Rogues, Rascals and Villains
A roundup of Hawaii’s most notorious baddies from loveable hucksters to cold-blooded killers.
Photos courtesy of Hawaii State Archives
Just for the record, HONOLULU is all for the rule of law and the good guys. We just can’t resist talking about the bad guys once in a while. On the following pages, we’ve collected some of Hawaii’s most intriguing no-goodniks—the ones so charming, so devious, so downright scary, that the town is still talking about them, up to a century later.
“I am what I am—a peduncular polyp of life’s pedicel but hardly malignant. Hawaii must take me as I am.” The people of Hawaii did just that. Even if few ever believed a word Sammy Amalu said, he was loved for his charm and history-making schemes.
For example, there was that little multimillion-dollar Mystery Hui scam of 1962, which earned Amalu worldwide publicity for attempting to buy all five Sheraton Hotels in Waikiki and other choice Oahu land. At the time, newspapers splashed headlines like “$34 million offered for Isle Sheratons!” across their front pages. If the deal were legit, it would have been the biggest in Hawaii real estate history. Instead, it dissolved into the biggest hoax in Hawaii history when it was revealed that the wealthy “pro regents” of the Swiss presidium ready to buy the hotels were really just a few California teenagers Amalu had hired for the summer.
| Orieman Fujihara
is perhaps the only person in Hawaii to be sentenced to life in prison for two non-related crimes, decades apart. After being convicted of first-degree murder in 1901, he was pardoned in 1919, but ran afoul of the law again in 1931 when he burned a man’s house down. A second pardon was not forthcoming.
Amalu bounced one check after another and spent time behind bars both in the United States and the Philippines. Amalu became the only felon to ever write a regular news column from prison.
Just 33 days after he got out of the joint, Amalu wrote more bad checks, totaling $99,000, for three Cadillacs, three Jaguars, one Rolls Royce and a Bentley—landing him right back in the pen.
A year before his death in 1986, this magazine crowned Amalu “King of the Charismatic Con Men.” In his 1970 self-written obituary, Amalu wrote, “Sing no sad songs over my mortal dust. I have known laughter. I have known tears. I have tasted victory. I have sipped of failure. Is not all this enough?”
TOMMY “FAT BOY” OKUDA
Front-row seats, employee discounts, free drinks—knowing the right person in the right place can be the best thing in the world. For years, Tommy “Fat Boy” Okuda was one of those guys. Over the course of his long career at the Bureau of Traffic Violations, he “disappeared” thousands of traffic tickets for those in the know, notably legislators and other high-ranking government officials. He also wielded legendary power within the local Democratic party as a lobbyist, eventually heading the state Judiciary and Sheriff’s departments. Okuda handed out deputy sheriff’s badges to favored friends, and armed the department with Uzis and laser-sighted rifles.
Okuda’s ways had been an open secret for years, but when, inevitably, the news hit the papers in 1985, it erupted into a politically charged scandal. The city prosecutor office investigators even raided Okuda’s office, seizing eight handguns and bundles of tickets as evidence. During the prosecution, Okuda claimed to be a scapegoat and to be fair, he had hardly worked alone. He existed as part of a system of cronyism that included police officers, legislators and judges.
He was eventually convicted of just 13 misdemeanor counts of ticket fixing in 1989, but his civil service career was over.
“Working girls” from the New Senator Hotel posed for a photographer in 1940.
Photo courtesy of Ted Chernin
During an outrageous time in Honolulu’s history, Jean O’Hara emerged as the most outrageous prostitute and madam of them all. In the years before and during World War II, prostitution was an openly acknowledged and well-regulated part of Chinatown.
The restrictions for prostitutes were stringent—the women were not allowed to go to Waikiki, have steady boyfriends, visit a friend’s apartment or own property. But O’Hara had her own style. Flamboyantly flouting the rules, she tried to buy a home in Manoa and was promptly thrown in jail. During another one of her many heated run-ins with the law, the chief of police threatened to send O’Hara back to the Mainland for traveling without permission.
