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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted at 11:30 a.m., Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Suspect dies, 2 officers injured in aftermath of H-2 shootings

By James Gonser and Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writers

A 27-year-old man suspected of firing two shots at police in a confrontation on H2 freeway yesterday afternoon died of gunshot wounds early today. He had been shot by in the chest and the arm by police, who returned fire.

The shooting occurred on a grassy median near the Ka Uka Boulevard off-ramp to Waipi'o Gentry at 4:51 p.m. yesterday following a traffic stop. It involved four people in a van that had been reported stolen and initially two solo bike officers and another officer in an unmarked police car, who were all on traffic enforcement duty.

An HPD officer is surrounded by police and emergency vehicles at the scene of a shootout between police and suspects on the H-2 freeway. The white van in the background is believed to be the suspects’ vehicle.
Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser
The suspect who died today allegedly fired at least two shots from a Mossberg .12-gauge shotgun at officers, who returned fire. The armed suspect, who has been previously arrested under two names — Levi Esperas and Levi Laa — was shot in the chest and arm. He died at 1:06 a.m. at Kapi'olani Medical Center at Pali Momi.

Two 32-year-old officers — Robert Steiner and Aaron Bernal — hit with birdshot pellets from the shotgun blasts were taken to Queen's Medical Center. Bernal , who was driving the unmarked patrol car, suffered a graze wound to the side of his face. The pellets, however, nearly severed the bottom portion of Steiner's palm from his hand.

"He took the brunt of the hit in his hand," Internal Affairs investigator Lt. Gregory Poole said today of Steiner's injury. "There's substantial damage. The doctors were operating on him until 3 a.m., trying to save the hand." Steiner was about 20 feet away from the suspect when he was wounded, Poole said.

The investigator noted that at least two officers returned fire. More than six shots were fired by police. Shortly after Steiner came out of surgery, police arrested the woman suspect who fled the scene. A motorist called police to report a woman walking in the area where the shooting occurred and Pearl City patrol officers arrested her without incident at 4:30 a.m., said homicide Lt. William Kato.

The woman is also known by two names: Bernadette Laa and Bernadette Oili.

Two men, ages 28 and 29, who were in the van, were arrested at the scene. The three suspects have been booked for attempted murder and auto theft.

The Mossberg shotgun was recently stolen from a Nanakuli resident. Police recovered three spent shotgun casings and one unfired round at the scene but suspect there is another spent casing in the barrel as well as one loaded round. The fatal shooting is the second this year involving police officers. Both of them have involved suspects armed with shotguns.

On Jan. 13, police shot Mitchell Udani at Ala Moana Center after he killed his estranged girlfriend.

Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Peter Carlisle is expected to rule shortly on whether the Udani shooting was justified. Decisions are due, too, on two other police shootings — the death of Bernard Crivello in Waikiki last Oct. 3 and the wounding of a 34-year-old man in Mililani Mauka on Jan. 14 of this year.

The officers, both 32 and both nine-year veterans of the Honolulu Police Department, were at The Queen's Medical Center.

One of them, Robert Steiner, a motorcycle officer, was shot in the left hand, his condition described as guarded, but stable condition this morning.

The other, Aaron Bernal, who was in an unmarked police car, was in good condition with a slight wound to the side of the face.

"They're both OK," Honolulu Police Department Assistant Chief Rafael Fajardo told reporters at the hospital.

Steiner's father, Robert Steiner Sr., of Honolulu, said late last night he had just learned of the shooting.

"When I found out, it was a little bit hard to believe," Steiner Sr. said.

He said his son, who was born on the Mainland and grew up on Moloka'i, had followed a childhood dream when he joined the Honolulu police force.

"He always wanted to be a police officer when he was small," Steiner said.

Though proud of his son, Steiner said he was always concerned that the officer could someday be hurt in the line of duty.
"You really don't know from one day to the next," he said.

Police Chief Lee Donohue went to the scene to oversee the investigation.

The battle began at about 4:50 p.m., minutes after officers ordered a white northbound van on the freeway to pull over to the center median for an apparent traffic violation or erratic driving, police said.

Two officers on motorcycles and an officer in an unmarked police car were on the freeway watching for traffic violators.

A struggle ensued between the police and one of the suspects, and another suspect pulled out a shotgun and fired at police, Assistant Chief Boisse Correa said.

The man with the shotgun was hit in the head and chest when one or more of the officers returned fire.

Police then broadcast "10-15" (officers need assistance), summoning every officer in the vicinity to the scene, Correa said.

When a 10-15 radio call is given, Correa said, "It's the worst case scenario for officers. But this is police work; it's what we do every day."

The wounded officers were taken by helicopter to Queen's.

Emergency Medical Services Field Supervisor Mandy Shiraki said that one officer, Steiner lost most of his hand.

Bernal, he said, had pellet wounds from the shotgun to his right side and face.

Both of the motorcycle officers were wearing bulletproof vests. It was not immediately known how many officers returned fire.

Any officer who fired shots was to be automatically relieved from active duty during a routine investigation by internal affairs.

Police closed all southbound and one of four northbound lanes of the freeway near Ka Uka Boulevard.

Commuters took two hours to make what is normally a 45-minute drive from town to Mililani at about 4:30 p.m., one motorist said.

The two other suspects, who were not wounded, were booked at the Pearl City substation. They were refusing to cooperate and had not yet been identified, police said.

Advertiser staff writer Walter Wright contributed to this report.