Honaunau man found guilty of second-degree murder

  • TIFFANY DEMASTERS/West Hawaii Today Brian Lee Smith stands Thursday in Kona Circuit Court as the jury in his second-degree murder trial delivers its verdict.

KEALAKEKUA — A Honaunau man stood quiet, with his head held up, as he listened Thursday to his guilty verdict in the case of a June 2018 fatal shooting on Painted Church Road in South Kona.

Jurors got the case Wednesday afternoon after hearing closing arguments in the trial for Brian Lee Smith, 50, who faced charges in connection with the murder of Thomas Ballesteros Jr. and attempted murder of Nikolaus Slavik.

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The jury returned its verdict before noon Thursday.

Smith was found guilty of second-degree murder and the included offense of first-degree reckless endangerment in connection to the assault on Slavik. He also was found guilty on two counts of ownership or possession (firearm) prohibited and two counts of carrying or use of a firearm in the commission of a separate felony.

The jury found Smith not guilty of attempted first-degree murder.

Smith is scheduled to be sentenced June 26. He remains in custody and faces life in prison with the possibility of parole.

“We hope an end of the criminal case brings closure to the Ballesteros family and Mr. Slavik and his family,” said Deputy Prosecutor Kate Perazich on Thursday, adding she was pleased with the verdict and thanked the jury for its attention in “this serious case.”

Ballesteros’ family openly wept when the guilty verdict was announced. Outside the courtroom after Smith was led out, Ballesteros’ sister and niece expressed relief and a sense of closure.

Rachel Velez, Ballesteros’ sister, said it’s been nine months of constant waiting and hoping.

“I was worried it might go the other way ‘cause you never know with a jury,” she said.

While they were disappointed Smith wasn’t found guilty of first-degree attempted murder, they were happy he was convicted.

Ballesteros’ niece, Bree-Ani Velez, sat through most of the trial. The hardest part for her was listening to Slavik’s testimony.

“We heard stories about what happened, but him walking though it made it more real,” she said. “I just kept praying it would go our way. Afraid he was going to get away with it.”

Charges stemmed from a June 23, 2018, shooting incident on Painted Church Road. Ballesteros and Slavik were picking mangoes on the mauka side of the road, across the street from Smith’s residence. About 3 p.m., Smith arrived home and at one point approached the men armed with a gun.

After a short exchange of words, Ballesteros was fatally shot in the head, Slavik was shot three times and Smith was shot in the upper thigh.

During trial, Smith testified Ballesteros had terrorized him and his roommate, Leslie Mosier. The night before the shooting, Smith told the court, the Ballesteros broke into his home, assaulted Mosier and stole his property.

When he saw Ballesteros and Slavik picking mangoes the following day, Smith stated he was scared and grabbed a gun he used for hunting to protect himself and insisted they leave.

On Thursday, Rachel Velez said she never knew her brother to be a violent person and didn’t deny his drug abuse. However, there were a lot of issues that happened between him and Mosier, who he dated for about three to four years.

Ballesteros is survived by a 21-year-old daughter and a 26-year-old son.

“I wanna thank everyone who’s been praying for our family to get through this situation and thank the prosecution for fighting so hard for him,” Rachel Velez said.

Smith had several friends support him during the trial. After the verdict, one of his friends said the Honaunau man was a good guy.

“It’s a sad day, but the family, they got the verdict they wanted, which is closure for them,” she said.

The woman, who declined to provide her name, added she’d always be Smith’s friend.

“I know he didn’t mean for this to happen,” she said.

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Attempts to reach Smith’s attorney, Jason Kwiat, who left the courthouse after the verdict, for comment were unsuccessful.

Email Tiffany DeMasters at tdemasters@westhawaiitoday.com.

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