LIHUE — Trial proceedings are underway in the manslaughter case of a man accused of stealing a car and driving it drunk at nearly 90 miles an hour, allegedly killing a 19-year-old woman in a head-on collision.
Cody Safadago, 48, could face life in prison for the death of Kayla Huddy-Lemn, who died in her sedan on Kuhio Highway in Kapaa in a hit-and-run accident in 2017.
“This case is about choices and personal responsibility,” Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Sean Van Demark began in his opening statement Tuesday afternoon.
“He chose to steal a truck. He chose to drive drunk. And he chose to drive into oncoming traffic,” he said. “But at the end of this trial, you will also have a choice. You will have the choice to hold Mr. Safadago responsible for his actions.”
Safadago allegedly left the Big Save supermarket in Kapaa around 8 p.m. with a bottle of liquor, and the store’s manager, who was concerned about the man’s behavior, called police.
Van Demark told the jury that Safadago stole a truck parked in front of a nearby home and ran a stop sign, before turning onto Kuhio Highway and speeding away.
“The defendant only gets about a mile and a half,” Van Demark said, describing the erratic path of the white pickup that a witness said was weaving in and out of traffic before the crash.
“Cars swerve to get out of the way,” Van Demark said. “Two cars get out of the way. One car does not.”
Van Demark told jurors they would also hear about an internal investigation in the Kauai Police Department into the conduct of two officers involved in the Safadago case.
“That investigation has nothing to do with this case, the evidence, or his guilt,” Van Demark said. “He drove wasted, and he wasted Kayla’s life.”
Safadago’s defense attorney, Emmanuel Guerrero addressed the jury next.
“What happened on the night of April 27, 2017 was tragic — horrible,” he said. “But that’s not the issue in this case.”
Guerrero told the jurors that despite the testimony of the state’s numerous witnesses, “none of them identifies and says Mr. Safadago came out of that truck.”
Aside from the lack of eyewitness accounts directly connecting Safadago to the accident, Guerrero has so far attempted to cast doubt in the mind of the jurors regarding the thoroughness of the KPD’s traffic investigation, which he has intimated was incomplete or based on the preconceived notion of Safadago’s guilt.
“The point of all this is, why the rush to judgment?” Guerrero said, telling the jurors that police saw Safadago at the scene, knew him from the incident just hours before at the Big Save, arrested him on the suspicion that he was the driver of the truck and ended further investigation or pursuit of other potential suspects.
“How do you feel about police officers conducting an investigation, but they don’t check for fingerprints?” Guerrero asked one potential juror during the selection process Tuesday morning. “That would be a shoddy investigation, right?”
Guerrero closed his opening statements to the jury abruptly, about 10 minutes into the speech, when the judge cut him off mid-sentence. He returned to the podium, gathered his papers deliberately and said, “At the end of the case, we will ask you to return a verdict of not guilty for lack of evidence.”
At around 3:15 p.m., the state called its first witness — Marycel Garcia, store manager for the Kapaa Big Save, where she has worked for the last 20 years.
Garcia testified that Safadago came into her store twice on the night of the accident. The first time, she said, “he was very friendly.” At the time, she didn’t know he had stolen a large bottle of vodka, something she learned after reviewing the store’s video surveillance footage. He returned to the Big Save a short time later, acting completely different.
“He was drunk,” Garcia said. “He wasn’t walking straight. His demeanor was scary actually, so I had to call police.”
According to Garcia, Safadago had at first refused to leave the store but eventually walked out on his own about 9 p.m. Police showed up not long after and talked to him in the parking lot.
Another piece of evidence submitted by prosecutors was a short video recorded from a KPD officer’s body camera, showing a clearly-irate Safadago outside the Big Save. He yelled almost everything he said, and some of the answers he gave the two officers were, for lack of a better word, strange.
At one point Safadago screamed something about a relative on the Big Island who was dying of rat lung worm disease. When police asked where he was from originally, Safadago said, “Heaven — born and raised in heaven.” The officers let Safadago go with a warning, telling him, “I’m gonna ask you to leave now. If you come back, you’re gonna get arrested.”
The state’s second witness, Sigrid Himongala, provided the first eyewitness account of the fatal car accident presented to the jurors so far. She is the sister of a Joseph “Russell” Himongala, a KPD officer involved in investigating the incident and one of the first to respond to the scene.
On the night of the crash, Sigrid Himongala was driving home from her job in Kapaa, heading south on Kuhio Highway toward the Wailua Homesteads. She said her father had advised her not to take the bypass or the backroads because the main highway was safer. It was around 10:45 p.m.
Himongala said she was driving about 40 mph on a stretch of road near the Coconut MarketPlace when she looked in the rearview mirror and saw headlights rapidly approaching from behind. Then, a white pickup truck passed her going “very fast.”
“I saw two cars going northbound, and the truck nearly hit them,” she said. “I was already screaming, and I was telling myself, oh my god, oh my god.”
Himongala said she was watching and hoping no other cars were coming, when she saw the white truck smash head-on into a sedan in the northbound lane.
The sedan stopped on impact, Himongala testified, but the pickup had momentum and skidded away toward Kintaro’s Restaurant. She kept driving.
“I didn’t stop. I just slowed down cause I was already shaking — stunned,” she said. “I was lost.”
Himongala explained that she drove to her home after witnessing the accident, a trip that took about seven minutes. There, she said, she did “the only thing I could think of to do.” She called her brother.
“I cannot deal with it anymore because I was so scared,” Himongala said.
When asked why she didn’t call the police department or 911 instead, she answered, “Because at that moment, that was all I can think of.”
The second day of trial proceedings start this morning at 8, when the state will call James and Christopher Brun, a father and son, whose truck Safadago is accused of stealing.