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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 29, 2008

Botanical gardens founder indicted

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i A Big Island grand jury yesterday indicted the founder and former president of a Big Island tourist attraction called World Botanical Gardens north of Hilo on charges of first-degree identity theft and attempted first-degree theft.

The indictment alleges that Walter L. Wagner and his wife, Linda M. Wagner, used deception to gain control of property worth more than $20,000 belonging to World Botanical Gardens on Sept. 10, 2004, and alleges the couple transmitted personal information from July to September 2004 with intent to commit theft.

Wagner, a Pepe'ekeo resident, said he is involved in litigation with the current operators of the garden but did not know what the basis for the criminal indictment could be.

"This is news to me, and certainly there is nothing that we've done that was improper or illegal, and I don't know what they mean by identity theft," Wagner said. "That's weird."

Wagner has not been involved in the day-to-day operations of the garden since May 2004, but he and the current eight-member World Botanical Gardens board of directors have been entangled in a years-long legal battle.

Those disputes resulted in civil judgments of more than $900,000 against the Wagners and two other people, said Ken Francik, the current chairman, president and chief executive officer of World Botanical Gardens.

The garden is 16 miles north of Hilo, and features what is billed as the "triple-tiered Umauma Falls, acclaimed as Hawai'i's most beautiful waterfall," according to a promotional Web site.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.