Whose Private Island?
So Larry Ellison, billionaire founder of Oracle, turns out to be the new owner of Lanai, picking it up from David Murdock for somewhere around a half-billion dollars. There had been rumors that the buyer was Bill Gates, who was married on Lanai in 1994.
Wait a minute. Gates? Murdock? Wedding? Lanai? That all rings a bell.
Here's a piece I wrote for HONOLULU Magazine's June 1995 issue, detailing the outrageous lengths to which Microsoft and Lanai Co. (along with a perfectly willing Maui Police Department) went to keep media and the public off of Lanai for the Gates' nuptials. Let's hope Ellison is a better neighbor:
When Seattle journalist Scott Rensberger settled his lawsuit against Bill Gates of Microsoft and David Murdock of Dole Foods Inc., the public finally got a glimpse of the extraordinary measures taken to secure Lanai for Gates’ wedding. Rensberger’s civil suit, represented by Honolulu lawyer Mark Davis of Davis & Levin, took a year-and-a-half and 60 depositions to settle. What came out of those depositions, says Davis, was a portrait of “arrogant excesses.”
It’s well known that Gates reserved every hotel room and rental car for the express purpose of keeping out the media. In addition, the only licensed limo service on the island was told not to pick up any media. Camp sites were snatched up by Lanai Co. security agents to make them unavailable to reporters with pup tents. The airport and beach park were kept under surveillance.
But that, apparently, wasn’t enough. Microsoft’s head of security Tom Sullivan tried to get the FAA to declare the island a no-fly zone during the wedding. His request was denied. But Sullivan sent up a rented helicopter anyway, to thwart any incoming aircraft. Sullivan had this to say in an in-house email:
“If any aircraft is discovered entering the area, we will attempt interception and contact via radio stating that the aircraft is entering a restricted area and to leave immediately (we will be lying but our hope is that utilizing the [helicopter] company often contracted by [local] police will add credibility to the statement.”
Even bride-to-be Melinda French got into the high drama, according to the e-mail trail, though she did draw the line at hiring a former CIA operative to help with security.
Rensberger and other reporters got onto the island anyway, only to be issued trespassing warnings. Lanai Co. director of security Alexander Treutler issued one to Rensberger while he was investigating Lanai residents’ reaction to the wedding for his station, KIRO-TV. The warning wrongfully listed Hulopoe Beach Park as “property owned or operated by Lanai Co.” These warnings and the threat of arrest were enough to chase off most journalists. Not Rensberger.
Treutler later made his citizen’s arrest of Rensberger while the journalist was on a public road within Hulopoe Beach Park, then summoned Maui police Lt. Gary Paresa, who was not in uniform and refused to identify himself to Rensberger. When Rensberger kept his camera rolling through the entire arrest, Paresa threatened to break it. (This tape later became a thorn in Microsoft’s side. Gates’ publicist Karen Frey wrote via e-mail, “We are getting a negative story from the KIRO people. They have film of that security guy threatening to harm that camera.”)
Remarkably, the policeman asked Treutler what the bail should be. The Lanai Co. security officer set it at $1,500. The policeman then escorted Rensberger to Lanai jail, where he was booked, photographed and fingerprinted, all without being read his rights or having his statement taken.
Rensberger immediately posted bail and called Frey to protest, since her name and phone number were listed on his trespass warnings. Frey agreed to drop the charges on the condition that Rensberger leave the island immediately—a threat repeated by Treutler when he returned the reporter to the arrest site. Rensberger complied. And sued.
Now that all is said and done, Rensberger is pleased with the results of his suit, securing public apologies from Gates and Murdock and a cash settlement for himself and various Lanai community groups. Only one thing is lacking, he says. “We wanted Murdock to stop calling Lanai ‘the private island’ but he refused to do that. If you think about it, every time you call Lanai a private island you offend all the people who do have property there. I think they should take their island back.”
[June 21: Fixed Ellison's name, thanks readers.]