Hawaii dad trusted his brother, but Kaiya instead was starved
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
The single father of a 5-year-old special-needs child who died in the care of an uncle said he recently had become concerned about his daughter's welfare and was planning to bring her back to Hawai'i when he got the call about her death.
Leonard Orta Jr. is accused of depriving Manny Kapahu's daughter, Kaiya, of food and medication and concealing her body in his Phoenix apartment for at least a month after her death.
Kapahu said his brother stopped returning calls and e-mails from him seeking information on Kaiya. He also said he wouldn't have left his daughter with her uncle if he believed his brother couldn't take care of her.
"I trusted him," Kapahu said yesterday. "I would never have left my daughter with him if I thought ... he would not take care of her."
He added, "I cannot understand why he didn't get her help."
In his first extended interview with the media since his brother's arrest, Kapahu said Kaiya's death has devastated his small family and left them feeling angry and asking how a family member who had long been a caretaker to others could be capable of such a crime.
Kaiya's father got news of her death last Thursday, on what would have been her sixth birthday. Here on O'ahu, the family was celebrating another birthday that day — of Kaiya's twin sister, Maile.
Kapahu said when he heard of Kaiya's death, "All of my mind was on, 'Get my daughter home.' "
Kapahu has since brought his daughter's ashes back to O'ahu, and plans to hold services for her next month.
Kapahu said yesterday he doesn't understand why his brother didn't just reach out to him or someone else if he was feeling overwhelmed with Kaiya's care.
"He could have called me," he said. "My daughter didn't deserve this."
Orta, 47, has been charged in Phoenix with first-degree murder, child abuse and concealment of a body. The gruesome crime has shocked many in Arizona and the Islands, where Kaiya was born and where much of her family lives.
Phoenix police arrested Orta a week ago after Kaiya's body was found in a bedroom of the apartment by her grandfather, a 73-year-old dispatcher who lived with Kaiya and Orta but until recently had been bedridden after undergoing several surgeries, Kapahu said.
Kaiya suffered from Rett syndrome, a developmental disorder that left her unable to speak or perform basic motor skills.
Her father said she needed around-the-clock care.
Orta had been looking after Kaiya since August.
Phoenix police say Orta intentionally withheld Kaiya's medication and nutrition. Investigators believe Orta stopped nourishing Kaiya 10 days before her death, and that she died about a month ago. A preliminary hearing for Orta has been set for March 1.
Kapahu said his daughter was being cared for by his older brother in Phoenix because she couldn't get the treatment she needed on the military base at Kwajalein Atoll, where he worked as a civilian and lived with his three other children, including Kaiya's twin sister.
Kapahu was born and raised in Hawai'i but had worked on Kwajalein, in the Marshall Islands, for 16 years.
Kaiya and her twin sister were born in Hilo, both seemingly healthy. However, the disorder struck Kaiya at about 18 months of age and it took awhile to diagnose the problem, Kapahu said.
Until last year Kaiya had lived full time with her father on Kwajalein. She smiled often, he said.
Kapahu said he left Kaiya with his brother and his biological father in August and returned to Kwajalein, in part because he needed to earn enough money to take care of her medical needs and to support her and his other children. Leaving her in Phoenix wasn't an easy decision to make, he said.
This month, he moved back to Hawai'i from Kwajalein, and he said he was planning to bring Kaiya here to care for her.
"I wasn't living the high life," said Kapahu, adding that he also was going through a divorce at the time and was worried about going into debt. He said his main concern was making sure Kaiya was well-cared for. He sent his brother $500 a month to take care of the child, and also sent other checks to cover special medical equipment and special gifts.
Kapahu said he was confident his brother could care for Kaiya.
Orta had been a caretaker for 25 years, but was unemployed when he agreed to care for Kaiya.
Kapahu said Orta reassured him that he would be able to look after the girl. The family spent about a month last summer with Orta so Kapahu could make sure his brother knew what to do. Kapahu said Orta was competent in caring for his daughter, including in making sure she was fed well and that she didn't hurt herself when she had seizures, which those with Rett syndrome suffer from often.
Kapahu also said that the setup seemed to have worked out for several months: Kapahu would check in with his brother about twice a week from Kwajalein to see how his daughter was doing and everything sounded fine. And he would get medical bills showing Kaiya was getting needed treatments.
Kapahu said that he started getting concerned about Kaiya's care around mid-December, when his brother wasn't contacting him as often about his daughter. He attributed the communication slowdown to the rush of the holidays, but his concern escalated in January, when he said his brother stopped returning phone calls or e-mails entirely.
At one point, Kapahu said he e-mailed his brother to tell him the situation wasn't working. The family left Kwajalein, and Kapahu was preparing to bring his daughter here. He added that it was always his plan to retrieve Kaiya by August of this year.
Kapahu said he has no idea why Orta allegedly stopped caring for Kaiya, though he believes the stress of caring for his daughter and his father may have caused his brother to have a mental breakdown. Kapahu said his brother has no history of drug use or other serious problems.
"I want to believe that he broke down or whatever," Kapahu said.
"The truth will come out," he added.
He also said that he has as many questions as everyone else.
His focus right now, though, is making sure his other children, ages 6, 9 and 17, get though this, he said.
"I've showed the urn (with Kaiya's remains) to them," the father said. "I've told the children she's in a better place, that we'll always have Kaiya with us. She doesn't suffer."