Exclusive First Look at a New Book by the Attorney Who Helped Unravel the Kealoha Conspiracy
Alexander Silvert tracks the byzantine path of the crimes—and ultimate convictions—of Honolulu law enforcement’s once high-rolling power couple: former police Chief Louis Kealoha and ex-deputy city prosecutor Katherine Kealoha.
In the summer of 2013, Gerard Puana first sat down with federal public defender Alexander Silvert to insist he was being framed in the strange case of a stolen mailbox. After 28 years of federal cases, the attorney wasn’t sure if Puana would be a difficult client. He turned out to be a life-changing one.
Eight years later, and less than a year after the Kealohas’ sentencing, Silvert gives HONOLULU Magazine a first look at his new book, The Mailbox Conspiracy, scheduled for publication next month. Even though we know the well-publicized outcome, Silvert unfurls the story in the style of a legal whodunit. “My usual caseload was a steady diet of serious drug offenses, mostly methamphetamine, bank robberies, gun cases, and large-scale white-collar fraud cases, all of which carry hefty jail time if my client is convicted,” he writes. “A simple theft of a mailbox piqued my curiosity. But what really caught my attention were the owners of the residence where now only the pedestal to the mailbox remained.” They were the Kealohas—the Honolulu police chief and his wife, the third-highest ranking prosecutor in Honolulu at the time.
“This is real corruption, this isn’t just a few bad apples.”
— Alexander Silvert
The chronological treatment allows Silvert to bring home the sobering fact that the huge public corruption case could have stalled, or died, any number of times. “It was very touch-and-go; we had no idea how it was going to really turn out,” he says.
He provides insight into real-world legal proceedings and credits the unassuming hero of the tale: Puana, Katherine Kealoha’s uncle and the man whom the power couple had attempted to frame with the theft of a pricey mailbox. Puana insisted on his innocence even as much of the legal establishment supported the Kealohas, who turned out to have been bilking his family and others, forcing his elderly mother, Florence Puana, to sell her family home before she died at age 100.
“But for Gerard Puana standing up and saying, ‘I’m not going to take a deal, I’m going to fight this,’ none of this would have happened,” Silvert says, “and it could easily have cost him years of his life in jail.” The Kealohas’ insistence that grainy security footage clearly identified Puana helped unravel the conspiracy. “Ultimately it was the most ridiculous thing that they did that caught them.”
Silvert says he hopes the book makes the case for accountability. “We really have to examine this and how this happened. So it doesn’t happen again.”
The Mailbox Conspiracy: The Inside Story of the Greatest Corruption Case in Hawai‘i History, by Alexander Silvert, Watermark Publishing, www.bookshawaii.net, $19.95, 256 pages.
Here’s a sneak peek at Chapter 11 of the book below.
Editor’s note: Attorney Alexander Silvert gave HONOLULU Magazine an exclusive first look at his new book and spoke to editor at large Robbie Dingeman about behind-the-scenes details of how the case of a missing mailbox led to one of the state’s most infamous corruption trials. The book reveals the work behind the discovery of the schemes of the once-powerful couple: former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife and deputy prosecuting attorney, Katherine Kealoha. This chapter, titled “Rue the Day,” digs into Katherine Kealoha’s motives and the eye-popping and randomly capitalized letters she sent to her then 93-year-old grandmother.)
Motive. It’s often the key to determining whether a defendant is guilty of the crime they are charged with. If you can explain to a jury why a person would want to commit the crime, then it’s that much more likely they will follow along with you as you show them the evidence that they did commit the crime. Every crime drama has a plot that focuses on a defendant’s motive. The more twisted the motive, the more interesting the story. Sometimes it’s simple: a person robs a store for money to buy drugs or to pay bills. Sometimes it’s emotional: a spurned lover or a domestic relationship gone bad. Sometimes it’s just plain greed. And sometimes it’s a combination of all of the above.
Many people are surprised to learn that while there are legal elements of every crime that the government must prove, motive is not one of them. The prosecution need only prove the defendant committed the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt. There are legal elements to each crime the government must prove, but motive is not one of them. Proving that the defendant had a reason, a motive, for committing the crime is not relevant to a finding of guilt. Nevertheless, prosecutors often seek to develop a defendant’s motive because it’s more convincing to a jury. A jury is more likely to convict if they understand not only the how, when and where, but also the why.
