Police: Persistent claims about looting are mostly just rumors

  • Maj. Samuel Jelsma
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Police officers man the checkpoint recently at the entrance to Leilani Estates at the intersection of Highway 130 and Leilani Avenue.

During Tuesday night’s community meeting at Pahoa High School cafeteria about the ongoing lava emergency, the subject of looting in lower Puna arose — again.

Police Maj. Samuel Jelsma, the Puna District commander, was present at the meeting and told the Tribune-Herald on Wednesday police have received “a lot of rumors of that type of stuff going on.”

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Much of lower Puna is inaccessible by road, with highways 132 and 137, plus Pohoiki Road, partially covered by lava. One individual at the meeting said his home on Pohoiki Road was burglarized.

Asked about patrols in the area, Jelsma replied, “Essentially, it’s surrounded by lava. The lava may not be an active flow, but you cannot drive in to there.”

The Tribune-Herald has received reports from the public about looters entering restricted areas in lower Puna by boat. The Pohoiki boat ramp and Isaac Hale Beach Park are at the makai end of Pohoiki Road, sandwiched between two different flow fronts covering Highway 137, making it impossible for law enforcers to access the Pohoiki area by road.

The boat ramp, which is adjacent to the park, is state property, while Isaac Hale, a county park, is closed.

“Pohoiki Ramp is not officially closed …,” state Department of Land and Natural Resources spokeswoman Deborah Ward said in a Wednesday email. “However, anyone caught at the ramp or in Isaac Hale Beach Park would be in violation of the county ordinance pertaining to loitering in a disaster area, and subject to arrest and citation.”

Ward said there are no offshore patrols of the area.

Police and the National Guard continue to operate four checkpoints in lower Puna — at the intersection of highways 130 and 132 next to Pahoa High School, at the corner of Highway 130 and Leilani Avenue, at Highway 132 and Kaululaau Street, and on Government Beach Road at Papaya Farms Road. They also continue to patrol inundated areas still accessible by road to prevent looting of evacuated homes, Jelsma said.

“We are asking members of the public, if they have confirmed that their places have been burglarized, to pass that information on to us. We can definitely make the reports,” Jelsma said. “At this point, we’re getting a lot of rumors. … A few cases have been reported recently, but up to that point, it was just information coming in to us that it was rumored that these kinds of activities were going on down there.”

Police and prosecutors have declared a zero-tolerance policy concerning crimes committed in evacuated areas during the state of emergency, and police have arrested individuals suspected of felony offenses in lava-inundated areas.

Alexandru Stingu-Dragomir, 29, of Pahoa was arrested May 9 in Leilani Estates and charged with three counts of burglary of a dwelling during an emergency and another of burglary of a building during an emergency. He pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 8 before Hilo Circuit Judge Henry Nakamoto. He remains in custody at Hawaii Community Correctional Center in lieu of $70,000 bail.

John William “Bill” Hubbard, 61, of Leilani Estates, was arrested May 29 and charged with first-degree robbery, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, illegally carrying a handgun, two counts of first-degree reckless endangering, and five counts of first-degree terroristic threatening. Police say Hubbard was the gunman in a Leilani Estates incident that was captured on video that went viral. He pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 15 before Nakamoto. He remains in custody at HCCC in lieu of $195,000 bail.

Hubbard also faces a federal charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

And Edward I. “Eddie” Wilson, 50, of Opihikao, was arrested May 30 and charged with two counts each of first-degree robbery, first-degree theft, first-degree terroristic threatening, and first-degree property damage, all during a declared emergency. According to police, Wilson was one of two men who robbed a pair of men at gunpoint of their camera equipment in Opihikao. He pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 15 before Nakamoto. He’s free on $20,000 bail.

The other suspect, the alleged gunman, is still at large.

In addition, two people were cited by DLNR enforcement officers Wednesday at about 10 a.m. at Pohoiki for allegedly loitering in a disaster area, bringing the total number of individuals cited for allegedly being in areas closed because of lava to 82. They were identified as John Burgoon, 50, of Keaau and Melanie A. Thomas, 45, of Waikoloa. The pair reportedly was spotted by county helicopter, and DLNR officers were flown in to cite them.

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Under a proclamation by Gov. David Ige, those found guilty of loitering in restricted areas can be sentenced to up to a year in jail and fined up to $5,000.

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

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