An Excerpt from ‘Hell-Bent’: Ronnie Ching, Hawai‘i’s Most Notorious Hit Man
Author Jason Ryan delved into the darker side of Hawai‘i during the 1970s and 1980s to write: ‘Hell-Bent: One Man’s Crusade to Crush the Hawaiian Mob.’ This is an excerpt from his recently published book. In this selection, we focus on Ronald Kainalu Ching, who admitted to four murders—including that of a state senator and the son of the city prosecutor. Ching went on to serve a life sentence in Hālawa Correctional Facility, where he died in 2005 at age 56.
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Ching then moved quickly, arriving at the Brass Door just after midnight on May 20, 1980, carrying an automatic rifle, automatic pistol and two grenades. Two accomplices waited outside as a backup and driver. Ching pulled a hood over his head as he strode into the bar, the automatic rifle in his hands. Putting Fukumoto in the rifle’s sights, he motioned for the bartender to back away from his target. Ching then called out “Bobby” and let loose two bursts of fire, putting 10 bullets into the back of the man he referred to as a father figure. As the other patrons scrambled to find safety, Ching disregarded his getaway vehicle and jogged merely a block or so back to his home at the Chateau Blue apartment building. No witnesses would come forward to identify him to police.
For years, Ching acted with such impunity. One federal agent claimed Ching routinely “thumbed his nose” at investigators, and Ching was so bold in 1980 as to meet Honolulu policeman Don Carstensen for lunch and discuss, albeit cryptically, several murders in which he was a suspect. Despite Carstensen making it plain that he sought eventually to arrest Ching, the policeman and the hit man enjoyed a unique rapport, with Ching boasting that his criminal lifestyle was giving Carstensen job security. At one point, Carstensen confronted Ching over rumors that Ching was going to kill Carstensen. Not true, said Ching. If that was so, Ching continued, Carstensen “would be dead before hearing about it.”
At the lunch meeting with Carstensen in a downtown Honolulu restaurant, Ching nibbled at a chef’s salad and drank tomato juice. He would not directly address several of Carstensen’s inquiries regarding gangland murders and suspected underworld figures, but nonetheless provided a rare view into the life of a professional killer. Ching, who seemed to revel in his coyness, was unaware that Carstensen was secretly recording their 90-minute conversation, which was occasionally interrupted by a waitress asking if they’d like salad dressing and more to drink. (HONOLULU Magazine readers of a certain age may recall a lengthy cover story, “Lunch with a Killer: Eavesdropping on Hit Man Ronnie Ching,” from March 1985.)
Carstensen asked about the disappearance of Baker from the Sunday Lounge, to which Ching responded by laughing and saying he knew him to be a “really down-to-earth guy.” Carstensen asked about Fukumoto, whom Ching said was killed for extorting innocent people, and that his death saddened him. Then the hit man laughed again, professing his innocence in the matter.
Though he would not admit to these specific murders, Ching was not shy about discussing generally the ins and outs of killing. He told Carstensen he had killed “plenty” of times and offered a number of insights into how to take a life. By piecing together his statements from this conversation, one can create a hit man’s tutorial.
First of all, a killer should take precautions, such as keeping handy a container of urine or WD-40 lubricant. Either of these substances can be splashed onto one’s hands following the discharge of a firearm. That way the killer can foil a paraffin test, in which police press wax onto a suspect’s hands to collect nitrates, which can be evidence of gunshot residue.
Second, a killer should act calmly and deliberately when executing someone. To soothe his nerves, Ching often swallowed Quaaludes before killing. It helps, too, for a killer to try to instill reason in his victim, so as to lessen his resistance. Part of Ching’s schtick as a hit man was that, seconds before murdering his target, he brandished his gun and informed the victim that he was about to end his life. Call it a killer’s courtesy.
Third, remember to have fun. While it’s important to stay calm and focused when killing, that doesn’t mean a killer can’t enjoy himself. Killing can be intoxicating, what with the danger of resistance and arrest.
“That’s part of the high. You know what I mean?” said Ching. “You playing the games, the gun powder, the fucking bullets go zinging by. That’s part of the high.”
Finally, the killer’s job is not finished until he takes care of the victim’s body. Ching favored burying his victims, and he joked to Carstensen that this was a favor to the victim’s family given that no one would have to pay for an interment. He suggested burying people under cover of a camping tent, or to use the beach, specifically Mākua Beach on the Leeward Coast of O‘ahu.
“You know why Mākua is good? Best place in all Hawai‘i,” said Ching. “The thing change about three times a year—the beach formation. So you know, if you dig on certain times of the year sometimes the fucking thing going wash out. And then certain times of the year the fucker going to be 20 feet down instead of one, eh. Unreal, eh?”
Ching had a high opinion of his abilities as a killer, boasting that he was always a step ahead of the authorities. The only way he would get caught, he told Carstensen, was if the police used technological advances to arrest him for a crime he had not yet committed, but would in the future. That would be the only way, he said, to prevent him from successfully covering his tracks. It is unclear if Ching said this in jest.