In Gerard Puana’s case the tables were turned. It was we, the defense, who needed to prove motive if we wanted to convince a jury that Gerard was framed. And we needed a damn good one if a jury was going to believe that the HPD Chief of Police himself, his high-level prosecutor wife, and various members of the Honolulu Police Department had all conspired to frame Gerard, a family relative of the Kealohas no less, for stealing a mailbox. This was no small task. I was used to picking apart motives suggested by a prosecutor to explain my client’s criminal behavior, not putting one together.
Greed. Power. Prestige. We thought any one of these would suffice as a motive if it was strong enough. If we could check off more than one of these vices, we’d have found good reasons why Gerard would, or at least could have been framed. The civil lawsuit clearly put Katherine at risk, that much was obvious. If she lost and it was proven that she had actually stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from her uncle and grandmother, Katherine would most likely lose her law license, might even become the subject of a state criminal investigation herself; certainly her standing in the community would be destroyed. But we had to show that this wasn’t just our opinion but something Katherine actually believed to be true. We needed something that proved beyond any doubt that she feared the civil lawsuit and what might happen to her if the truth came out. And we found it. In Katherine’s own words, in the letters Katherine had written in September 2012 to Florence.
We’d learned during our investigation that Katherine Kealoha was the daughter of Florence’s son, Rudy. She was Florence’s granddaughter. She was the only attorney in the family, graduating from the University of Hawai‘i Richardson School of Law in 1996. She began her legal career as a judicial law clerk for three different state judges before steadily rising through the ranks of the City and County’s Prosecutor’s Office after working on and off in small private law firms. Katherine was also an adjunct professor at Chaminade University’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice Administration. In 2008, Governor Linda Lingle appointed her as director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control, where Katherine served for several years before returning to work at the Prosecutor’s Office, where she became the supervisor of the Career Offender Unit. Katherine’s resume was, to say the least, impressive.
Louis had risen through the police ranks, going from being a captain to being selected as the Chief of Police after having been passed over for promotion to major several times. One local magazine dubbed them the “Dynamic Duo.” They had several homes, including a house in Kāhala, one of the wealthiest suburbs of Honolulu. Katherine drove a Maserati. Clearly Katherine’s standing in the community meant a lot to her. Together, the Kealohas lived a good life and were considered a Hawaiian power couple. Katherine understood that the mere accusation that she had stolen money from her grandmother and uncle could cause serious problems for both her and her husband, let alone the problems a verdict against her would create.
We’d learned that by February 2013, Florence had found out that not only was the reverse mortgage not paid off, but the $137,235 balance in the joint account Katherine had set up for them was gone. It was later discovered that Katherine had spent $37,405 of this money on hotel fees, including $23,976 for an inaugural breakfast celebration for Louis when he became chief, at the Sheraton Waikiki in 2010. Another $10,171 was spent on miscellaneous personal expenses of Katherine’s, including Elton John tickets, insurance and cell phone payments. And over $9,000 went to car expenses, including payments on her Maserati and Mercedes-Benz, and another $10,000 on shopping and restaurant charges. All without Florence’s knowledge or consent.
In June 2013, when Katherine alleged Gerard had stolen the mailbox, the civil lawsuit was slowly moving towards trial. We reckoned Katherine badly needed to win the civil case, and she wanted Gerard to be convicted of a felony offense. But our case was not the only effort Katherine made to saddle Gerard with a felony conviction. In 2011, Gerard had been arrested for going onto his neighbor’s front porch in an argument over a parking space. The neighbor kept parking on the street right in front of the steps that led down from Florence’s home. Gerard needed to park there to make it easier for Florence to get in and out of the car and up and down from the house. Gerard had asked his neighbor on several occasions to leave the space available, but to no avail. For going onto his neighbor’s porch to argue, Gerard had been arrested for unlawful entry, a state felony offense. In March 2013, Gerard pled guilty, but in June, the same month Katherine alleged Gerard stole the mailbox, a state court judge granted Gerard’s request for a deferred plea, commonly referred to as a DANC plea, for “deferred acceptance of no contest.” This meant that there was no longer a conviction, and so long as Gerard complied with the terms of his probation, the charges against him would be expunged from his record. Thus Gerard was no longer legally convicted of any crime. But in September, just three months later, with the civil case still pending, Katherine tried to get the state judge to reverse his decision by ordering one of her deputy attorneys to file a motion challenging the legality of the DANC plea. The challenge was unsuccessful. Gerard remained felony free.
