The Washington Post
Hawaii men who beat White neighbor get prison for 2014 hate crime
Beating in remote Maui village illustrated racial tensions on the island
Chris Kunzelman says he bought the dilapidated bungalow sight unseen in a remote Maui fishing village to fulfill his ill wife’s wishes of experiencing an island paradise.
Their Hawaiian dream, however, did not include what happened when he traveled from their home in Scottsdale, Ariz., to fix up the place in February 2014. Two neighbors punched him, struck him in the head with a shovel and bashed in his car windows as he tried to escape.
The suspects — Hawaiians whose families had lived in Kahakuloa village for generations — told police they believed Kunzelman was trespassing. Ultimately, they pleaded guilty to local prosecutors’ charges of assault and were sentenced to probation.
Federal authorities called the attack something else: a hate crime, motivated in part because Kunzelman is White.
Nine years after the beating, U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright on Thursday sentenced Kaulana Alo-kaonohi, 32, and Levi Aki Jr., 33, to more than six years and more than four years in federal prison, respectively, in a case that highlighted lingering racial and ethnic tensions in Hawaii steeped in the island’s history.
The sentencing comes amid heightened concern at the Justice Department about a spike in hate crimes nationwide, which reached a two-decade high in 2020, according to FBI data.
In 2020, the FBI reported, there were 2,871 racially motivated attacks against Black victims, the most of any group, and 869 against Whites, the second-highest figure.
Federal prosecutions in cases involving White people targeted because of their skin color are rare, former Justice Department officials said. A spokeswoman for the agency said the agency does not compile statistics on hatecrime prosecutions based on the race of victims.
In hate-crime cases, prosecutors must establish that a defendant was motivated, at least in part, by bias.
The Hawaii case hinged not on whether Alo-kaonohi and Aki attacked Kunzelman — their lawyers conceded that during the federal trial — but why.
The two men were convicted in November, and legal experts said the outcome demonstrated the Justice Department’s willingness to use federal hate-crime laws to seek stiffer sentences than local prosecutors are able to secure.
“You were racist on that day,” Seabright said at Alo-kaonohi’s sentencing hearing, according to local news accounts. Kunzelman, who suffered a concussion and two broken ribs, told the judge that his vision remains impaired, and he still has nightmares about his attackers.
The defense argued that their clients were angered by Kunzelman’s sense of entitlement — he cut the locks of a gate to access a private road — and their view that he did not have a legal right to access the property.
“There’s not going to really be any dispute that what he did was wrong,” Craig Jerome, a federal defender representing Alo-kaonohi, told the jury in November. “But he didn’t do any of those things because of Mr. Kunzelman’s race. It was Mr. Kunzelman’s behavior. It was his perceived disrespect. It was his attitude.”
Prosecutors said the men explicitly threatened and attacked Kunzelman because he was White. Kunzelman, who bought the property for $175,000 after his wife, Lori, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, told police he showed local residents copies of the property deed and easements that granted him access.
Some of the attack was recorded on a security camera that Kunzelman had mounted on his car. In video footage, Aki can be heard using the term “haole,” a Hawaiian word for outsiders, usually referring to White people, that is sometimes used pejoratively. He later told police Kunzelman was a “typical haole” trying to use his wealth to “change everything up in Kahakuloa.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Thomas said at the trial that the defendants told Kunzelman that his “skin is the wrong [expletive] color” and that no White man would ever live in their neighborhood. Defense lawyers challenged the accusations, saying no racial threats could be heard on the security video.
Jonathan Okamura, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said the case reflected long-standing resentment and suspicion some Native Hawaiian families have maintained against White people dating to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in the late 1800s and the influx of U.S. military service members to the island leading up to World War II.
In 2020, people of Asian descent made up 37 percent of Hawaii’s 1.5 million population, Whites 25 percent and Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders 11 percent, according to the U.S. census. Multiracial people constituted 25 percent.
Although some Hawaiians have expressed hostilities toward other ethnic and racial groups — including, in recent years, immigrants from Micronesia — there has traditionally been “greater resentment against [ White] haoles because of the historical oppression they inflicted upon Hawaiians,” Okamura said.
Local prosecutors had initially sought a 10-year prison sentence for each defendant in the Kahakuloa case on charges of assault and terroristic threatening. But the judge warned that the state’s case had been harmed by a series of procedural missteps and suggested that prosecutors consider a settlement.
Under the plea agreement reached in 2019, Alo-kaonohi was sentenced to four years of probation, and Aki received probation and time-served in prison, about seven months. Both men apologized to Kunzelman, but he was not satisfied.
“The only word I can come up with is corruption,” he told Hawaii News Now in 2019. “Both of them got probation and absolutely nothing. They got off scot-free.”
Kunzelman could not be reached for comment.
Michael Kagami, then serving as Maui’s deputy prosecutor, said at the time that the local U.S. attorney’s office requested the case files shortly after the plea agreement was announced. In December 2020, a federal grand jury returned hate-crime indictments against Alo-kaonohi and Aki, less than two months before the seven-year statute of limitations on federal hate crimes was due to expire.
Kenji M. Price, then serving as the U.S. attorney in Hawaii, told the Honolulu Civil Beat that the charges marked the first federal hate-crimes case on the island in two decades. He cited “a substantial federal interest in vindicating the rights of the victims of hate crime. It is my hope that it sends a strong message to those who seek to victimize others because of their actual or perceived race or color.”
Efforts to reach Kagami and Price were unsuccessful.
Justin Levitt, who served in Justice’s civil rights division during the Obama administration, said federal prosecutors traditionally defer to local authorities in legal cases but will intervene if they believe the outcome is inadequate.
“They are entirely free to step in to get what they think is a more appropriate sentence,” said Levitt, now a law professor at Loyola Marymount University.
The defense team petitioned Clare E. Connors, who became Hawaii’s U.S. attorney in January 2022, to dismiss the hate-crime charges, but she declined, according to a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential legal matters.
Kunzelman left Hawaii after the assault, and he and his wife now split their time between Arizona and a home in Puerto Rico. They told reporters in Hawaii that they still own the bungalow in Kahakuloa.
“It is my hope that it sends a strong message to those who seek to victimize others because of their actual or perceived race or color.” Kenji M. Price, former U.S. attorney in Hawaii