Higa abused meth, has had mental problems, father says
|Photo gallery: Matthew Higa court appearance|
|Video: Matthew Higa's father answers questions|
|||'I hope there's a healing out of this'|
|Video: Hawai’i’s 2 murder suspects taken to court|
By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Jim Dooley
The father of a man accused of throwing a toddler off a freeway walkway said his son has a history of drug abuse as well as mental health problems.
Shelton Higa spoke publicly for the first time yesterday after a court hearing in which his son, Matthew M. Higa, pleaded not guilty to a charge of second-degree murder. He is accused of killing 23-month-old Cyrus Belt.
Asked if his son smokes crystal methamphetamine, Shelton Higa said, "Yeah, he does. Can't hide that. He does."
Asked if he knew why his son would commit such a crime, Higa said, "I have an idea," but declined to elaborate.
Higa also said his son has shown signs of mental illness for "quite a while," before he entered a courthouse elevator and ended the interview.
During the hearing, Matthew Higa did not address the judge, and state public defender Alen Kaneshiro entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf. Higa was wearing white prison-issue clothing and was shackled at the ankles. He was barefoot.
He made eye contact with his father, and nodded his understanding when instructed by the judge to be careful about any statements he might make regarding the case.
He showed no emotion. At least six sheriff's deputies were in the courtroom to provide security and to escort the prisoners in and out of the court.
District Judge Russel Nagata kept Higa's bail at $1 million, and scheduled a preliminary hearing for tomorrow afternoon.
Police are awaiting lab results to verify suspected crystal methamphetamine use by Higa.
In another development yesterday, the city Office of the Medical Examiner released a statement that an autopsy performed on Cyrus on Friday did "not show objective evidence to indicate that he was dead prior to being thrown off the pedestrian overpass."
The statement was by Dr. Gayle Suzuki, the deputy medical examiner.
Previously, the boy's mother said that police told her H-1 Freeway cameras showed Cyrus was not moving as he was thrown from the overpass. That, the mother said, led her to believe he might have been dead or unconscious before he was thrown.
Several witnesses told police Higa was the man they saw throwing the boy off the Miller Street overpass about 11:43 a.m. Thursday.
The case has stunned many who continue to grieve for the boy at a spontaneous memorial of balloons, toy animals, signs and other mementos that have been left at the pedestrian overpass.
The memorial continued to accumulate yesterday, albeit more slowly. Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Ishikawa said some stuffed animals had to be moved yesterday to prevent the gifts from blocking the walkway.
Gov. Linda Lingle said yesterday that her Cabinet and workers at the state Department of Human Services were devastated by Cyrus' death.
"All of us, just like people all across our state, we were devastated by what happened. People said 'tragedy,' and ... that doesn't even describe it; it's unthinkable to me," she said at a news conference following her State of the State speech.
Lingle said it is too early to tell whether the state could have done something differently to protect Cyrus. She said DHS officials are still looking into the interactions between the department and Belt's family.
"Government agencies have to be willing to admit, if they did make a mistake, we have to be willing to admit it and we have to fix it," she said.
"So I can't answer yet if I believe, personally, there was something we could have done. I'm not at that point yet."
Lingle said her administration is proposing a bill that would require family members to report child abuse or neglect. The administration also wants to spend $1.9 million on additional follow-up visits to children who been identified as at risk of abuse.
Lisa Belt, the sister of Cyrus Belt's father, David C. Belt, yesterday said her brother is stunned and upset over his son's death.
David Belt has asked permission from the state Department of Public Safety to attend his son's memorial service tomorrow at 6 p.m. at Nu'uanu Memorial Park. The ceremony is open to the public. Visitation is to begin at 5 p.m.
"His focus is to get to the funeral so he can pay his last respects," Lisa Belt said.
Belt is serving five years at the Waiawa minimum security facility on a conviction of criminal property damage and felony drug possession. If permitted to attend tomorrow's service, he will be escorted by a corrections officer.
Cyrus Belt was born a month before his father was sent to prison.
Lisa Belt said she is having difficulty sleeping and can't close her eyes without seeing Cyrus' face. She said the tragedy is difficult to grasp and she can't fathom what would drive someone to harm a child.
"I can't understand what can be going through their mind to make them do something like that," she said.
BEFORE IT HAPPENED
The events leading up to Cyrus' death began about 11:12 a.m. Thursday, when an off-duty police officer found the toddler wandering the street outside his Iolani Avenue apartment building.
The off-duty officer reported the wandering child, retrieved the boy and went looking for the boy's family.
He found the boy's grandfather, Lilo Asiata, and returned the child.
Police continue to investigate how Matthew Higa, who lived with his father in the same Punchbowl-area apartment building as the child, came into contact with Cyrus.
The boy's mother, Nancy Chanco, tested positive for crystal methamphetamine on Jan. 11, and had been the subject of investigations by child welfare authorities. After the positive drug test, a childcare worker was assigned to visit the home Chanco shared with Cyrus to ensure he was being properly cared for, but the visit didn't occur before the child died.
Chanco could not be reached for comment yesterday.
An account has been set up in Cyrus Belt's name at Bank of Hawaii. Stafford Kiguchi, BOH spokesman, said he could not release how much money is in the account. Any decision about how the money is spent would be up to the person who opened the account, Kiguchi said. He would not say who opened the account.Advertiser staff writers Derrick DePledge, Peter Boylan and Suzanne Roig contributed to this report.
Reach Jim Dooley at email@example.com.