LYNN BEITTEL / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Vernon Costa pled guilty in a Big Island court yesterday to manslaughter in the deaths of two women.
Big Island man pleads guilty to manslaughter
KEALAKEKUA, Hawaii » Big Island resident Vernon E. Costa, initially charged with first- and second-degree murder in connection with two deaths resulting from a high-speed midnight auto chase last year, pleaded guilty yesterday to two counts of manslaughter in a plea agreement.
Kona Circuit Judge Elizabeth Strance sentenced Costa, 42, to a maximum of 20 years in prison. Under the previous charges, he could have been sentenced to life in prison.
The Hawaii Paroling Authority will set the minimum sentence for Costa. There is no mandatory minimum set by law.
According to testimony during a preliminary hearing that took up several sessions over a number of months, three women, including Costa's former girlfriend Janelle Nardin, were parked in a Honda Civic at a scenic Kona overlook shortly before midnight on July 16, 2006, when Costa drove up alongside.
The three were driver Pua Lei Santa Isabel, 26, front-seat passenger Nardin, then 19, and back-seat passenger Casey Ann Swain, 35.
As soon as they saw Costa, the women were afraid and drove toward Waimea, with Costa chasing them in a borrowed Dodge pickup truck.
As Santa Isabel drove up to 100 mph, with Costa banging the rear of their car with his truck, Nardin called 911 on a cell phone.
"We need help, please, please!" she screamed. "Oh, my god, he's not goin' stop."
Then the phone went dead.
The women's car crashed, killing Santa Isabel and Swain, who were not wearing seat belts. Nardin, who was wearing a seat belt, survived with minor injuries.
Following the accident, Costa took Nardin to North Hawaii Community Hospital, showing he was not trying to kill her, said defense attorney Robert Kim.
Costa had no reason to want to kill the other two women, Kim said. Swain's brother had actually saved Costa's life when his leg was cut during a construction accident, he added.
During the preliminary hearing, Kim repeatedly pointed out inconsistencies in various parts of Nardin's testimony.
Deputy Prosecutor Kimberly Taniyama said, "Manslaughter is a fair result in consideration of what we had to work with."