But if Gerard was convicted of a felony in our federal case before the civil case went to trial, this “bad” or “illegal” act could be used during the civil trial to undermine his credibility. This was possible because Katherine alleged that Gerard had stolen the mailbox for the specific purpose of obtaining important bank statements that he thought were inside the mailbox that night. This allegation made it more likely that the state court judge would allow his criminal conviction for stealing the mailbox into evidence because the theft was directly related to the civil lawsuit. While Katherine, we believed, might feel that she stood a good chance of discrediting Florence’s testimony as nothing more than that of an old lady who couldn’t and didn’t remember what really happened, Gerard was younger, with no memory issues, and presented a real threat. He needed to be dealt with. As outlandish as it might at first seem, framing Gerard for stealing the mailbox was the solution to her problem.
Katherine apparently believed she’d be able to orchestrate the investigation and the prosecution of the case from start to finish. Her husband, the chief of police, would conduct and therefore control the investigation. Katherine’s office, or the state’s attorney general office, where she had many close associates, would prosecute the case. No one, we thought Katherine believed, would ever seriously question the investigation or their credibility. In state court, Gerard would be appointed a state public defender with a heavy caseload, who would most likely not have the resources or time to fully investigate the case. And if any issues arose with the prosecution, Katherine could call upon the prosecutor to offer Gerard, her poor uncle, a sweetheart deal to plead guilty to avoid jail time. Gerard might then have had no choice but to take the deal to get himself out of jail. If this happened, as a further benefit to Katherine, she would look good to her entire family for having prevailed upon the prosecutor to go easy on Gerard. And presto, a felony conviction would be in place, and Gerard’s family would be indebted to Katherine. Brilliant. It simply had to go according to plan. But when it didn’t, and the case ended up in federal court, she was already too committed. She just had to get Gerard convicted, now in federal court. He was still charged with a felony. Her plan could still work…if everyone stuck to the plan.
On September 10, 2012, Florence took her attorney’s advice and sent the letter to Katherine revoking her power of attorney and questioning what had happened with the reverse mortgage. Florence wrote:
I am brokenhearted and have been anxious and worried since I discovered that there is a balance owed on my home of over $637,000. As you know, I’ve tried again and again to talk to you by phone, offered to meet with you at any time or place. But you’ve refused my requests. You have not been truthful, have turned your back on me and will not return any of my calls. I’m confused by your actions and am worried sick. I don’t understand what you’ve done and why.
I trusted you when you came to me in October 2009 with the idea of a reversed [sic] mortgage on my house so I could buy a condo…and you could borrow around $300,000 which you said was to consolidate your debts. You promised you’d repay the money within 3 to 6 months at most….
I am still willing to work this out with you. But if I do not hear from you…by 9/18, you will leave me no choice but to take whatever steps necessary to legally correct this mess.
Florence signed the letter, “Your grandmother.” Gerard’s name was not affixed to the letter. In fact, his name did not appear in the letter at all.
We knew it would be challenging to find a way to explain all of this to the jury. But, luckily for us, we had Katherine’s own words to do it for us. The two letters Katherine had herself penned five days later in response to Florence’s one-page, desperate letter seeking answers exuded greed, power and prestige.
One letter, containing forty-one numbered paragraphs and consisting of ten pages, was addressed to “Puana Family Member, Party Participant, and Interested Party.” We’ve never figured out why Katherine used these terms when addressing her own family other than to make her letter appear more “legalistic.” The second letter was six pages long and addressed only to Florence and Gerard Puana. Both letters were typed and signed by Katherine. The number of capitalized and underlined words contained in these letters was both striking and odd. The style of writing made it appear as if Katherine was so angry that she could hardly contain herself, almost yelling at the reader through the words on the page. The letters certainly did not appear to be written by an attorney with over sixteen years’ experience, let alone someone who once ran a state office and was now one of the highest-ranking City and County prosecuting attorneys on O‘ahu.
