KAPAAU — Authorities are investigating a shooting incident Wednesday in North Kohala that left one man hospitalized and prompted an hourslong lockdown of Kohala Middle School.
The shooting investigation in Wainaia Gulch comes a week after a pursuit started for Walter Gomes III, wanted for shooting a woman in Kailua-Kona. Police say the incidents are not connected.
Wednesday morning’s investigation began about 9 a.m. when Hawaii Island police officers responded to the area of the gulch in the vicinity of mile marker 24 on Akoni Pule Highway, also known as Highway 270, in North Kohala to a report of a person who appeared to be in distress.
Upon locating and approaching the 37-year-old man, officers heard a single gunshot that came from an unknown location, which ultimately struck the man.
“I heard it,” said Kapaau resident Naomi Melamed about the gunshot. “It woke me up. I didn’t think much of it — then I heard the guy screaming.”
Officers transported the victim out of the area and to North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea. He was later flown to The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu, where he was reported to be in serious condition. Police said preliminary investigation showed the man was shot twice.
Akoni Pule Highway was temporarily closed in the area while investigators processed the crime scene. Kohala Middle School was put into lockdown as a safety precaution while officers searched the area for the shooter.
The lockdown, which lasted from 9:35 a.m.-1:35 p.m., resulted in students being let out of class 40 minutes late, according to the state Department of Education. Students are normally released at 12:55 p.m. Wednesdays.
During the lockdown, Derek Inoshita, DOE spokesman, said each classroom had supplies for the emergency and that students were being escorted to restrooms, as needed. Officers also were on the campus and messages were sent to parents.
At about 1 p.m., officers on scene opened the mauka-bound lane, which allowed for the release of students. As of Wednesday at about 4 p.m., officers were no longer on scene.
Savannah Pukaha and her dad, Kevin, waited for a pizza about 3 p.m. at King’s View Cafe in Kapaau when they chatted with others in the shop about the incident that unfolded earlier that day.
“It was right after second period and everyone was going to recess,” Savannah said.
The 13-year-old recalled teachers yelling at the students that they were under lockdown and it wasn’t a drill and to get to a classroom.
“All you hear is everyone screaming and getting to a classroom,” she said.
Savannah said it felt like a year. She slept the hours away until the lockdown was lifted and school was let out.
Jonathan Brooke was waiting for his children outside the school Wednesday. He said the whole thing was “just a little freaky.”
Brooke said he got a call from his kids that morning telling him the school was on lockdown.
“They said a ‘dude’ was seen in the gulch,” he said.
After that, Brooke got a call from the school informing him of the situation.
“I felt the school did a good job in keeping them safe,” he added.
Akoni Pule Highway is the only route to get to Pololu Valley, a popular hiking and tourist destination on the island’s northern tip. Pololu bookends several valleys on the northern coast with Waipio Valley on the other end.
On Wednesday morning, several visitors were turned around at the roadblocks. Twelve cyclists were rerouted. Gary Hawkins and Lindsay Schulte, a couple from St. Louis hoping to see the sweeping northern island views, stopped at King’s View Cafe in hopes of waiting out the roadblock.
Hawkins recalled seeing five or six police vehicles speed by, as well as unmarked police cars.
“It’s so bizarre such an isolated incident even occurred,” Hawkins said. “In St. Louis, we’re used to it. It’s too beautiful here to have drama.”
As they waited for the roadblock to open, Schulte said they just sat, watching a lot of people give up and turn around.
“When we first pulled up it was all tourists,” she said.
It was just a week ago, that the North Kohala community was disrupted by two police shootings and a pursuit for Gomes. On March 21, police opened fire on the 41-year-old three times, once in Kona by Costco and twice in Hawi after he failed to comply to verbal commands.
Gomes disappeared into the North Kohala brush after he crashed his vehicle into a police car by Old Camp 17 Road in Hawi.
As of now, police think Wednesday’s incident is not related to the search for Gomes, contrary to information in social media posts.
Police ask those who might have witnessed Wednesday morning’s incident or who might have information to contact Lt. Roylen Valera at 326-4646, ext. 230, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email Tiffany DeMasters at email@example.com.