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Pflueger dam trial advances


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POSTED: Thursday, April 23, 2009

LIHUE >>  Ka Loko Dam owner James Pflueger told a man responsible for maintenance of the dam “;to mind your own business”; when advised that covering an emergency spillway could be dangerous, according to grand jury testimony read in court yesterday.

Attorney General Mark Bennett revealed the details while arguing against motions to dismiss manslaughter charges against Pflueger stemming from the deaths of seven people in the 2006 breach of the dam.

Circuit Judge Randal Valenciano denied the motions. Trial is set for Oct. 26.

According to Bennett, Tom Hitch, owner of Kilauea Irrigation Co., which provides water from Ka Loko to farmers downstream, told state investigators that he warned Pflueger on numerous occasions that filling in the spillway was dangerous. A spillway is a safety feature that keeps water from going over the top of the dam.

Pflueger responded, according to the testimony Bennett read into the record, “;Hey, mind your own business, Hitch. It's my reservoir and I'll do what I want.”;

State experts also testified to the grand jury that heavy rain in 2006 and the lack of a spillway allowed water to rise over the top of the dam, causing the breach.

Pflueger's attorney, Brian Sun, countered that Hitch admitted he was responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the dam and the spillway. He said that Hitch, in a civil deposition, admitted he “;never thought the dam would overflow”; because debris choked the ditches leading into the reservoir.

Sun presented evidence that no one — not the state, county, nor Pflueger — thought the dam was in danger of failing.

Hitch's role, and the failure of federal, state and county regulators to identify any hazard at the dam, is part of the evidence clearing his client, argued Sun.

Sun also accused Bennett of keeping witnesses from providing important testimony and manipulating the grand jury to make sure Pflueger was indicted. The state is facing its own civil liability claims in the case.

Valenciano said the evidence Sun provided, while it may be appropriate for a defense argument at trial, did not meet the legal requirements needed to exonerate Pflueger.

Pflueger, 83, a retired auto dealer, was indicted on seven counts of manslaughter and one count of reckless endangerment.

Bennett told Valenciano “;the evidence of Mr. Pflueger's guilt (was) overwhelming”; when he presented 20 witnesses and hundreds of documents to the grand jury in November.

Bennett denied accusations that he committed misconduct to obtain the indictment, won after “;one of the most extensive grand jury presentations in the history of this state.”;

Bennett also provided evidence that, while doing the grading work in 1997-98 that allegedly caused the spillway to fill, Pflueger was making home sites so that he could subdivide his land and the land around the reservoir owned by the Mary Lucas Trust, of which he was a trustee and beneficiary.