In the letter addressed to “The Puana Family,” Katherine denied, point by point, that she had done anything wrong. She absolutely refused to accept any responsibility, focusing on the fact that she had not and never would have borrowed any money from Florence. As Katherine stated, “I can assure everyone that I did not borrow even a dime from these people.” “These people” referred to Katherine’s own grandmother, Florence, and her now presumably no-longer-favorite uncle, “Gerrsters.” Throughout the letter Katherine referred to Florence and Gerard as “the individuals” and “the likes of these people,” noting that while she “may be related to Florence and Gerard by blood [she] DID NOT grow up close to them.” Katherine repeatedly asserted that she had used her own funds to secure the reverse mortgage, which was why Florence’s claim that Katherine borrowed money to repay her own debts “INFURIATES ME ABOUT THE LIES”; this “FALSE assertion is BEYOND ABSURD.” Unrelenting, Katherine asserted that “these allegations are BOGUS and FALSE because I DON’T EVEN HAVE ANY SIGNIFICANT BILLS TO CONSOLIDATE….” Several times in the letter Katherine stated she would not be “THE SCAPEGOAT ANY FURTHER!”
Katherine’s claim that she was not in debt and would never borrow money from “the likes of” Florence was simply false. We learned through extensive subpoena efforts that on August 2, 2009, at the very time the reverse mortgage loan was being negotiated, Katherine had filed a police report claiming that someone had stolen her identity, causing her financial problems. The police report corroborated Florence and Gerard’s claim that Katherine had suggested the reverse mortgage in part so that she could use some of the money to clear up her own financial difficulties.
Katherine’s letter went further, threatening Florence and Gerard with retribution should they continue making their false accusations:
This time may have been wasted, but IT WILL NOT BE SOON FORGOTTEN! I will meet these FALSE ALLEGATIONS with necessary and justified LEGAL ACTION and I can assure all of you that I will not rest until I have the JUST RETRIBUTION sought for these deplorable, libelous and defamatory statements…everything I did has been JUSTIFIED and THEY SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES FOR THOSE LIES ABOUT ME!
Katherine’s letter ended with a discussion of various bad acts allegedly perpetrated by Gerard against her and her family and how she had tried to help Gerard work through his legal problems in the past. But, due to Florence’s letter, Gerard should not “EXPECT ANY SYMPATHY, FORGIVENESS OR RECONCILE FOR ANYONE WHO PUTS MY FAMILY IN HARMS WAY!”
While this letter, which Katherine sent to the entire Puana family, contained many quotable phrases that we would present to the jury to demonstrate Katherine’s extreme level of animus towards Gerard, it was the second letter addressed to Florence and Gerard that contained even more venomous words from Katherine. In this letter, Katherine once again defended her actions as nothing more than her own good-hearted attempt to assist Florence with obtaining funds to buy Gerard a condo. Katherine began her defense of her actions by denying that she received any calls or messages from Florence, stating she had “never once received a telephone call, a telephone message, a letter, an e-mail or any other form of communication on Florence’s behalf wishing to speak or meet with me about this situation.” Katherine again repeatedly refuted that she borrowed any money from Florence, stating,
I HAVE NEVER, WILL NEVER OR WOULD NEVER BORROW, TAKE OR EVEN REQUEST to BORROW ANY MONEY FROM FLORENCE PUANA!…. I am ASHAMED and APPALLED at both Florence and Gerard for allowing SUCH A LIE to be STATED!…I WILL PROVE that this is a HORRIBLE LIE! ANY PERSON who perpetuates this LIE should be damned ASHAMED of THEMSELVES for stating such CRAP!…HOW DARE ANYONE make such MALICIOUS and FALSE STATEMENTS against me!…you are now a Tortfeasor under the Law! YOUR tortious conduct is Outrageous, Unacceptable and beyond reprieve!
Katherine further claimed that she had documentation to prove the truth of her statements and “WELCOME[D] ANY AND ALL ‘legal action.’”
Then, in her own words, Katherine’s desire to strike back at Gerard became readily apparent. What she wrote, with such rage, made her intent crystal clear and later would become the mantra of our case and the capstone of my opening statement to the jury. In its simplicity and brevity, it revealed why a top state prosecutor and her chief of police husband would go to great lengths to frame an innocent man, to see that he was arrested, imprisoned and charged with a felony for a crime he did not commit:
I WILL seek the highest form of legal retribution against ANYONE and EVERYONE who has written or verbally uttered these LIES about me!
They will rue the day that they decided to state these TWISTED LIES!
These were ugly words, ugly letters. We would use them to make things right for Gerard.
Copyright © 2021 by Alexander Silvert.