Man cuts plea deal after key witness vanishes

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A large-scale methamphetamine trafficking case has fallen apart because the state’s primary witness has disappeared.

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A large-scale methamphetamine trafficking case has fallen apart because the state’s primary witness has disappeared.

Richard Theodore Frias Jr. of Mountain View pleaded no contest Tuesday to a misdemeanor charge of illegal storage of ammunition. Hilo Circuit Judge Glenn Hara set sentencing for 1 p.m. on Nov. 3.

Prosecutors dropped two counts of first-degree methamphetamine trafficking, a Class A felony punishable by 20 years imprisonment, plus a drug paraphernalia charge, because a witness and co-defendant, 29-year-old Joseph Paul Branco of Ainaloa, has gone missing.

“The state’s necessary witness to link Mr. Frias to the drugs is unavailable to testify for a trial. We’ve been unable to locate him,” Deputy Prosecutor Kevin Hashizaki said after the hearing.

Police arrested the 32-year-old Frias on Feb. 20 after executing a search warrant at an Alaloa Road property in Waiakea Uka.

According to a police statement, officers seized 7.75 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, paraphernalia, an unregistered handgun, two unregistered rifles and $5,700 in cash.

The estimated street value of the drugs is almost $900,000, according to police. The meth was found in 15 containers within a larger plastic box in a portion of the property Frias used to store feed and supplies for his chickens, according to court documents filed by police.

Documents also state a magazine to an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle with nine rounds was found under the driver’s seat of a Toyota pickup Frias was driving, and five 7 mm bullets were found in the truck’s glove compartment.

Two other men, 32-year-old Christopher Manukai Mae and 35-year-old Waylon Thomas, both of Hilo, were also arrested Feb. 20 at the Alaloa Road farm.

Mae pleaded no contest March 30 to first-degree methamphetamine trafficking and has an Oct. 25 trial date; Thomas has not been charged.

Branco, who was not initially arrested, was indicted March 11, along with Frias and Mae. He pleaded not guilty on March 25 and was granted supervised release. He disappeared sometime prior to June 29, when he was scheduled to appear in court to request his trial be postponed.

His court-appointed attorney, Jennifer Wharton, told Hara on June 29 she had filed a motion to withdraw from the case because she’d had no contact with Branco since his March arraignment, according to court records.

The judge read the terms of Frias’ plea deal in open court.

“You’ll be subject to probation for one year, you’ll receive credit for any time served, and the state will not ask for any additional terms of incarceration, other than time served,” said Hara, who indicated the court will follow the terms of the deal.

Frias is eligible to ask for a deferred acceptance of his no-contest plea, which, if the judge grants it, would erase the conviction upon satisfactory completion of probation.

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Frias is free on $50,000 bail. His Honolulu-based attorney, Alan Okamoto, declined to comment after the hearing.

Email John Burnett at jburnett @hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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