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.
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.
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.
Yakuza in Hawai‘i
While I was covering the Nappy Pulawa murder trial in 1978, a law-enforcement source asked me if I knew anything about the yakuza—Japanese organized crime. I didn’t have a clue. The source said I should check out a guy named Takeshi Takagi, a Japanese national living and working in Honolulu.
I was busy at the time and dubious. Who ever heard of Japanese mobsters?
But I was told that Takagi and the yakuza would be worth finding out about. So I made contact with Clarence “Japan” Handa, a Japanese-born criminal who had been a prosecution witness in the Pulawa murder and tax trials. “Japan” had a heavy accent that grew even thicker whenever he was asked about someone or something that he really didn’t want to talk about. When I asked him about Takagi, the only word I could understand was my own name.
“Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy,” Japan said sorrowfully, shaking his head and lowering his eyes.
“What, Japan? What’s the matter? Tell me about Takagi.”
“Oh, Jimmy, no,” he said. He lapsed into Japanese and finally a brief phrase in pidgin: “I no can say.” I couldn’t get anything more out of him, but that was enough for me. Takagi was definitely worth checking out.
Takagi, I learned, was a Japanese citizen, living in a rented luxury home on a hillside that overlooked Wai‘alae Country Club and the posh Kāhala neighborhood of Honolulu. He owned a company that staged sex shows in a subterranean theater in Chinatown, catering primarily to Japanese tourists. Takagi was good-looking and a very sharp dresser. He drove expensive cars, and he was missing half the little finger on one hand and the tip of the other. He was also reportedly heavily tattooed on his back. The physical characteristics were classic signs of a yakuza.
Missing digits and dragon tattoos! Here was a story that would write itself. The more I looked, the better it got. Takagi was not the first yakuza in Hawai‘i. There were others before him and more working with him. The dimensions of the subject and the possibilities of a series on yakuza in Hawai‘i were taking shape in my mind when Takagi was busted by Honolulu police on a gun possession charge. The lead story of my planned series was about to become public property when Takagi appeared in court to answer the gun charge against him.
There were no other reporters in court when I showed up at Takagi’s hearing at the old district court building on the edge of Chinatown. I probably could have held back on publication, but the decision was taken out of my hands by a picture shot by Advertiser photographer Roy Ito as Takagi emerged from court that day.
Framed in the courthouse doorway with his girlfriend and an associate, Takagi looked like he had been centrally cast for the part of a high-powered international hoodlum. He was handsome and impeccably dressed. His girlfriend was very attractive, and his companion was menacing. The photo was just too good not to use immediately.
Coupled with court testimony from HPD officer Donald Carstensen identifying Takagi as a yakuza, the photo and story ran after the first day of the court hearing.
Takagi and his lawyer had had nothing to say when they left court that day, and when the story ran the next morning, I went back to court to cover the continuation of the hearing. I had gone considerably beyond the courtroom testimony in the story, naming Takagi as a member of a Tokyo-based yakuza gang called the Sumiyoshi-ringo.
Before the hearing began, I approached Takagi and his interpreter in the hallway. How did Mr. Takagi like the story this morning? Did he wish to make a statement now?
The interpreter translated my questions, and Takagi answered.
“Mr. Takagi says you have made a serious error,” the interpreter said.
I asked what the error was, expecting him to say something like, “I’m a businessman, not a mobster, and I’m going to sue you for every penny you’ve got.”
But the interpreter said, “The name of his group is Sumiyoshi-rengo, r-e-n-g-o, not ringo.”
I assured him I would correct that error in the paper the next day, and I was happy to do so.
I wrote another story that focused on two local syndicate figures who accompanied Takagi to both days of the court hearing. One, Wallace S. “Wally” Furukawa, achieved notoriety in 1970 when his brand-new Lincoln Continental automobile was destroyed by five sticks of dynamite planted in the engine compartment. Furukawa was a Nappy Pulawa lieutenant and frequently used the car to ferry Pulawa around town. Furukawa miraculously survived, suffering injuries to his feet and lower legs. The bombing was widely seen as a warning, and a headline on one Gene Hunter story about it said, “Wally Gets the Word.”
The car bomb was detonated on the same morning that high-level officials of federal, state, and county law enforcement had convened on the Big Island for a first-ever summit on combating organized crime in the Islands.
As I looked into Takagi and the yakuza story, I found that Japanese mobsters
had been living and working in the Islands since at least the early 1970s and were connected to local and Mainland syndicate figures in a variety of ways.
They were smuggling drugs into the state and guns out to Japan, as well as supplying prostitution, pornography and gambling services to Japanese tourists.
Organized crime figure Wallace Furukawa is treated by emergency workers after his car was bombed.
I found that one kobun—a soldier in the huge yakuza gangs known in Japan as boryokudan—named Wataru “Jackson” Inada had been murdered in his Honolulu apartment shortly before he was scheduled to go to trial in a federal drug-smuggling case that was linked to Los Angeles mafia figure Peter Milano.
Yakuza and their associates had been operating bordellos in Waikīkī hotels. One establishment, named Utamaro, after a famous Japanese erotic artist, had employed runners to pass out business cards on Waikīkī Beach to Japanese tourists.
Then there were the yakuza who disguised their severed fingertips by wearing false rubber pinkies when passing through airport immigration checks. One successfully cleared immigration but removed the ersatz digit before he hit the Customs inspection line. When he was asked to empty his pockets at Customs, the phony fingertip tumbled into view, and he was taken into custody.
“The Toruko [Turkish bath] Utamaro is like the enjoyment of watching the 11 p.m. TV program,” the card said in Japanese.
