Also read: Billy Kenoi at Shooters--and the Pali shooter--the connections
Editor’s Note: We originally published this news story in the February 21, 2008 edition of Hawai`i Free Press. Since several thousand copies of that particular edition were stolen from our news racks in Hilo, we are re-publishing the story in this edition.
by Andrew Walden
Admitted Pali Golf Course shooter Ethan “Malu” Motta apparently had a lot of friends in Hilo—including politicians. Nine months after the January 7, 2004 O`ahu murders, hundreds of Motta’s friends gathered at Hilo’s Nani Mau Gardens to raise funds to help pay his legal fees. Billy Kenoi spoke at the event. Stacey Higa says he was given tickets. One source indicates “700 to 1,000 people” were there. The $100 tickets for the October 30, 2004 “Gathering at the Garden” invite supporters “to share this beautiful evening with family, friends and dignitaries in support of a very special man we love dearly.” A ticket obtained by Hawai`i Free Press, says the event was “Hosted by Billy K. Live & Direct.”
Three and a half years have passed since the fundraiser. But Billy Kenoi, interviewed February 15 outside a Pahoa talk-story for his Mayoral campaign, reacted instantly when asked about the phrase “Billy K Live and Direct”.
HFP-Billy K Live and Direct—that’s you, right?
BK-That is a name somebody used one time without my permission.
HFP-So why would somebody use your name as “Billy K Live and Direct?”
BK- Well I heard somebody put my name down.
HFP- On what?
BK- On an invitation.
HFP- What was that invitation for?
BK- It was a fundraiser for Malu Motta and uh…
HFP- What do you know about the event?
BK- That it was a fundraiser to support a defense fund for Ethan Malu Motta.
While attracting only moderate attention in the media, the Pali murders sent shock waves through Hilo political circles. Conversations with various elected officials and political candidates showed they could instantly recall numerous details about Motta’s history, the Pali shootings and the efforts to help Motta after the murders.
Speaking on the record, Council member and mayoral candidate Stacey Higa would not discuss his relationship with Motta saying only, “someone gave me two tickets, but I did not go to the event.” Higa mentions a Puna man to whom he says he passed the $200 worth of tickets. Others, speaking off the record, claim Higa had known Motta casually for years as they both grew up in Hilo.
Motta once seemed to be a promising young leader. He was elected the 1999 UH Hilo student senate president and had hoped to pass the LSAT and go on to law school. But the Pali shootings were Motta’s third arrest.
Motta had been arrested on gambling charges in 1998. Charges were tossed out after a Judge ruled that a search warrant had been improperly executed.
Motta was also one of 138 persons arrested in 2001 on gambling charges stemming from a police sting operation at an auto repair shop on Hilo’s Leilani Street. In 2002 Motta’s arraignment on those charges was also tossed out on a technicality. But after posting $1 million bail on the federal 2004 Pali murder charges, Motta was rearranged in the Leilani Street case in state court in Hilo. He was required to post an additional $20,000 bail.
Indicating just how closely Big Island politicos follow this case, a county council member speaking off the record to Hawai`i Free Press was instantly able to recall the correct name of the Leilani Street repair shop-- seven years after the 2001 arrests.
Stacey Higa’s predecessor on the Council, Aaron Chung, was a character reference for Motta’s February, 2004 bail hearing. Quoted in the Tribune-Herald, March 4, 2004, Chung said Motta is a “good enough friend that I’m not going to divorce myself from him because of this.”
Bondsman Bail Hawaii refused in 2004 to discuss the source of Motta’s bail funds or its payment policy in granting bail. Out on bail, Motta obtained employment as the food and beverage manager of the then-ILWU-organized Naniloa Hotel in Hilo.