“I told him that I’d do as I darned well pleased, that I was a citizen and a taxpayer, and that I had violated no laws,” she wrote later.
So open was O’Hara about her profession that in 1944 she published an autobiography, Honolulu Harlot, revealing the inner workings of the industry. In her words, Honolulu was a “fleshmine of gold for the low down grafters.” For the town’s do-gooders, the sordid details of prostitution were too much to take. The lights in Honolulu’s red district were soon dimmed.
Photo courtesy of Paradise of the Pacific
Ah, the ’80s. It’s all coming back to us now. The fleet of luxury cars, the polo matches, the beachfront estate, the hobnobbing with the sultan of Brunei, the … shadowy CIA involvement? Such were the life and fast times of Ron Rewald, titular head of an investment firm called Bishop Baldwin Rewald Dillingham & Wong.
Don’t let those missionary-descendant monikers fool you; the pedigree was fake. Only Rewald and his business partner actually existed. The investments were fake, too. Turns out Rewald was a flamboyant prevaricator, lying about everything from a football career to his education at Marquette University. When Channel 2 broke the news that investigators were zeroing in on Bishop Baldwin, Rewald checked into the Sheraton Waikiki and attempted suicide. He failed, and was arrested and charged with running a Ponzi scheme.
Rewald then claimed he had set up the firm under orders from the CIA, living a lavish lifestyle merely as a cover to get close to such international figures as Filipino banker Enrique Zobel.
Jurors didn’t buy it, and found Rewald guilty, in 1985, of 94 counts of fraud, perjury and tax evasion. In all, Rewald had conned $22 million out of more than 400 local investors, even a widow and a blind man. Originally sentenced to 80 years, Rewald was released in 1995, wheelchair-bound from an injury he sustained in prison, and was on probation in Los Angeles until 2001.
Hawaii long remembers the infamous Massie case of 1932, in which Thalia Massie, wife of a Navy officer, falsely claimed to have been raped by five local men. But perhaps the case should be renamed for its central villain, Grace Fortescue, Thalia’s mother and quite possibly the worst mother-in-law in history.
“In her eyes, killing Joseph Kahahawai was nothing.”—Eddie Croom
When the trial of the five men accused of the crime ended in a jury deadlock, Fortescue convinced son-in-law Thomas Massie that the family’s honor and Thalia’s reputation could only be restored with a confession from one of the alleged attackers. Thomas and two other sailors kidnapped, interrogated and murdered Joseph Kahahawai. Fortescue and Thomas were both in the car, with Kahahawai’s bloody body, when the duo was apprehended by police on their way to dump the remains.
She never showed remorse. In a February 1932 interview with New York Times journalist Russell Owen, before her murder trial, Fortescue said, “I have slept better since … the day of the murder than in a long time.”
Grace Fortescue in the society pages, left, and in her mug shot, right.
Photos courtesy of the Hawaii State Archives
“In her eyes, killing Joseph Kahahawai was nothing,” explains Honolulu Police Department historian Officer Eddie Croom. “The crime was something she felt she shouldn’t be prosecuted for. It wasn’t a crime, because he was a nobody.”
Unfortunately, the politics of the day sided with Fortescue’s view. Although she was convicted by a jury on charges of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor, the territorial governor commuted her sentence to one hour served in his office, to avoid a rift with the U.S. Navy and government.
Claus Spreckels wasn’t the only huckster basking in the rays of Kalakaua’s power. A smooth talker named Elias Abraham
Rosenberg rolled into Honolulu in the 1880s, and quickly won the title of official soothsayer to King Kalakaua. Armed with religious relics, including a scroll and a silver pointer, and the ability to chant in Hebrew, Rosenberg cast rosy horoscopes for the king and anyone else who would listen. “Holy Moses,” as he became known, soon landed a plum appointment as an appraiser at the customs house, and the Hawaiian Gazette’s gossip columnist noted that the hardest work he did there was picking up his paycheck.
