’t for so long?”
• Tom LaVenture contributed to this article.