Retired public defender in Kealoha mailbox trial details drama, interagency tensions in new book
Four years ago, Susan Ballard was named Honolulu police chief to replace former Chief Louis Kealoha, who had just been indicted by a federal grand jury for framing an innocent man. The charges — conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Federal public defender Alexander Silvert, now retired, represented that innocent man — Gerard Puana, who wept after his name had been cleared. But it would take seven years and several trials to finally get the convictions of the former chief and his wife Katherine Kealoha, a former high-ranking Honolulu prosecutor. In October of 2019, the Kealohas pleaded guilty to bank fraud. Both are now in prison.
Silvert, who retired last October, says his new book wrote itself as he began detailing the drawn-out drama and the inter-agency tensions at play. “The Mailbox Conspiracy” is available through Watermark Publishing and will be in bookstores in December. Silvert will be featured at the Hawaiʻi Book and Music Festival on Oct. 30 at 5:30 p.m. Sign up for the free online event at this website.
Read the full interview below, edited for clarity.
Catherine Cruz: You often hear the phrase you don't know the half of it, well Silvert fills in what didn't get on the news. The book starts out with the day that his client Gerard Puana walked into his office.
Alexander Silvert: Gerard was insistent from the beginning that not only didn't he do it, but that he was innocent and being framed. In a criminal trial, for a defendant to win, we just have to convince a jury that the government hasn't proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they're guilty. We don't have to prove they're not guilty, nor do we have to prove their innocence, but Gerard from the get-go was insisting he was innocent — and that's what he wanted me to prove, which is a very high standard. And given that there was a videotape, in this case allegedly showing him stealing the mailbox, right off the start, you know, it did not appear to be a very good case for him. And then, of course, being the Kealohas, who are claiming that this person stole their mailbox, and they know the person, they know what he looks like because he's a family relative — and he's the one in the videotape, not a very hopeful case.
Take us to the day when you knew you had something. What was, just kind of pro forma, just checking what type of mailbox was it — then it turned out to be a critical piece of evidence.
So the police report had crime scene photographs. The whole mailbox was lifted off the top of it and removed and put in a car and driven away. What was left was the pedestal of the mailbox. And this was one of those fancy mailboxes, not the kind you buy at True Value Hardware for $30. This was an expensive, ordered mailbox, which had a fancy pedestal, and the mailbox itself had a lock and was made of cast iron. So the photograph that we had from the 911 officer who processed the crime scene was just of the pedestal that remained. So the first thing we did was — we were told it was a Gaines mailbox, and we simply contacted Gaines company on the mainland, faxed them a copy of the pedestal and just asked them if they could verify that this was their pedestal and what mailbox went on that pedestal. Because every pedestal and mailbox are made for each other, they're unique systems that interlock with one another. So if you have the pedestal, we should be able to identify the mailbox.
And we were just doing this out of due process, you know, crossing our t's and dotting our i's in the sense that we had a client who said he was innocent. So you know, we were going to check on every piece of information. We didn't expect to get much out of this when we were just double-checking what was written in the police report. But to our surprise, when the Gaines Manufacturing agent called us back, he said that was not their pedestal, it could not have been their mailbox. But better yet, he knew which company did make it. And it turned out to be another company called the Solar Group, or Gibraltar, and their mailbox after we sent them the photograph, they confirmed that it was their mailbox, but it had a value of $180 — whereas the Gaines Manufacturing mailbox had a value of $380, which is what the Kealohas and HPD (Honolulu Police Department) claimed was the value. And that value made a huge difference because anything over $300, under state law, was a felony. Anything under $300 was a misdemeanor. And this case originally, according to the Kealohas and the paperwork, was supposed to be processed and prosecuted in Hawaiʻi State Court. So making it a value of $380 was significant because it made it a felony. And so that break really early on in the case, of just doing a simple thing to verify the make and model of the mailbox, led us immediately to realize that something was terribly wrong if the Kealohas were lying about the make, model and value of their own mailbox.
And the idea is that if they were able to convict Gerard of a felony, that would discredit him in this other civil case that they had.
Florence Puana — Gerard's mother who was 93 at the time — and Gerard had filed a civil suit in state court against Katherine Kealoha, Florence's granddaughter. Because they alleged that she had stolen $166,000 of their money, and had reneged on a deal involving a reverse mortgage that had been worked out within the family, which eventually cost Florence her home. So they had sued Katherine in civil court for damages to get that money returned. And we realized that if Katherine had lost that civil suit, and had been proven that she had stolen this money, as an attorney, and as a prosecutor, she could easily lose her job, she could lose her law license. So it was a very significant case for the Kealohas and the outcome was critically important. And that lawsuit had been filed in March of 2013. So in June of 2013, when Katherine claimed it was Gerard who stole her mailbox, if she had been able to obtain a felony conviction against him, that felony conviction could have been used in the civil case to discredit his character and his reputation. In other words, the jury could have said, "Well, because he's a thief, that he's not honest, and we're not going to believe his testimony." And that, we believe, was the entire purpose of why the Kealohas framed Gerard, was to discredit him in the civil case, to save Katherine from a verdict against her in the civil case.
So that established a motive. But as this case worked its way through the courts, the chief blurted out something about Gerard's past that ended up dismissing the case.
