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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Tough cop had gentler, loving side

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Ernest Kanekoa was one of the toughest Honolulu cops anyone can remember. He was also one of the nicest.

Kanekoa was a member of the Metro Squad, plainclothes police officers famous in the 1960s for taking down troublemakers by any means necessary. He worked alongside men like Larry Mehau and Leo Reed in the days before Kevlar vests and pepper spray.

In the end, it wasn't a bad guy or a bullet that took him down. It was a broken heart.

"People were afraid of my dad, but I never was," says daughter Debbie Perreira. "He was a gentle giant. He took such good care of us."

Ernest Kanekoa

Newspaper clippings from his 25 years on the police force give a glimpse into the Kanekoa legend. There is a picture of him conducting a lei making demonstration at international police conference; a mention of him riding as pa'u escort for Melveen Leed; stories of him heading up the Honolulu Police Department's canine unit with a 150-pound German Shepherd named Bullet; details of his goodwill tour of Europe with the Honolulu Police Choral Group.

There were also allegations of police brutality and a number of lawsuits. None of the allegations stuck, and Kanekoa was promoted to lieutenant before he retired.

Kanekoa had a black belt in judo and aikido, and served as a martial arts trainer for police recruits. When retired Chief Lee Donohue first became a cop, Kanekoa was his judo instructor. The two remained friends for 40 years, meeting regularly for meals and to talk story. "He was my hero," Donohue said. "You never met a nicer gentleman."

At Donohue's retirement party last month, Ernest Kanekoa's chair was empty. A former Metro Squad member, retired Lt. Robert Schmidt, said, "The table that I sat at, Ernie was supposed to sit with us, but he couldn't come because of his condition. On that table, it was all the legends, like Leo Reed, Buzzy Hong, Merwyn Lyons. Ernie was supposed to be there. And in his closing talk, Lee Donohue said it was real sad that Ernie couldn't be there. It was real touching. Ernie was a mentor to him."

Donohue went to visit Kanekoa in his hospital room the day he died, hoping to have one last conversation with his mentor, but, he says: "It was too hard. He was in so much pain."

There is a story Donohue tells to illustrate the kind of cop Kanekoa was: unflinching, true-believing, yet soft-spoken:

"There was a case where this guy was barricaded in an apartment. In those days, we didn't have vests or anything. So Ernie just called the guy on the phone and said, in the calmest voice, 'Sir, this is Lt. Kanekoa, and we're outside here and we want you to come out and end this peacefully. I'll give you 45 seconds to think about this. If not, we're going to come in.' So calm. And he waited 45 seconds and boom! We went in and it was all over in a matter of seconds. The suspect was subdued and we arrested him. We would never do that today."

Donohue describes Kanekoa as 6 feet 2, around 240 pounds and built "like a rock."

"Because of his martial arts, if he had to have somebody submit to an arrest, he'd do it very nicely, gently, but the person wouldn't even know what hit 'em."

Schmidt, 64, now chief of operations for Rags Enterprises security firm, is not so willing to share stories about himself and Kanekoa on the Metro Squad, but he hints at a time when bad guys were bad guys and cops did what they had to to maintain order.

"The old days were kind of different compared to now. The kinds of things we did back then were more acceptable and nowadays, they're not. But that was the squad that took care of all the problems. Guys that were causing all kinds of problems, we took care of them in our own way."

All of that rough-and-tumble stuff was kept far away from Kanekoa's five children.

"We really didn't know much about what he did on the force," said youngest son Charlie. "When he came home, he left his job at the door and he tended to his family."

Kanekoa grew up in Hana, Maui, and married a local beauty queen, Juanita Casaquit, the daughter of Spanish immigrants. He fell in love with her after seeing her at a Hana lu'au. While he was a big, handsome man, she was delicate and lovely — only 4 feet 9. Together, they raised their four sons and one daughter and any other lost child who needed a good home and a hot meal.

"There was never a time when our house was not filled with people," said Ernest Jr. "We were a family of 11 or 12 or 15 sometimes. My parents couldn't turn anyone away."

Kanekoa's role in life was to protect those who couldn't protect themselves, both on the job and in his home.

Juanita developed rheumatoid arthritis and was in a wheelchair for 35 years. Kanekoa took care of her, bathing her and dressing her even when their sons were around to help carry her. He was always the big, strapping man protecting his lovely wife.

Juanita died on May 27 at age 77.

"I never saw my father cry, ever, except at Mom's funeral," daughter Debbie said.

"He always told my mom, 'I gotta stay alive until you go, and then I can follow, because I need to take care of you,' " Ernest Jr. said. "When she died, he stood at her casket and told her, 'Don't worry. I'll be joining you pretty soon.' And about three weeks later, that was it."

Ernest Kanekoa died July 6. He was 76 years old. He was in the hospital to have his leg amputated and doctors discovered cancer, but his children say he simply missed his wife too much to fight anymore.

"They loved each other for a long, long time," Ernest Jr. said. "Every night they would talk and laugh. There was a void for him when she passed on, and I think a broken heart can wilt you away. I think that's what happened."

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.