Exclusive Book Preview: Sunny, Skies, Shady Characters: Cops, Killers and Corruption in the Aloha State
Award-winning veteran investigative reporter tells stories of Hawai‘i’s dark past.
(page 1 of 3)
Warning! This excerpt includes graphic descriptions, sexual situations and strong language. It has been lightly edited for style and space considerations.
Award-winning veteran investigative reporter James Dooley spent decades digging into stories that made a difference in Hawai‘i. He fought with officials, staked out suspicious characters and battled editors to get his stories out. In this exclusive preview from his new book, Dooley takes HONOLULU readers behind the scenes for some stories untold until now, including a bizarre encounter with one of Hawai‘i’s best-known entertainers and a look into the intriguing world of the Japanese yakuza.
Illustration: Meen Choi
Don Ho died on a Saturday. There was a phone message waiting from a copy editor at The Honolulu Advertiser when I got home late that evening. “I’m writing the obit on Don Ho,” Dave Koga said in the message, left four hours earlier. “Mark Platte says Ho might have had some organized crime connections and I should check with you.”
I shook my head. It was too late to call back, and there was no point, anyway. Platte, then-editor of the Advertiser, had refused to print that information before. Why would he now?
Koga’s obituary was a fine, if uninspiring, summary of Ho’s life. There were a few glaring omissions, however. There was no mention of Ho’s five years of service as a U.S. Air Force transport pilot. The story was silent on Ho’s unusual family life, which at one time had seen him co-habiting with three different women, including his wife, who together had borne him 10 children.
And there was not a word about Ho’s personal ties to mobsters and mob associates, including Larry Mehau, his longtime close friend and onetime business manager.
Platte certainly knew all about Mehau. A year earlier, I reported that the FBI had identified Mehau in a wiretap affidavit as “a longtime Hawaiian organized crime figure.”
And Platte had recently killed a series of stories I had written that concerned, among other things, Mehau’s mob connections. The stories were based on sworn testimony from numerous Honolulu police officers in the department’s elite Criminal Intelligence Unit. The Advertiser spent somewhere around $100,000 in legal fees in a four-year effort to get those federal court records unsealed, then refused to publish the sections concerning Mehau and his associates, including officers inside the Honolulu Police Department. And there were numerous other archived Advertiser stories available to Koga and Platte that detailed the criminal pasts of some of Ho’s associates, as well as the long-simmering “godfather of organized crime” allegation about Mehau.
Koga’s story the next day quoted Mehau at length about Ho. He was identified in the story as a “Big Island rancher who grew up with Ho and was a lifelong friend.” That was it. Nothing about the contents of the Criminal Intelligence Unit files. No mention of the FBI affidavit. Just “Big Island rancher.”
In the days that followed, no editors raised the subject again with me. Other media outlets touched briefly on it, but not the Advertiser. Kapu is the Hawaiian word. Forbidden territory.
PHOTOS: HONOLULU ADVERTISER PHOTO; HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER COLLECTION; HAWAI‘I STATE ARCHIVES
Several reporters on the staff did stop by my desk, asking me to repeat the story of the time I met Don Ho and Larry Mehau together. I had first shared the story a couple of years earlier when the staff of the paper had gathered in the middle of the newsroom to say goodbye to Walter Wright, my former partner in investigative reporting, who was retiring.
In 1979, Walter told me he was working on a story about rape allegations made against Don Ho. The accuser was a young woman from the Midwest who said she had been assaulted in a Waikīkī condo after Ho met her and a friend in a restaurant, bought them several drinks, and invited them to a party. The victim ended up naked in the streets of Waikīkī, found her way back to her hotel room and called the police. A medical examination showed evidence of intercourse and force used on the woman. Police obtained a search warrant and recovered the woman’s clothing in the room where she said the assault occurred.
Walter then told me that the victim’s parents had convinced her to withdraw the complaint. The second woman refused to cooperate with authorities.
I was surprised to hear the allegations against Ho. He was a charming guy who didn’t seem to have problems meeting and befriending women. His friends were a different matter. At various times, some of the scariest men in Hawai‘i had hung out at Ho’s Polynesian Palace showroom on Lewers Street in Waikīkī.
“So, Walter, what do you want from me?” I said at the time.
He explained that we would never be able to write a story about the incident unless we got Ho to confirm it had happened or at least that it was under investigation. I asked Walter how in the world we were going to do that.
“We’ll just go down to the Polynesian Palace tonight and talk to him,” Wright said.
“Are you sure you want to do that, Walter?” I said. “I don’t know if that’s a very good idea.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Come with me. I don’t want to go down there alone.”
