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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 19, 2001

Relatives stunned by H-2 shooting

 • Police shooting suspects likely to be released
 •  Chase begun on H-1 led to fatal gun battle

By Walter Wright and William Cole
Advertiser Staff Writers

Levi Lopaka Esperas, the 27-year-old man who died early yesterday following Tuesday's shootout with police, leaves behind a wife, four children and unanswered questions for relatives about what happened on the H-2 Freeway.

 •  See a graphic detailing the shooting
Esperas and his wife, Bernadette O'ili, were in the stolen white van that police pulled over.

Following a struggle, Esperas fired two shots at the officers from a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun, authorities say.

The officers fired at least 10 shots, police say.

The couple's four children, sons ages 1, 2 and 8, and a daughter who is 9, have been told about the incident, said O'ili's brother, Jayson .

Jayson O'ili said the children had been staying with grandparents in Nanakuli off and on. He said he took aside his 8-year-old nephew yesterday.

"I didn't tell him 'Your daddy got shot,'" he said. "I told him, 'Your daddy went away and you might have to stay with me or grandpa."

The shooting occurred 4:51 p.m. Tuesday on a grassy median on the H-2 freeway about a mile north of the Ka Uka Boulevard. Police had been chasing the van, which they say was speeding and weaving in Waipahu.

Esperas was shot in the chest and arm and died at 1:06 a.m. yesterday at Kapi'olani Medical Center at Pali Momi.

The other two suspects arrested at the scene are Samuel Hao, 29, and Jesse Ani, 28, both of Wai'anae.

Officers injured

Police officers Robert Steiner and Aaron Bernal, both 32, were hit with birdshot pellets from the shotgun blasts and taken to the Queen's Medical Center.

Bernal, who was driving the unmarked patrol car, suffered a graze wound to the side of his face. The pellets nearly severed the bottom portion of Steiner's palm.

"He took the brunt of the hit in his hand," Internal Affairs investigator Lt. Gregory Poole said yesterday. "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 shooter when he was hit, Poole said.

Shortly after Steiner came out of surgery, police arrested Bernadette O'ili, who had 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 Mossberg shotgun was recently stolen from a Nanakuli resident, police said. Police recovered spent shotgun casings and one unfired round at the scene.

The fatal shooting is the second this year involving police officers. Both have involved suspects armed with shotguns.

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

Police yesterday said the van's three passengers are being investigated for first-degree attempted murder.

'Truly heroes'

Honolulu Police Chief Lee Donohue said Esperas apparently was the only one who fired at police officers, a crime punishable in Hawai'i by life in prison without parole, but that the surviving suspects also will be investigated for attempted murder of the officers because of their role in the case.

Donohue called the two wounded officers "truly heroes" who luckily will survive a deadly standoff.

"We were blessed again," Donohue said. "Both of them could easily have been killed."

The white van had been reported stolen on April 15, but Donohue said it did not appear that the officers learned that the van was stolen until after the shootout was over.

He said it appeared the officers did not have time to check the license plate with dispatch or through a computer in the patrol car against reports of stolen vehicles.

But Donohue said the officers "did very well" in the encounter. "They did what they were taught, what they were trained to do."

The chief said no other officers responded to the chase until after the shooting, and said he did not know if the officers involved originally had called for help before the shooting.

During a press conference on the shooting late yesterday afternoon, Donohue was asked why the wounded officers were flown to the Queen's Medical Center by helicopter before the wounded suspect was taken by ambulance to Pali Momi in Pearlridge.

"I can answer that. I was there, at the scene," said the chief, who arrived quickly at the site because he was on the road when the shooting occurred.

"When I got there, both of the officers had been attended to and were ready to be transported," he said.

As for the wounded suspect, "they (emergency medical personnel) were still working on him, trying to stabilize him, and the emergency medical people made the decision that they were going to take the officers out now.

"There was an ambulance standing by right there" for the suspect, he said. By the time the medical team got the suspect stable enough to move, the officers had already been flown out, and the suspect was put into the ambulance for transport to Pali Momi.

Relatives in shock

O'ili's brother Jayson, 24, said yesterday he knew Esperas as a good person.

"He really didn't have anything bad going on that I knew of," the brother said. The Pearl City man added he was in shock watching the shooting news coverage on television.

His sister was the "class clown" at Nanakuli High School, graduating in 1990 and later becoming a nurse's aide, while the athletic Esperas, who also went to Nanakuli, was "quiet, humble, and really didn't say much."

"Right now I don't know what to say," O'ili said. "It's a big surprise to me. My mom won't talk to anybody."

Although he wasn't sure if his sister recently had a job, she and her husband "weren't going downhill," he said.

He added he thought they were staying with friends in Wai'anae.

Previous convictions

Esperas worked for a couple of months as a meat cutter in 1999 in Wai'anae, and for a few months as a sheet metal worker last year.

Records relating to convictions in 1998 for harassment and 1999 for "abuse of a household family member" note several addresses, and indicate that in early February, Esperas was living on the beach and was unemployed.

The two misdemeanor convictions were followed by revocation or modification of the conditions, and Esperas, who also had the alias Levi La'a, was resentenced in Family Court, according to the Hawai'i Criminal Justice Data Center.

In February, Esperas was sentenced to six months probation, the city prosecutors office said.

Court action related to the two cases was the only criminal record noted for Esperas by the criminal justice data center.

Hao had 1990 convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol and driving without a license, and a 1999 conviction for theft, records indicate.

Ani had 1995 arrests and convictions for violation of an order of protection and contempt of court, and a 1997 summons arrest on probation, according to reports.

Bernadette O'ili, also known as Bernadette La'a, has no conviction history reported by the criminal justice data center.

None of the three had been charged yesterday evening in relation to Tuesday's shootings.

A city prosecutors office official said Esperas "wasn't typical of what we normally see out there." "None of them were," he said.

Advertiser staff writer Rod Ohira contributed to this report.