Details emerge in South Kona shooting

  • Brian Lee Smith

KEALAKEKUA — A Honaunau man accused of murder appeared for a preliminary hearing Friday afternoon in District Court wearing a hospital gown, leg brace and sitting in a wheelchair.

Deputies from the Hawaii Island Sheriff’s Office flew to Oahu earlier in the day to pick up Brian Lee Smith, 49, so he could appear in court on murder and weapon violation charges.

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Charges stem from a shooting incident that occurred on June 23 on Painted Church Road in Honaunau. Upon arrival, Hawaii Police Department officers confirmed one person dead at the scene. He was later identified as 42-year-old Thomas Ballesteros Jr., of no permanent address.

It was also determined that two other men were injured in the shooting, including the suspect, later identified as Smith. Both men had left the scene before officers arrived, and were later located and taken to Kona Community Hospital for treatment of non-life-threatening gunshot injuries. They were later flown to The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu for further treatment.

On Friday, Hawaii Police Officer Joel Furuto testified he was the first officer to respond to the scene the weekend the shooting occurred. He stated he was on Painted Church Road at 3:10 p.m. after authorities received numerous calls of gunshots and a body in the roadway in that area.

Furuto recalled seeing two vehicles stopped in the roadway and a body with its legs sticking up in the air. There was a man outside one of the vehicles, which was a white Chevy pickup. The officer said the driver was pacing and excitable.

“Initially I was 20 to 30 yards away from the body,” the officer told the court. “As I got closer I saw that it was lifeless and in the state of rigor mortis.”

As he examined the body, Furuto testified that there appeared to be a small puncture wound on the left side of his forehead on the outside of his eyebrow.

“I believed I recognized him to be Thomas Ballesteros,” he stated.

Furuto added there was a white bag under the victim’s head and upper torso. He recalled being surprised at the lack of blood on the bag with the type of wound Ballesteros suffered.

The officer told the court there were items found around the area. A Luger-style gun was found on the opposite side of the roadway. His partner pointed out five shell casings from a .22 long rifle. A mango picker was also recovered.

There were blood spatters just south of the body across the street, about 10 yards away.

After Furuto stepped down, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Kate Deleon requested a continuance. She also asked bail be maintained at $1.15 million as Smith is wanted out of Oregon for a parole violation and contempt of court violations in Hawaii.

The preliminary hearing has been rescheduled for July 23.

Community members came out to support Smith during the hearing. Outside the courtroom, Candi Baker said Smith has helped her maintain a 5-acre property with rental homes on Napoopoo Road since December 2014.

“He works his ass off and tries to keep his nose clean,” Baker said. With no family on the island, many of the people he’s gone to work for have grown to consider him ohana.

“He’s a remarkable individual,” said Elizabeth Miller. “He’s a kind and gentle soul.”

Miller hired Smith three months ago as a maintenance worker for her property in Kona.

“We’d trust him with our house,” she said.

Miller said Smith called her from the hospital soon after the shooting happened.

“He said: ‘I just went home and these two men were laying in wait for me,’” Miller recalled. “He told me it didn’t turn out well and he just wanted to thank me for being kind and for ‘being the person you are.’”

Smith was charged June 26 with second-degree murder, second-degree attempted murder, first-degree attempted murder, two counts of ownership or possession (firearm) prohibited and two counts of carrying or use of firearm in the commission of a separate felony.

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Smith is currently being held at Oahu Community Correctional Center and has not been cleared by medical doctors to be transferred to Hawaii Community Correctional Center.

“He doesn’t fit the profile of what he’s accused of,” Miller added.

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