Hawaii murder defendant says he's entrepreneur, not mobster
By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Jim Dooley
Ethan "Malu" Motta described himself on the witness stand as a college-educated business entrepreneur and dedicated family man who worked with underprivileged children, dabbled in politics and tried to help friends in need.
Federal law enforcement, however, depicted Motta, 40, as a murderous mobster who claimed to have a state judge "in his pocket" and was intent on rebuilding the criminal organization once headed by his "uncle," Charley Stevens of Wai'anae.
A federal jury will decide which is the real Motta when it begins deliberations today after closing arguments in the monthlong racketeering trial of Motta and his cousin, Rodney Joseph Jr., 41.
The two men are charged with using murder, robbery and extortion to further a racketeering enterprise that centered on collection of "protection" money from illegal gambling games in Honolulu in 2003 and early 2004.
Both men were arrested by Honolulu police the evening of Jan. 7, 2004, hours after they allegedly shot and killed Lepo Utu Taliese, 44, and Romilius Corpuz Jr., 40, members of a rival protection "crew."
The midday public murders — in the parking lot of a municipal golf course — were reminiscent of the old Honolulu "syndicate" days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when warring mob factions settled disputes over gambling revenue with public gunfire.
It is the first major organized crime case prosecuted by federal authorities here in nearly two decades and the trial provided a window into the secret world of underground gambling casinos here as well as testimony that hinted at, but never proved, official improprieties and political influence. Thrown into the mix was a secret informant tape recording "discovered" by authorities in FBI files on the eve of trial, more than four years after it was made.
The case even featured an appearance by prominent New York defense attorney Charles Carnesi, who took time out from representing reputed Mafia family scion John Gotti Jr. to represent Ethan Motta.
U.S. Attorney Edward Kubo said when the indictment was returned that it was the first federal case targeting Hawai'i organized crime since 1992.
"This case makes one thing clear," Kubo said in 2006. "We cannot sit on our laurels and allow organized crime to grow like a virus in this state."
The 1992 case that Kubo spoke of was the racketeering conviction of Charley Stevens, whose name came up several times in the Joseph-Motta trial.
Stevens died in federal prison in 1999 while serving a 20-year racketeering sentence. Stevens was notorious for admitting that he bribed state Circuit Judge Harold Shintaku in 1981 to set aside Stevens' conviction for an underworld double homicide. The admission came three years after Shintaku committed suicide in Las Vegas by jumping out of a hotel window after slashing his wrists.
Stevens' obituary listed Rodney Joseph as his nephew and Motta as his "hanai" son.
Motta's mother said Motta is not related to Stevens, but various witnesses in the trial said Motta referred to Stevens as his uncle.
Family relationships ran through the racketeering trial of Motta and Joseph as well.
An adopted son of one of Joseph's aunties, Peter Matautia, pleaded guilty to gambling charges in the case and testified as a prosecution witness in the trial. Matautia worked with murder victims Taliese and Corpuz as a gambling game "door man" in the Joseph-Motta crew until they switched allegiances in January 2004 to another group, according to Matautia and other witnesses.
Jonnaven Monalim, cousin to both Joseph and Motta, was a key prosecution witness, testifying that he wore an FBI-supplied body microphone to secretly record a conversation with Motta on the Big Island in October 2004.
Monalim also testified that he is a cousin of a third co-defendant in the case, Kevin "Pancho" Gonsalves, who pleaded guilty to murder and other crimes last year and is serving a 27 1/2-year sentence in federal prison.
Gonsalves did not testify against Joseph and Motta. Joseph also stayed off the witness stand.
But Motta testified at length, telling the jury that he was born on O'ahu and lived in the Pupukea area until he was 7 years old, then moved with his family to the Big Island.
Wearing a beige turtleneck sweater and black pants, Motta was a relaxed and conversational witness, saying he briefly attended college on the Mainland before returning to Hilo and graduating from the University of Hawai'i-Hilo with a bachelor's degree in political science. He also served as UH-Hilo student body president for several years, Motta said.
He worked as a behavioral therapist at The Institute for Family Enrichment on the Big Island and, in mid-2003, was trying to find "seed money" to develop a product he had invented called Baby Cry No More, Motta testified. The device "simulated a mother's heartbeat" to calm the sleep of restive infants, Motta said.
In the summer of 2003, Motta testified, a close friend and fellow inventor, Raymond Gomes Jr., called him asking for help.
Gomes had a product called Shark Buster that he wanted to develop, but he also had a job working security on one of the "crews" protecting illegal gaming casinos in Honolulu, according to court testimony.
Gomes turned to both Motta and Joseph for help after he and co-worker Tinoimalu Sao were severely beaten by a rival crew in 2003.
Exactly why Gomes thought Motta, who lived and worked on the Big Island, could help with the Honolulu problem was never made clear in court testimony.
When called to testify in the trial, Gomes invoked the 5th Amendment.
Motta testified that he tried to "mediate the situation" but did little more than place calls to a friend in the security guard business and to the uncle of the leader of a rival security crew.
Motta said he never asked for, or received, any gambling money.
"I just told Raymond that I'd see what I could do to help," he said.
On Jan. 7, 2004, Motta went with Joseph and Gonsalves to a meeting in the Pali golf course parking lot with Taliese, Corpuz, Tinoimalu Sao and Nixon Maumalanga, members of another security group.
Motta said he shot Sao and Taliese because he feared for his life. He knew about Taliese's capacity for violence, he said, because his brother, David Motta, had served time in prison with Taliese.
Sao recovered from a gunshot wound to the face and testified against Motta and Joseph in the trial.
FBI informant Monalim testified that Motta told him the shootings were a "blood on the table" statement to other security crews interfering with the Motta-Joseph group.
And Motta told Monalim he had a state judge "in his pocket" and hoped to beat the murder charges while the case was still in court, according to Monalim.
Motta denied that allegation, and no evidence of such a relationship with the judge was introduced in the case.
Motta acknowledged telling Monalim that he had a friend who might one day become governor of Hawai'i and grant him a pardon if Motta was convicted in the state case.
But Motta said that was "upsmanship" after Monalim indicated that he had gained an early parole from prison in 2000 for an assault conviction.
Motta's statement was an apparent reference to William "Billy" Kenoi, a friend from college, who was elected Big Island mayor last year and who spoke briefly at a legal fundraiser for Motta on the Big Island in late 2004.
The recorded conversation between Monalim and Motta was made after the fundraiser. Motta referred to the prospective governor as his "best friend" who was "on the mic(rophone)" at the fundraiser. Motta described the individual as a part-Hawaiian man who was being "groomed" to eventually run for governor.
Through a spokesman, Kenoi would not comment on the contents of the tape.
He acknowledged last year that he knew Motta from college and said he was "shocked and disappointed" by the murder charges against him.
"I know his parents," Kenoi said last year. "We live in a small town and when allegations surface, you don't suddenly act like you don't know the person. This is the Big Island. Everybody knows everybody."
Reach Jim Dooley at email@example.com.