Similarly he once told Honolulu lawyer James Koshiba of his efforts to conceal the method of murder by shooting his victim from above, hiding the bullet wound within the man’s thick head of hair. After shooting the man, Ching allegedly wiped clean the blood and stuffed something, such as a rag, inside the wound. Then he tousled the man’s hair, covering over the hole in his skull.
Koshiba could not believe the words he was hearing.
“Ronald, they’re gonna find it,” said Koshiba, mentioning how thoroughly a coroner performs an autopsy. “They’re gonna cut everything out.”
“Yeah, but they’re gonna have a hard time,” said Ching.
Just as silly, and sick to some, was Ching’s contention that his unlawful activity had some kind of greater purpose, that he was part of a criminal revolution.
“There are people who had peace movements; he believed in the crime movement,” said Peter Carlisle, who interacted with Ching as a deputy prosecutor and later became Honolulu’s mayor. “He was going to be a part of it. He was going to be in the vanguard.”
As one of Ching’s girlfriends explained further: “He had a warped sense of pride that he was doing the right thing,” she said. “In his mind ... it was justifiable, absolutely. He just didn’t hurt people to hurt people. He was a teddy bear to people he cared about.”
Who exactly was the brutal killer fond of? His girlfriends, apparently, of which he had many. By all accounts they were gorgeous, too, with one having competed in the Miss Universe beauty contest in the 1970s as Miss American Samoa. Another girlfriend, who bore him a son, claimed Ching fathered seven children, with seven women. Or, perhaps it was seven kids with six women; she wasn’t quite sure.
“Pretty much he left trophies for all the women he cared about,” she said.
Such magnetism perplexed others who encountered Ching, a thick, black-haired man of Chinese, Hawaiian and Portuguese descent. Ching was fat and missing teeth. He was uneducated. He was addicted to heroin. He killed people for a living. Yet the girls loved him.
“The American people, women especially, and I’m no different, we have this romance going with gangsters,” said the former girlfriend. “Women fantasize about gangsters, men fantasize about being gangsters. It was part of the attraction. This bad boy!”
Was Ching’s violent behavior not pause for concern?
“I knew he would never hurt me,” the girlfriend said. “So the fact of what he did for a living, it had nothing to do with me.”
Critical to this woman’s romance with Ching, and to the couple’s existence in general, was heroin. Both were addicts, though the girlfriend said Ching exaggerated when he claimed to spend $1,000 a day on the drug. Heroin was just not that expensive in Hawai‘i, owing to the state’s proximity to opium-producing countries in Asia. To spend that much daily on heroin would mean Ching would be incapacitated day and night, week in and week out.
“He was a busy man. Yes, we were heroin addicts, but we were functioning addicts. We weren’t just trying to nod off for the whole day,” said the girlfriend. “You can’t build a business or a reputation if you’re on the nod 24/7.”
Neither of the pair was faithful, nor did they pretend to be. When this girlfriend informed Ching she was pregnant, the hit man was happy, but also dubious that he was the father. She didn’t blame him.
As casual as the romance could be, there were still surprises, like when the girlfriend arrived home to find another woman in her own bed.
“I knew there were other women. I knew there were always going to be other women. That was part of who he was and what he did. Was I jealous of it? Absolutely. Did I live with it? Absolutely,” admitted the girlfriend. “At that time I didn’t have a lot of self-esteem ... It was easy for me to accept whatever I could get.”
While accepting of humiliation, the girlfriend would not stay under Ching’s yoke. Yet attempts at independence became difficult when it came to their heroin supply, which Ching tried to control. Part of his motivation seemed to be his girlfriend’s own protection.
“Ronnie wanted to be my knight in shining armor. I can remember some people that were heavily into drugs and heroin specifically. Ronnie had gone to them and told them if they wanted to meet their maker sooner than they were supposed to they would continue selling me dope, which made it very difficult for me because he wanted to be my only source, so he could, so he could keep a handle on how much I was using.”
Such tactics failed.
“I was a rebellious little bitch and I wasn’t having it. I pretty much back then felt like Waikīkī was mine,” said the girlfriend. “We were gun toting, drug using, just running amok. You do what you gotta do to support your lifestyle.”
Ching felt, too, that Waikīkī belonged to him. He was such a comfortable criminal, in fact, that he befriended some of the local policemen who patrolled the nightlife district in plainclothes.
“Ronnie was a man about town,” said his former girlfriend. “Ronnie didn’t hide who he was or what he did. He was very out there in the public.”
From Hell-Bent: One Man’s Crusade to Crush the Hawaiian Mob. Copyright© Jason Ryan. Used by arrangement with Lyons Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the book’s author
Jason Ryan was born in Connecticut and educated at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., but has made his home in the South. He lives in Charleston, S.C., and was a newspaper reporter for The State. His first book was Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting That Launched the War on Drugs.