Saturday, December 4, 2004

Gregory Awana looked back at his family yesterday as his guilty verdict was read in Circuit Court.

Former city investigator
is found guilty of murder

The jury disbelieves Awana’s claim
that he shot in self-defense

A Circuit Court jury rejected claims of self-defense and found a former investigator for the Honolulu Medical Examiner guilty of second-degree murder for shooting a drug business associate and disposing of his body in the ocean off Kaneohe Bay.

Gregory Awana, 38, was also convicted yesterday of using a firearm in the commission of a felony, car theft, second-degree criminal property damage and first-degree commercial promotion of marijuana, charges that stemmed from the circumstances surrounding the slaying.

The verdict, reached after more than 8 1/2 hours of deliberations, capped a four-day trial that highlighted the dangerous consequences of getting involved with drugs.

Yorck Woita, 28, a refinisher who also dealt in marijuana, disappeared Sept. 29, 2003. Woita and Awana was seen walking into a Manoa home where marijuana was being grown indoors.

In a statement, Awana told police he panicked after the shooting and drove Woita's sport utility vehicle to Waimanalo and torched it. He said he loaded Woita's body the next day into a Boston Whaler he borrowed from a friend, towed the boat to Kaneohe Bay and dumped the body and the gun overboard after driving more than an hour out to sea. Woita's body has never been found.

Woita's stepmother and stepsister gasped when the verdict was announced, while Awana, a look of concern on his face, turned to his wife, daughter and family as though to try to comfort them. Jody Awana dissolved into tears as the couple's 12-year-old daughter hung her head.

"This is a tragedy for everybody concerned, but this a tragedy for Greg Awana and his family as well," said defense attorney David Gierlach, who noted they plan to appeal.

Awana claimed Woita pointed a .22-caliber Beretta at him and threatened to kill him and his family over a $10,000 debt. Awana said that during a life-and-death struggle over control of the gun, he accidentally fired it three times into the side of Woita's head.

Woita felt he had been "ripped off" after Awana went ahead with an indoor marijuana operation at the Manoa home without him. The two had agreed to go into business together two years earlier, but Awana had pulled out because he could not trust Woita to keep his mouth shut, he later told police.

Deputy Prosecutor Glenn Kim said he is gratified for Woita's family that the jury reached the correct decision.

According to prosecutors, Awana intentionally shot Woita because he presented a big problem for him. Not only was Woita demanding money, he could have ratted him out to police, Kim said.

A former deputy sheriff, Awana had been training in the prior four months as an investigator for the Honolulu Medical Examiner.

"So he had a problem, and the state's theory is he decided to eliminate that problem," Kim said.

After shooting Woita, Awana got rid of the gun, the car and the best evidence in the case, Woita's body, Kim said.

"I think he knew exactly what he was doing, and the jury apparently agreed," he said.

The state believes Awana had his wife call a friend, Bruce Mau, to have him pick Awana up in Waimanalo, not far from where Woita's Xterra was later discovered on fire. Phone records show a call was made from Jody Awana's phone to Mau.

"If he's calling her telling her to get Bruce for a ride, he's already thinking ahead -- he's going to kill the kid, drive the car there and he's going to need a ride from there," Kim said. "That's premeditated murder."

The fact Awana got rid of the body also showed consciousness of guilt, Kim added.

Gierlach had argued that Awana acted out of panic and that he was not known to be a violent person.

At trial, several witnesses testified the Awana they knew was a patient, peaceful man who never lost his temper. All had no idea Awana was growing marijuana.

Members of Awana's extended family expressed shock at the verdict, saying there was evidence to show Woita had initiated the confrontation and threatened Awana. But they also called the case a tragedy for both families.

Michael Shannon, Awana's brother-in-law, said they feel for Woita and his family, and while they do not condone Awana's involvement in marijuana, they fully support him and believe him when he said it was self-defense.

Among the issues the defense plans to appeal is the court's decision to admit the statement Awana gave to police into evidence. The defense had argued unsuccessfully that Awana was coerced into giving a taped statement.

Woita's family declined comment as they left the courthouse.

Awana will be sentenced Feb. 22. He faces a mandatory life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.

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