Kalaupapa's no refuge from scourge of meth, police say
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
Moloka'i service providers and law enforcement say the arrest of a Kalaupapa Hansen's disease patient on federal drug distribution charges illustrates how even one of the state's smallest communities isn't immune from the scourge of Hawai'i's crystal meth problem.
The investigation has put a spotlight on Kalaupapa, the Hansen's disease settlement where 19 patients still live along with about 80 National Park Service and Department of Health workers.
Police said yesterday they believe at least part of the 18 grams of crystal meth that Kalaupapa patient Norbert Palea, 68, allegedly tried to bring into the settlement was destined for use there, probably by workers.
Police Sgt. Tim Meyer, of the Maui Police Department's Moloka'i station, said police have been looking into drug use in Kalaupapa for at least seven years, but have struggled to pin down a suspect.
Meyer said he believes Palea was the largest distributor of drugs.
But, he said, there are others.
"It's really not shocking," he said. "Ice is everywhere. Nobody is immune."
The Health Department, which administers Kalaupapa, also said yesterday that they have been grappling with a drug problem in the settlement and have fired several employees over the last few years who tested positive for drugs. Officials could not immediately say how many workers have been fired.
"Moloka'i has a drug problem. Kalaupapa is not excluded in it," said Mike Maruyama, the Health Department Hansen's disease branch chief. DOH employees at Kalaupapa range from laborers to nurses.
Service providers said they've heard reports of drug use in Kalaupapa for years.
"We knew it (crystal meth) was down in Kalaupapa," said Wayde Lee, a longtime substance abuse counselor who oversees drug treatment and prevention programs on Moloka'i. But he added that the problem is worse elsewhere on the island. "We've been battling this for years, like any other community," he said.
Meanwhile, Palea is in federal custody awaiting a March 15 hearing on his eligibility for bail, and has been charged with possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute the drug.
According to an affidavit filed Monday in Honolulu District Court, on Feb. 26 Palea attempted to ship a box to Moloka'i from Honolulu International Airport that contained two plastic bags with 18 grams of crystal meth.
Palea had been under surveillance since November.
Before his arrest, Palea told agents he was wrongly under suspicion because "he had dealt drugs before."
Palea, who often uses a wheelchair and whose hands are disfigured from Hansen's disease, was prominently featured in news coverage of the group of Kalaupapa residents who traveled to Rome in October for the canonization of Hawai'i's Saint Damien. Palea was in the crowd at St. Peter's Basilica when the pope elevated Damien, who ministered to Kalaupapa patients until his death in 1889, to sainthood.
Palea was also recently spotlighted on Hawai'i Public Television's "Long Story Short" program.
The Kalaupapa resident, who is the settlement's youngest patient, was sent there at 5 years old, when he was mistakenly diagnosed with Hansen's disease. He later contracted the disease, and so was forced to return.
Other Kalaupapa patients said Palea's arrest is a shock for a community that rarely sees serious crimes.
"It is a shock to me," said patient Gloria Marks. "Norbert is my friend, but what he does is his own business."
When asked whether Kalaupapa has a crystal meth problem, Marks said, "I cannot say much in regards to that." She added that, "Everybody (in Kalaupapa) has their own thoughts" on Palea's arrest.
Stephen Prokop, National Park Service superintendent for Kalaupapa, a national park that is administered by the state Department of Health, called Kalaupapa a "very safe community" where even thefts are rare. "We've had very, very few break-ins or any kind of crime in the community," he said.
Prokop also said he doesn't believe most of the drugs funnelled into Kalaupapa were used there.
He said it appears "Kalaupapa was just a conduit to distribute the meth to the topside Moloka'i community. The destination wasn't Kalaupapa. It was just a conduit to avoid detection."
He added there have been rumors in the past of "some drug distribution through Kalaupapa to topside."
Topside is the term used for all of the Moloka'i communities outside Kalaupapa, a remote peninsula girded by some of the tallest cliffs in the world and established as a Hansen's disease settlement in 1865.
The only way in or out of the settlement is by plane or on foot or by mule on a trail.
Today, 19 patients live full- or part-time in Kalaupapa by choice. The settlement is also home to DOH personnel and NPS rangers.
Prokop said Palea's arrest will likely spur changes and increased surveillance.
"We're going to be more vigilant," he said, "and make sure that this never happens again."