Billy Kenoi explains: “I’ve known Malu. I met Malu at the University of Hawai`i-Hilo. We were both in a Hawaiian leadership development program and I met him when we were working on establishing a program with Manu Meyer who is the director there on self esteem for native Hawaiian children. So that’s how I know Malu. He was the student body president at the University of Hawai`i-Hilo. He was a student who wanted to go on to become an attorney. As someone who was a student at UH Hilo who had gone on to become an attorney, we had become friends and I was encouraging him to pursue that path: To be a positive role model for our youth.”
The tickets for the Motta fundraiser read: “Come gather with good humble people….” According to the tickets, fifteen local bands provided live entertainment. Kenoi admits speaking at Motta’s fundraiser but names a well-known Hilo music promoter as MC-ing the event:
HFP- Why is it your name ended up on this?
BK- It was without my permission. It was without my permission.
HFP- Why would somebody do that to you?
BK- I don’t know, I can’t answer that.
HFP- So you were not at the event?
BK- I did go to the event.
BK- But when my name was put on-- I heard--on somebody called me and said, “Hey Billy you got your name on this invitation.” I said, “What?” And so I made a call and said: “Why is my name on an invitation. Nobody asked me. I had no prior approval.”
HFP- Who did you call?
BK- Uh, I called friends who told me that my name was on an invitation. And then I contacted Malu and said, “Why is my name on an invitation?” He apologized and I believe he took my name off that invitation. And that event was MC-ed by somebody other than myself….
HFP- Did you get up on the stage at any point?
BK- Yes. People had asked me to come up and share a few words and I did.
Confirming part of Kenoi’s story, several sources in Hilo tell Hawai`i Free Press that two kinds of tickets circulated around town for the fundraiser – some with “Billy K Live and Direct” and others without. Nowhere on the ticket does Ethan Motta’s name appear—only the reference to: “a very special man we love dearly.” But nobody Hawai`i Free Press spoke with attempted to deny that Motta’s defense fund was the beneficiary.
According to the 2000 US Census, 28,617 people over the age of 21 lived in Hilo. If 1,000 attended the event, 3.5% of the adult population helped raise funds for Motta at $100 a pop. This could have provided as much as $100,000 for Motta’s legal defense. But somehow it didn’t make the papers.
Motta February 11 pled guilty to the murder of Lepo Utu Taliese, the attempted murder of Tinoimalu Sao, by shooting him in the head, and to conspiracy to operate an illegal enterprise.
Taliese and another man, Romilius Corpuz, were both killed in the parking lot of the Pali municipal golf course on O`ahu in the early afternoon of Jan. 7, 2004. An AP article reprinted four days later in the Tribune-Herald, quoted prosecutors saying that “Before he died, Lepo Taliese told police he had been shot by Ethan Motta of Hilo and Rodney Joseph of Waianae….” Sao, taken to a hospital in critical condition after being shot in the face, survived the shooting.
Motta and three co-defendants will be sentenced in May and June by U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway.
The victims, the shooters, and a third gang apparently had been fighting for several months over who would provide “security” to competing illegal gambling operations in Honolulu. The Honolulu Star Bulletin in 2004 published a three-part series titled: “Rivals’ fights to control security at illegal game dens lead to gambling wars” describing a series of gambling-related assaults beginning April, 2003 and culminating with the Pali shootings nine months later.
After Motta admitted his guilt, the Star Bulletin February 12, 2008 reported: “Motta…advised (gambling den operator Kai Ming) Wang’s original security group that the best defense against attack was to go on the offense. That offense included robbery and extortion. And they were eventually successful in shutting down the rival gambling operation.” The shooting was apparently the result of a falling out between Motta and the original security group.
At the time he spoke at Motta’s fundraiser, Kenoi was an executive assistant to Big Island Mayor Harry Kim focusing on illegal drugs. According to his campaign website Kenoi “Coordinated the Hawaii Island Meth. Initiative for Hawaii County from 2001-2007.”
Asked what he would say to the family of Motta’s victims, Kenoi responded, “I cannot speak to that event. I don’t know all the facts. Anytime it is a tragic event it is a tragedy for everybody involved.”