The reference was to surprisingly raunchy television shows aired nightly in Japan. (A colleague of mine who was an occasional traveler to Japan told me that he was taken aback by the programming when he turned on late-night television in his hotel room on a Tokyo visit. “It seemed to be some kind of game show but the contestants—men and women—were seminude and were riding each other around like it was a rodeo,” my friend said. “Everybody was squealing and whooping and the audience was roaring with laughter. It was amazing.”)
The Utamaro flyer continued: “You can be proud to say this is the best setup in the U.S. You can drink and watch porno movies and have the services of a beautiful blond girl for your enjoyment,” the card said.
Waikīkī civic leaders complained about the operation, which was in a detached annex of a major hotel. Utamaro was eventually closed, but I found another operation, Hotel Tsuru, going strong in a different location just a block from Waikīkī Beach. The building was across Kapahulu Avenue from the Honolulu Zoo, so I spent several evenings in my car in the zoo parking lot, watching the activities at the Hotel Tsuru.
Those were strange evenings. Occasionally I could hear lions roaring and chimps screeching in the night behind me while I watched a raging hormone show in front of me. In the background, waves washed placidly over Kūhiō Beach.
There was a steady flow of taxicabs and white Cadillacs with red roofs that dropped off and picked up customers at the hotel, the same private cars that had earlier serviced Utamaro.
At one point, Advertiser colleague Mike Keller and I inquired at Hotel Tsuru about checking in for the night. We were told that was impossible by the front desk staff. When we persisted, we were told that all the rooms had been booked five years into the future.
A friendly cabdriver explained the Hotel Tsuru operation to me. The price per customer was $70, $20 of which was kicked back to the driver who delivered the customer. The proprietors were very suspicious of non-Japanese johns, I was told.
Eventually I found a Japanese exchange student from the University of Hawai‘i campus, paid him $70 to get laid and then interviewed him about the experience. I was probably guilty of criminal pandering and had to really finesse that particular expense past the Advertiser’s editors. But the story ran, and Hotel Tsuru was closed not long after.
Two months later, Honolulu police busted another prostitution operation in a condominium rented by three Japanese “students” in a very expensive residential building at the base of Diamond Head. When the cops raided the unit, they found a dozen male Japanese tourists and three Caucasian women inside. Although a cache of X-rated videocassettes was available for customers’ viewing, police found three of the tourists in a room watching a Japanese-dubbed copy of the Lassie television show.
When I checked with the apartment owner’s agent, I found that one of the men who had rented the condo for $2,000 a month was an officer of the company that had operated Hotel Tsuru.
Big changes in Hawai‘i journalism
PHOTO: ROY ITO, PHOTOGRAPHER; HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER COLLECTION; HAWAI‘I STATE ARCHIVES
Don Ho died just two days after the death of former prosecutor Charles Marsland, whose son had been executed gangland-style by at least one of Ho’s hangers-on. Marsland’s death merited a story obituary in the Advertiser, which I helped to write. But the newspaper did not see fit to cover the funeral of Marsland, a man whose fervid pursuit of organized crime in Hawai‘i and perfervid criticisms of judges and law enforcement agencies made tall headlines for decades.
Those two deaths, and the morning newspaper’s treatment of them, were emblematic of how journalism in Hawai‘i had changed during my three decades as an investigative reporter in the Islands.
The work was great while it lasted, taking me from the depths of the underworld in Hawai‘i and Japan to top-floor corporate suites and judges’ chambers. Stories I wrote led to prison terms for quite a few men and landed the colorful and combative mayor of Honolulu in court on bribery charges.
I found secret land partnerships called huis whose investors included politicians, criminals, business leaders and judges.
I found contracting cronyism at all levels of government and pried open the financial and political secrets of an astounding $6 billion educational charity known as the Bishop Estate.
I interviewed the craftiest and clumsiest of con men. I found prison guards who changed uniforms on Friday nights and spent their weekends locked behind bars.
Things changed radically when Gannett Company Inc., the nation’s largest newspaper chain, bought the Advertiser in 1993 from local ownership.
Outside editors who knew nothing about Hawai‘i, its people and its history were brought from the Mainland to imprint the Gannett version of the news business on the Advertiser.
As I was writing stories in 1995 and 1996, detailing financial shenanigans committed by the trustees of the mighty Bishop Estate, I was told to stop writing about the estate. An assistant city editor told me that the publisher didn’t like them.
Investigative reporting in the 50th state, particularly long-form newspaper projects, was like working in a journalism hothouse, a news laboratory where all the stories seemed to be part of an organic whole. The stories stood on their own, but, like stands of bamboo, there was a dense root system underneath that stretched over time and distance, producing new shoots in surprising places.
It was a fantastic job. I’m sorry it’s over.
These excerpts are from Sunny Skies, Shady Characters: Cops, Killers, and Corruption in the Aloha State, by James Dooley, reprinted with permission of the University of Hawai‘i Press, copyright 2015. Just released this month (paperback, 248 pages, $18.99), the book is available from book retailers, or directly from UH Press at uhpress.hawaii.edu, where information about book signings and other special events will be posted.
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon
James Dooley plagued powerful people and aggravated editors throughout a 40-year career in Hawai‘i journalism. Born in Colorado, raised and educated in northern California, he arrived in the Islands in 1973 as a wire-service reporter and joined the staff of The Honolulu Advertiser a year later. He became a fulltime investigative reporter in 1976 after exposing the “pay to play” Kukui Plaza scandal at City Hall. Dooley covered organized crime and public corruption in print at the Advertiser, on the air at KITV News, and online at Hawai‘i Reporter before retiring in 2013. He lives on the Windward Side, plays occasional tennis and cherishes his family. This is his first book.