Unfortunately for Holy Moses, his benefactor’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in June 1887, when the revolution of the Bayonet Constitution stripped Kalakaua of much of his royal power. Rosenberg didn’t need a Hebrew scroll to see the writing on the wall, and was on a boat to San Francisco by the time everything came crashing down. Interestingly, his silver pointer is still around, in the collection of Temple Emanu-El.
When building his massive sugar empire in the late 1800s, Claus Spreckels knew where to go for help: straight to the top. He gained the ear of King Kalakaua through regular drinking and card-playing sessions, as well as extensive loans to the monarch, and used his influence to win cheap water rights and sweet land deals.
“Spreckels was a sharp cookie,” says Rich Budnick, author of Hawaii’s Forgotten History. “He was always viewed with suspicion by the rest of the business community, because of the sway he held with Kalakaua.”
A death threat against Claus Spreckels.
Photo courtesy of Paradise of the Pacific
Spreckels pulled off one of his biggest flim-flams in 1883, when he volunteered to handle the minting of $1 million worth of silver coins bearing the profile of Kalakaua. He ordered the coinage from the San Francisco Mint, as expected, but had them struck with a silver content of just 84 percent, and pocketed the approximately $150,000 difference (more than $3 million in 2008 dollars).
As Ernest Andrade dryly notes in The Hawaiian Journal of History, “The primary motive of Spreckels was to make a good profit. … The financial well-being of the kingdom was of secondary importance.” In fact, the scam helped precipitate a financial crisis in Hawaii that led to the revolution of 1887.
Spreckels left Hawaii in 1893 after receiving anonymous threats over his political stances. A poster left on his home’s gatepost read, “Gold and silver will not stop lead.”
In her six-year tenure as a Bishop Estate trustee, Lokelani Lindsey turned Kamehameha Schools upside down in a debacle that almost cost the estate its tax-exempt status in the mid-’90s. For an encore, she served six months in prison for money laundering and bankruptcy fraud in connection with her sister’s 1995 bankruptcy case.
Although Lindsey’s sentence was delayed three times by District Court Judge David Ezra on arguments that she had to care for her terminally ill husband, the jig was up when she was seen gambling at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas. Lindsey ultimately admitted to taking two trips there—one with her husband and one to “take a break from caring for him.”
Bernard “Otto” Kuehn
On the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, police arrested Bernard “Otto” Kuehn as a Nazi spy engaged in espionage. According to the FBI, Kuehn, a German alien who lived in Lanikai, had been feeding vital
In a last-ditch effort to delay her sentence again, Lindsey dropped a bizarre and rambling letter in the after-hours court document box. In it she claimed she was targeted for political reasons and arrested to prevent her from exposing political and financial corruption in the state involving Bishop Estate and race-based abuse of Hawaiians—oh, and she asked Ezra to recuse himself from the case. In court the next day, the judge called the letter “probably the single most incomprehensible act I have seen in my entire tenure as a federal judge.”
When it comes to sheer villainy, few Hawaii figures compare with Ronnie Ching. A hitman throughout the 1970s, Ching was responsible for some of organized crime’s most shocking murders: killing state Sen. Larry Kuriyama in his own Aiea carport, burying a DEA informant alive at Maili Beach, murdering the son of then-deputy City Corporation Counsel Charles Marsland Jr. on a Waimanalo road-side, and riddling informant Bobby Fukumoto with bullets from an M-16 at the Brass Door Lounge on Kapiolani Boulevard.
“He could talk a good story. But at the same time, he was cold-blooded.”—Keith Kaneshiro
Further cementing Ching’s reputation as Honolulu’s No. 1 bogeyman was his willingness to talk. In a secretly-taped conversation with police officer Don Carstensen over lunch in 1980, Ching rambled about how old he was when he first murdered someone (16) and the best place to bury a body (Makua Beach). Former city prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro says, “This guy was talkative, a very personable guy. He could talk a good story, and charm you. But at the same time, he was so cold-blooded.”
In 1985, Ching was sentenced to life in prison for four murders, although Kaneshiro says, “There were a lot more than those four guys.” Ching died in 2005 at the age of 56, still incarcerated at Halawa Community Correctional Center.