Prison guards freed on bond in gun conversion case
Two Halawa Correctional Facility guards facing federal charges of possessing machine gun parts are hard-working family men, well liked and dedicated to their jobs, their colleagues said yesterday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren ordered the release of Ronald P. Lee Jr. and Patrick Sonsona from custody yesterday after they each signed a $25,000 signature bond. Kurren agreed with the recommendations of the Pretrial Services office that the bonds would ensure their appearance at future proceedings.
Both men have been in custody since Saturday.
The decision was welcomed yesterday by a full courtroom of family members and fellow correctional officers who took the day off to show their support.
"We're happy that they will go home to sleep in their own beds tonight," said Sgt. Bobby Comeau, who worked with Lee in the Sheriff's Division of the Department of Public Safety before both moved to the Corrections Division.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Thomas said he was concerned about the danger Lee and Sonsona posed to the community because of their access to firearms. But he was satisfied that the court ordered that they surrender all firearms and ammunition as a condition of their release.
Co-workers described the two as assets to the Halawa facility.
Lee, a 20-year veteran of Public Safety, is a sergeant in charge of the armory and shooting team at Halawa and does firearms qualifications.
Sonsona, a 15-year veteran, just became a father recently and is a locksmith.
Guns are a hobby for the two, and the charges they face have nothing to do with their performance at work or with the job, said fellow Sgt. Melvin Kiaaina. Co-workers were "extremely shocked" when word of their arrest last weekend by federal agents got around, because they have never been in trouble before, he said.
Though they allegedly made a serious mistake, Kiaaina said, he does not believe they intentionally violated the law.
Lee was accused of obtaining an auto-connector -- a device that can convert semiautomatic firearms into machine guns, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court earlier this week. The FBI said he had been making arrangements to obtain the part in the last three weeks and that Sonsona was arrested after he tried to get the device from Lee.
Transferring or possessing such devices is a federal crime punishable by a maximum 10 years' incarceration.
Both are expected back in court May 7 for a preliminary hearing.