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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Hawaii Hansenís disease patient facing crystal meth charges


By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Norbert K. Palea, 68, with nurse Julie Sigler, was on his way to Belgium and Rome last fall for the canonization of Father Damien, Hawai'iís first Catholic saint.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Norbert K. Palea was in Vatican City last Oct. 11 when Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed Father Damien a saint.

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Norbert K. Palea, 68, the youngest Hansen's disease patient still living at Kalaupapa, is facing federal drug charges after allegedly trying to ship crystal methamphetamine to the remote Moloka'i peninsula while on state-sponsored visits to O'ahu.

Palea used state vehicles and drivers to transport boxes containing "ice" to Honolulu International Airport and even required the help of a state worker to sign documents for one of the shipments, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration affidavit filed yesterday in Honolulu District Court.

He is in federal custody, charged with possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute the drug. A detention hearing on his eligibility for bail is scheduled for March 15, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Muehleck.

Palea was recently spotlighted on a segment of Hawai'i Public Television's "Long Story Short" program, hosted by Leslie Wilcox. He also was prominently featured in news coverage of the group of Kalaupapa residents who traveled to Rome in October to attend canonization ceremonies for Father Damien de Veuster, the Belgian-born Catholic priest who contracted Hansen's disease and died at Kalaupapa in 1889 while ministering to patients there.

According to the affidavit by DEA Special Agent Patrick Wong, when Palea was found in possession of crystal meth at Honolulu International Airport in November, he denied wrongdoing and said the state Department of Health, which administers the Hansen's disease settlement, "was to blame for a lack of investigative activity at (Kalaupapa) following numerous thefts."

Palea also invited both Wong and Maui police to "investigate the drug addicts there."

Spokeswoman Janice Okubo, of the Health Department, would not comment yesterday on the criminal case.

She said her agency doesn't "think there are drug problems (at Kalaupapa), but we have asked the police to help us, and there is an investigation going on now."

The affidavit said the DEA probe began with a tip from retired HPD officer Melvin Nakapaahu, now working as an investigator in the U.S. attorney general's office, that Palea was transporting drugs to Kalaupapa and would be flying to Honolulu on Nov. 16 and returning to Moloka'i the next day.

Agents stopped him at the Honolulu airport Nov. 17 and found nine plastic bags containing 4.6 grams of suspected methamphetamine in a box he was planning to take to Moloka'i, according to Wong.

Palea told the agents he had been given the box to deliver to another individual at Kalaupapa. He said he was wrongly under suspicion because "he had dealt drugs before" and "people naturally blame him for bad things that happen" at Kalaupapa, according to the affidavit.

Palea, who was involved in a 1992 drug case, was not arrested at that time, but was put under surveillance when he returned to Honolulu on Feb. 25.

A state government sedan picked him up at the airport and drove Palea to a Kaimukī bank, where he was seen "counting a large sum of cash" at the teller's window, Wong said. He was then followed to a Longs Drugs store and from there took a bus to Leahi Hospital near Diamond Head, where Hansen's disease patients receive treatment.

The following day, lab tests confirmed that the substance seized from Palea in November was indeed methamphetamine, the affidavit said.

On Feb. 26, Palea arrived at the Honolulu airport in a state car and paid $24 to ship a box to Moloka'i, according to Wong.

Palea paid the shipping bill himself, but his driver had to sign the paperwork because of the effects of Hansen's disease on Palea's hands, the affidavit said.

When agents searched the box, they found two plastic bags containing 18 grams of methamphetamine, the report said.

Wong said the quantity of drugs "is not consistent for personal use but rather is more consistent with distribution."

According to accounts of Palea's life, he was first sent to Kalaupapa when he was 5 years old because a doctor misdiagnosed a mosquito bite on his ear as Hansen's disease. He was sent home but later developed the disease and returned to Kalaupapa.