Right, we had no evidence — that we uncovered — that Louis Kealoha was involved in the initial frame-up, we think — at least I thought at the time — that that was something that Katherine had done, and maybe (Minh-Hung) "Bobby" Nguyen, who had been married to Katherine's niece, had done. I think, though, that once Louis found out about it, whenever that was, and it was very early on, it could have been that evening or in the morning after the fake theft occurred, that he got involved, and he jumped in with both feet. And at the trial, he was the second witness to testify. As everybody knows, he's had many years on the police force. He's trained other police officers how to testify. He's the chief of police. He knows the rules of evidence. He knows the rules of procedure. He knows how to be a witness in court. And yet, when he was asked by Larry Tong, the prosecutor, a very innocent question that simply called for a "yes" or "no" answer. He started to answer, he hesitated, and then he blurted out an answer that was clearly improper under the rules of court. And he knew it because as soon as he had done it, and I objected, and the court stopped the proceedings, he turned to the judge and apologized, which to me indicated right then and there that he knew exactly what he had done. And the statement was basically that Gerard looked like he did in 2013, when he was photographed, in a police photograph for being arrested for a burglary. And you can't do that in a courtroom. You can't refer to a prior crime, and bring that to the attention of the jury unless that issue has been litigated and the court has approved that information being given to the jury, and it had not, and Louis knew it had not. And yet, in his answer, he referred back to that prior crime, in it to say simply, that Gerard looked the same. And that was highly improper. And there was no question in my mind that Louis knew exactly what he was doing.
Let's talk about the fact that after that, the Justice Department made a decision to go outside of Hawaiʻi to get a prosecutor than to take up the case because you presented your evidence, and you knew something wasn't right here.
The first part of the book is more like a whodunit story, even though we know who did it — eventually. I write the book to show everybody how we uncovered each piece of evidence that really never came out to the public, certainly not in the trial of Gerard because we never got there. It was our intent to show all of this evidence during the trial, which didn't happen because Louis created the mistrial. So the book is written to show how we uncovered multiple pieces of evidence to prove that this was a frame-up, that the police reports had either omitted critical evidence or falsified evidence outright. And I had all that evidence. And I had that evidence for years before the Kealohas were formally indicted. So from our perspective, we knew a lot, you know, what the public didn't know. And we knew the evidence we had. And that's what we presented to the FBI. And that's what we presented to the special prosecutor, Mr. (Michael) Wheat, who was brought in from San Diego, which is a normal thing when a high-ranking police officer or a public official, who works regularly with the local U.S. attorney, is charged with a crime. It's normal to bring in an outside prosecutor so that there's no appearance of impropriety, no appearance of conflict of interest. And so, then-United States Attorney General (Eric) Holder appointed Mr. Wheat from the San Diego office to come and prosecute the case. He had the same exact authority as Mr. Mueller in the investigation of what happened in the elections and the Russia investigation. He had the same authority, but with a lot less manpower. And he was brought in to investigate this case.
So what was your reaction when you saw the depth of their investigation? I mean, because they uncovered so much more. I mean, you can't make up a lot of this stuff between the affair with the firefighter and the latest thing about a photo of lines of coke in the police chief's office. I mean, it just seems so outlandish. But it's stunning.
It is stunning. I have a chapter in the book where I discuss my relationship with Mr. Wheat, it's called, "It's A Sunny Day." And essentially, on the one hand, we provided a lot of information — what I would say is the foundation of the information that they used to investigate and eventually indict and convict the Kealohas. But the FBI and Mr. Wheat went far beyond anything we had done, for several reasons. One, they had the resources and the subpoena power, and the investigative tools to go far beyond any ability that we had. And secondly, when we are defending someone, we're looking at a very narrow set of facts. And we're investigating and dealing with those facts because it's what's admissible and relevant to defend Gerard Puana. We had uncovered a lot of weird things and weird documents that Katherine Kealoha had created, some by "Alison Lee Wong," this mystery person that was her alias. But we didn't investigate that because it didn't have any relevance directly to our case. But when we met with the FBI, Mr. Wheat, we had handed over that information to them and they just took it from there. And so while we could discuss with Mr. Wheat, the evidence we had found and uncovered, we couldn't discuss with him the evidence that they were uncovering, because that would be improper. So it was kind of like when a lot of this information came out and was exposed in the indictment, and in the trial — it was all new to us as well. And we were just stunned by how much more there was and how just unbelievable, Katherine Kealoha's crime history really was.
And what I appreciate about this book is that you do provide a chronology because there are so many different trials. There was the civil case, there was the case involving the minors that Katherine Kealoha was handling and ultimately falsified documents, as well. But it's just so complicated, it stretched out over such a long period of time, and it's still not over.
It's still not over. There's more to come I'm sure. I know it's taken a lot of time. Everybody's growing impatient. I've grown impatient. I've learned that this is the way Mr. Wheat works. He's very methodical. I'm sure there'll be more indictments. He's not here for pleasure. He's been working the grand jury. So I think other things will happen. And you know, there's an old saying: a lot of times it's not the crime itself, it's the cover-up that leads to a lot more people being indicted. And I think that's kind of what's being proven out here through Mr. Wheat's investigation. I think he's not only going to go after people who tried to cover for Katherine and Louis, but that investigation led to other wrongdoings, so I think we're gonna see a lot more. It is a complicated story after they were charged. A lot of things happened not only in the courtroom — but politically. Also the Kealohas, for years before their trial, tried to go on the offensive and tried to recast the narrative. So the book lays out that history of what happened for several years after the indictments were issued, but before the trial, and I think I did a decent job in trying to put things in order so it was understandable, not only what happened, but why things were happening.
This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 25, 2021.