Murder suspect mistakenly released

  • SMITH

Gov. David Ige said Thursday evening he’s “deeply concerned” about what the Department of Public safety admitted was the “erroneous release” of murder suspect Brian Lee Smith Tuesday at Hawaii Community Correctional Center.

“Our number one priority right now is your safety, and that means getting the suspect into custody,” Ige said. “I assure you that law enforcement agencies are doing everything they can to locate him. I urge all Hawaii residents to remain alert and call 911 if they see or hear something that could help.”

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The governor noted Big Islanders “have had to deal with the lava emergency and the recent murder of a police officer and I know this news is another blow.”

Ige said DPS “is investigating to determine what led to the erroneous release of the 49-year-old Smith, a pre-trial detainee in lieu of $1.15 million bail. Ige said he’s asked DPS Director Nolan Espinda “to personally oversee this investigation and report back to me as information is gathered.”

An email statement from DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said county prosecutors informed HCCC Thursday morning the facility might have released Smith on Tuesday.

The department said it had released Smith for matters before Kona District Court, but “quickly confirmed through documentation” that acknowledged Smith should have remained in custody because he was indicted June 9 by a Kona grand jury, which moves the case to Kona Circuit Court.

“As soon as we knew, we took action to alert the public,” Schwartz said.

The indictment serves as probable cause to hold Smith on charges of second-degree murder, second-degree attempted murder, first-degree attempted murder, two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and two counts of carrying or use of firearm in the commission of a separate felony.

Smith is accused of a June 23 shooting on Painted Church Road in Honaunau that killed 42-year-old Thomas Ballesteros Jr. and injured Nikolaus Slavik.

Smith’s attorney, Jason Kwiat, said prosecutors found out the release was a mistake Thursday morning, and the court set a hearing for 1:15 p.m. in the hopes Kwiat could get his client there. Kwiat said he wasn’t able to reach Smith in time for the hearing. He added that Smith didn’t have prior notice of the hearing. At that hearing, according to court minutes, Kona Circuit Judge Melvin Fujino ordered HCCC Warden Peter Cabreros to show cause why Smith was released and set a hearing for 8 a.m. Aug. 9.

The judge also issued a bench warrant for Smith’s arrest, with bail set at $2 million. Kwiat said there was a mixup at HCCC “for whatever reason.” He said he had been in touch with Smith, but not on Thursday, and was trying to figure out whether Tuesday’s release was valid when Smith contacted him. He added that he would advise Smith to turn himself in.

Smith is described as 5-feet-7-inches tall, 130 pounds, with graying brown hair and blue eyes.

Police Lt. Sherry Bird of the Kona Criminal Investigations Section asked anyone who sees Smith to call police.

“All we’re looking for is to get him back into custody, where he’s supposed to be,” Bird said.

Anyone with information on Smith’s whereabouts should call the police nonemergency number at 935-3311 or Crime Stoppers at 961-8300.

Smith’s release is the fourth time since 2013 a high-profile defendant was released from custody due to an error somewhere in the criminal justice system.

Tyler Kamana‘o Taylor, who is serving a 10-year prison term for robbing two tourist campers at knifepoint at Kolekole Beach Park, was released after a paperwork error between the courthouse and the jail on March 6, 2013. Police put out a bulletin seeking public information about his whereabouts June 12, 2013, two days after the Tribune-Herald published a story about his erroneous release from jail. He turned himself in in late August 2013.

William Roy Carroll III, who is serving a five-year sentence for vandalizing and stealing the spear of the Kamehameha statue in Hilo, was released Sept. 15, 2015, after the jail received dismissal papers from Hilo District Court before obtaining a Hilo Circuit Court complaint for the same charges. Carroll was taken into custody the following morning without incident.

And Keanu Krause, who is serving a five-year sentence for second-degree burglary, second-degree theft and six counts of unauthorized control of a stolen vehicle, was also mistakenly released from HCCC after what a prosecutor described as a “paperwork snafu”on June 23, 2017. Police described Krause as “armed and dangerous.” He was taken back into custody without incident in Puna later in the day.

Krause was transferred to Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu after he allegedly assaulted fellow inmate Gilbert DeSa on June 16 at HCCC, leaving the 60-year-old DeSa with multiple facial fractures.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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

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