“I don’t blame you. I don’t want to go down there at all,” I said.
But he insisted. So we went to Waikīkī. Ho was on stage when we got there that night. Walter talked us past the door, and we were taken to one of Ho’s dressing rooms to wait for him.
In those days, Ho had an upper dressing room where he held court after he finished on stage, signing autographs and kissing grandmas. He sold albums and posed for photographs until the well-wishers and admirers were eventually shooed away. There was a bigger adjoining room down some stairs, where Walter and I were taken to wait. It was a long, low-ceilinged, gloomy room with tables and chairs spread around.
At the far end of the room were several guys watching the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! on television. We found a couple of chairs and sat down, maybe 10 or 15 feet away from the TV set. The attack on Pearl Harbor was underway, with all the gunfire, explosions and bloodshed that went with it. My uneasiness increased. One of the men looked up from the television at us. I couldn’t see him very well through the gloom, but he looked Hawaiian and very large.
“Who you guys?” he said.
Walter said, “It’s okay. We’re here to see Don.”
The guy looked at us some more. This was obviously not a very satisfactory answer, but he let it go and went back to the movie. After a few more minutes, he looked at us again and said, “No, really. Who are you guys?”
Walter smiled and said again, “We’re here to see Don. It’s okay.”
Now, this was Walter’s story and I was just along for the ride, but I felt like we probably should say something more than that. I gave Walter a questioning look. He made a calming motion with one hand. By this time, the guy was staring hard at us. He got up from his chair and approached us. He was enormous. Not so much tall as very wide and solid.
Cyril Kahale Jr. and Larry Mehau, rear, flank their attorney, David Schutter, at a news conference.
He looked very irritated when he said, “WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU GUYS?”
I had had enough of playing second fiddle and blurted out, “We’re from the Advertiser. I’m Jim Dooley and this is Walter Wright. We need to talk to Don.”
The guy processed this information, then said, “Why didn’t you just say so?” and went back to the movie. I whispered sharply at Walter, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t antagonize this guy. I think it’s Cyril Kahale.”
“I’ll tell you later. Just don’t piss him off.”
I thought I had recognized the man when he approached us. Kahale was a former professional football player whose feats of physical prowess were legendary. But it was dark in the dressing room, and I had never actually met Kahale.
Ho eventually finished his show and his activities in the upper dressing room. When he came into the lower room, Walter introduced us and said something like, “We’re here to talk to you about the rape thing.”
Ho was immediately angry. I don’t remember his exact words, other than one phrase he repeated several times: “You guys got no class.”
He told us to follow him, that we couldn’t talk where we were. We went down more stairs, along some narrow hallways until we arrived in a small, windowless room with just one chair inside. There were generator or machinery noises in the background. I had no idea where we were. It felt like the lowest deck of a ship.
Ho sat in the chair and told us to wait. Several of his “boys” listened as Ho told us again that we had no class. Walter kept him talking and Ho opened up a bit, saying his accuser hadn’t been raped, that she was a crazy publicity seeker. And it wasn’t the first time he had been falsely accused, Ho said. Shortly after Ho spoke with us, People Magazine published a lengthy profile of the entertainer in which he readily discussed his relationships with women and alluded to rape accusations made against him. “There have always been women in Ho’s life—in bizarre combinations and startling abundance,” the story said. Ho joked in the story about why he enjoyed kissing grandmas after his shows: “I kiss grandmas because they’re clean,” he said with a twinkle. “I haven’t picked anything up from a grandma yet. Besides, grandma don’t yell rape; she appreciates.”
Eventually, the doorway to the room darkened, and Ho popped out of the chair. I looked over, and there was Larry Mehau, a very large man. Several even bigger men filled the hallway behind him.
“Larry!” Ho said. “These guys want to talk about that rape thing. They’re from the Advertiser.”
Mehau looked at us with a pained expression on his face. “Tell them to get out,” he said to Ho.
“Yeah, you guys, get out of here,” Ho said. “Get out! Get the fuck out!”
I thought to myself, “Okay, that’s good. We’re getting the fuck out now.” Even Walter the Oblivious realized it was time to go. We had to turn sideways to make it past Mehau and the men in the hallway. Once clear of them, I resisted the urge to run. But I came pretty close.
We blundered around the hallways and finally found our way outside. “God damn it, Walter,” I said, “why’d you put us in a spot like that? Did you see the size of those guys? Next time, you’re on your own.”
Ho’s ashes were scattered in the waves off Waikīkī Beach following a daylong memorial attended by thousands of well-wishers and fans, covered in great detail by the staff of the Advertiser. I was not asked to participate.