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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 18, 2004

Korea War museum struggles

By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer

WAHIAWA — Five months after opening its doors to the promise that veterans of "the forgotten war" would finally get some fitting recognition, the National Korean War Museum is beset with problems and in danger of closing.

Kyle Kopitke, the director and president of the National Korean War Museum in Wahiawa, faces foreclosure and auctioning of the Quonset hut that houses the museum. Disputes between Kopitke and fund-raiser Maria Abello have left the museum's future uncertain.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

The World War IIiera Quonset hut in which the museum is located is the target of a foreclosure action and is set to be auctioned by a court-appointed commissioner on Aug. 2, and prospective buyers are invited to inspect the property today between 1 and 4 p.m.

A retired sailor who refinanced his home to invest $200,000 to help bankroll the museum says he lost his house in the deal and isn't sure if or when he'll see his money again.

Meanwhile, the museum is struggling financially, attendance has slowed to a trickle, and the company that bought the building last year is trying to have the museum operator evicted.

The reasons for the museum's rapid decline are obscured in a tangle of accusations between its proprietor and Maria Abello, the woman he says he hired to manage the museum's fund-raising campaign.

But experts say it didn't help that the museum opened on a shoestring and that its operator, Kyle Kopitke, has little experience running or financing such an undertaking, although he did try to open a nonprofit National Korean War Museum in Utah in 2000.

"It's really tough if you're going it alone," said Linda Hee, curator of the Tropic Lightning Museum at Schofield Barracks, which has its own Korean War exhibit. "If you don't have a lot of financial backing, you're going to struggle. He (Kopitke) is depending on donations. That's not going to sustain you unless you're really popular."

Hee said there are standards to operating a museum that is certified by a major accrediting organization, such as the American Association of Museums or the Center of Military History. Kopitke's museum does not have such certification.

Kopitke, president of the museum's board of trustees, says relations with Abello started out well enough, but began to deteriorate after Abello's company, Teancum Inc., bought the Quonset hut property in September 2003.

Abello, who Kopitke says is his sister-in-law, was contracted by him to buy the property and manage a fund-raising campaign on behalf of the museum. The plan, he said, was for the museum to eventually buy the property from Teancum, giving Abello a profit of around $200,000.

But Abello, who put $200,000 down on the museum property and says she spent $300,000 more developing the site, says Kopitke used her to acquire the property, promising to release hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money to her once the museum opened. Then, she says, he "fooled" her into signing a building lease at $1 a year for 99 years.

Kopitke counters that Abello willingly signed the lease agreement with the understanding that it voided all previous agreements the two had signed, including a May 1, 2003, document that would have eventually given Teancum a total of $2.5 million in payment for the property and Abello's services.

He is also adamant that Abello didn't spend anything close to $300,000 developing the property.

But Kopitke says his biggest complaint about Abello was that she was presenting the museum as an investment opportunity.

"We hired Teancum to do the fund raising because we had confidence in Abello's ability to go out and raise funds as donations to the museum — not as investments to her company."

One person who invested heavily in Teancum is Michael Pama, 54, a retired sailor who lives off his Navy pension. Pama says he refinanced his Pearl City home twice to give Abello $200,000.

"In fact, I'm selling my house because of this — I had to sell it to make the payment," said Pama, who on Friday moved into a smaller rental unit.

Pama, who believed in the museum because his dad and uncle were in the Korean War, said Abello told him that she had put a lot of money into the museum and that she would get her money back after the place opened and federal grants arrived.

"And I was going to get my money back, too — because it was kind of like an investment," Pama said.

"She said she was going to give us some interest on it, which was like 15 percent."

So far he has seen no return at all, he said.

Abello acknowledged that a number of friends have invested money in her company, and Pama expressed confidence that she would eventually give him back his money plus interest.

He said he was angry with the museum for not handing over any of the federal grant money it got.

However, other than $1,000 he received several years ago from a foundation, Kopitke swears he has never received any grant money and has never led anyone to believe otherwise.

"We did not sign any contracts with any of the (Teancum) investors," Kopitke said. "Because we're a nonprofit organization we can't do that kind of stuff."

Although Kopitke and Abello say they have reported each other to authorities, no charges have been filed against either.

Meanwhile, Abello says she is in the process of securing a loan that will enable her to pay off the mortgage before the Aug. 2 auction — which the property commissioner says she has a right to do.

After that, Abello has said she intends to take legal action to have Kopitke removed from the Quonset hut.

One person who has watched the museum saga unfold is Harley Coon of Dayton, Ohio, president of the Korean War Veterans Association. Coon said he attended a ground-breaking for Kopitke and a proposed National Korean War Museum once before, "in Hilo, two or three years ago — the museum was supposed to go there."

Coon, 74, visited the museum in Wahiawa several months ago, but said he was unaware of its plight. Still, it doesn't surprise him. Much associated with that war has trouble maintaining public recognition, he said.

Coon, who fought in Korea and became a prisoner or war, said the reason people forget the 1950-53 war in Korea — one of the fiercest and bloodiest in America's history — is that it so closely followed World War II. Americans were sick of war after that.

He hopes the museum in Wahiawa can stay open.

"If it can't stay open, maybe they can downsize it and find someplace else for it," Coon said.

"Anything that will promote remembrance of the Korean War is good."

Kopitke, a 47-year-old erstwhile Peace Corps worker and suicide prevention counselor, remains undaunted. He's trying to find someone who will purchase the property at auction and donate it to the museum.

If evicted, he says, he's been offered another smaller location inside a World War II bunker on O'ahu. He's also working on plans to open a sister museum on the Mainland.

He acknowledges that attendance has been low and the museum is struggling, but he is confident that once the wall exhibit is completed containing the names of all 36,000 American soldiers killed in the war, crowds will flock to pay their respects.

"You know what? We're open," he said with the same smile that was on his face the day the museum opened.

"We're moving forward. And, just like with any organization, there's going to be some challenges. We're committed to getting through them."

Reach Will Hoover at 525-8038 or whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.