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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 13, 2006

Inmate had shed some required restraints

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

Family and friends of slain prisoner Thane K. Leialoha gathered to remember him yesterday at Puhi Bay in Hilo. "He wasn't an angel," one friend said, "but he did not deserve to have what happened to him."

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Sabrina Kauai, 35, right, grieves with her hanai sister, Natalie Martin, 21. Kauai, who is eight months' pregnant with Leialoha's child, said the Hilo corrections officer that shot and killed Leialoha used excessive force.

Photos by KEVIN DAYTON | The Honolulu Advertiser

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HILO, Hawai'i Prison internal affairs investigators are trying to determine why an inmate who was shot and killed during an escape attempt in downtown Hilo apparently was not wearing all of the restraints required during prisoner transports, including a waist chain, leg shackles and handcuffs.

Frank Lopez, acting director of the state Department of Public Safety, said he has not confirmed reports that a restraint key was found in the street next to the prison van after inmate Thane K. Leialoha was shot Tuesday on Haili Street near a busy intersection.

"If he had a key, that would be troubling as to how he got it," Lopez said.

Corrections staff reported that Leialoha, 28, was wearing restraints as required by department procedure when he left Hilo District Court to return to the Hawai'i Community Correctional Center just before the escape attempt, Lopez said.

Inmates are supposed to be transported in vans that lock from the outside, and prison officials will try to determine how Leialoha left the van at the intersection of Haili and Kilauea Avenue at about 2:07 p.m. Tuesday.

Sabrina Kauai, Leialoha's girlfriend, said a witness told her Leialoha shoved the corrections officer to the ground before fleeing down Haili Street in a brown prison jumpsuit. Kauai said the witness reported that the officer fired from a sitting position and that the single shot struck Leialoha in the back of the head.

The inmate was pronounced dead at Hilo Medical Center at 5:56 p.m. Tuesday, police said.

Lopez said he has heard conflicting accounts of how Leialoha was restrained. Some witnesses said he had no restraints on when he escaped from the van, while at least one witness said Leialoha was handcuffed.

'IT'S NOT FAIR'

About 60 of Leialoha's relatives and friends gathered for a memorial yesterday at Puhi Bay in Hilo, with family members and loved ones alleging the corrections officer who shot Leialoha used excessive force.

"They didn't have to shoot him in his head. That was uncalled for," said Kauai, who is eight months' pregnant with Leialoha's child. The man also has three children from a previous relationship.

"I'm holding them accountable because now he has three children who don't have their father, and my baby won't even feel their daddy's touch. It's not fair," Kauai said.

Lopez said the corrections officer involved in the shooting has been with the department for five years and was placed on leave with pay while the incident is investigated by Big Island police and Department of Public Safety staff.

"I don't want to give the impression that (the officer) is under investigation for any type of misconduct. The investigation will produce the facts," and whether the shooting was proper will depend on those facts, Lopez said.

In general, Lopez said it is appropriate for officers to shoot at fleeing prisoners to protect the community. Officers are required to give a spoken command or warning before firing, but do not fire warning shots.

PRIOR CONVICTIONS

Law enforcement officers are trained to aim for the center body mass to increase the chance of striking the target, he said. Officers also are trained to refrain from firing if shooting would endanger bystanders, Lopez said.

The final determination on whether the shooting was justified will be made by the county prosecutor, he said.

Leialoha pleaded no contest in 1998 to second-degree robbery and second-degree assault and theft, and admitted to authorities he was addicted to crack cocaine, according to court records. He served a year in jail before being released to a drug treatment program, but later quit the program.

In 2001 he was resentenced to consecutive five- and 10-year prison terms, and was sentenced to another five-year term for possession of methamphetamine in 2002. He was released on parole in January 2005.

A warrant was issued for a parole violation on March 22 after Leialoha failed to report to his parole officer, and on Sunday morning police arrested him on that warrant and other warrants for contempt of court and failure to appear in court for a traffic violation.

PATERNAL INSTINCT

Leialoha learned at a court hearing Tuesday, just before his escape attempt, that he would not be released again until he was returned to prison and faced the parole board, said Tommy Johnson, administrator for the Hawai'i Paroling Authority.

Kauai said Leialoha saw a friend of hers at court that afternoon and asked about Kauai, who had experienced contractions Sunday morning.

"He was crying because all he wanted to do was see me and make sure the baby and I was all right," Kauai said. "He tried to escape to come home to me. He didn't want to miss the birth of his baby."

The couple planned to move to Las Vegas for a fresh start, she said.

Leialoha grew up in the Hilo neighborhood of Pana'ewa, and dropped out of Waiakea High School after the 11th grade. He came from a close family and had a daughter, 10, and two sons, ages 8 and 4.

Kwai-Chang Publico, who grew up with the man, said Leialoha performed with the rap group Sudden Rush in the early 1990s. Sudden Rush has evolved into a popular Hawaiian rap group without Leialoha, but members were still close to him, said Publico, the booking agent for Sudden Rush.

"He wasn't an angel, we knew he wasn't an angel. He was running away, but he did not deserve to have what happened to him, and what's happening to his family right now," Publico said.

Kauai said Leialoha was once again struggling with his drug addiction, a problem that resurfaced after he was laid off from a landscaping job. He had expected to return to work this week, she said.

Kauai said Leialoha had a "big heart and Thane had a beautiful voice. That's what I'm going to miss the most, him singing to me."

Advertiser reporter Rod Ohira contributed to this report.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.