Setting fire to neighbor nets 30-year prison term
A state judge ruled yesterday that a Punchbowl man who set his neighbor on fire is a danger to the community, and ordered him to serve three consecutive 10-year terms in prison.
Keith Yamamoto was convicted in October 2005 of first-degree assault and two counts of first-degree criminal property damage in the Oct. 4, 2004, attack on his neighbor and his family.
Lai Lim Leong suffered first-, second- and third-degree burns to the left side of his face and body and underwent skin graft surgery. He suffers from permanent and significant scarring and has limited use of his left arm.
Yamamoto apparently had a long-standing dispute with Leong over what he perceived to be harassment of him and his grandparents. The neighbors had lived on Bush Lane in lower Nuuanu for years, and court documents detail confrontations in the past.
On that particular morning, Leong was backing out of his driveway when he was forced to stop because Yamamoto had driven up in his pickup and blocked the path. In the car with Leong were his wife, 11-month-old daughter and adult sister.
Noting that Yamamoto was armed with a spear gun, Leong locked all the doors and closed the windows, according to testimony at trial.
Yamamoto approached their car yelling expletives and began smashing in the rear window on the passenger side where his wife sat, showering her and the baby with glass. He then went around to the driver's side and punched a hole the size of a baseball in the driver's side window using a sledgehammer. Yamamoto doused Leong with an unknown liquid, then set him on fire.
Leong's family managed to get out of the car and fled into their home. With Yamamoto after him, Leong fled down the road, down Lusitana Street and toward Queen Emma Street, where he managed to flag down a motorist for help.
Meanwhile, a police officer investigating a purse-snatching in the area noticed Yamamoto running. Yamamoto waved the officer over and told him he was chasing an individual who had been harassing him and his grandfather. He also admitted to setting this person on fire.
Yamamoto's defense at trial was that he did not intend to harm or injure Leong or his family. The jury rejected a second-degree attempted murder charge and found Yamamoto guilty of the lesser charge of first-degree assault.
Deputy Prosecutor Wayne Tashima argued for the consecutive sentences, citing the nature of the offense. He noted that Yamamoto had arrived armed with various weapons when he confronted Leong that day.
Police recovered Yamamoto's tool belt, which carried two containers of gasoline, fireworks and a claw hammer. Also recovered near the scene were two utility knives -- one of which apparently had been used to slash the tire on Leong's car -- and the discarded sledgehammer.
Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto denied on Sept. 26 the state's request for extended terms but found that consecutive terms were appropriate.
Other neighbors had written in support of Yamamoto, saying he was a caring and good neighbor who would generously give them his catch when he returned from diving, said defense attorney Keith Shigetomi.
Yamamoto, who had no prior criminal record, expressed remorse for his conduct and empathy for the Leongs, Shigetomi said.