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Thursday, December 7, 2000

Witness thought
youths were
‘playing around’

By Debra Barayuga

There wasn't anything particularly significant about the group of youths who walked past John Kamaka in the early morning hours of June 3, 1998, as he lounged in front of the Waianae Drug store.

They appeared "highly intoxicated" and were "joking, laughing and hitting each other," Kamaka testified yesterday in an ongoing murder trial in U.S. District Court.

Charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Army pilot John Latchum are Roberto Miguel, Bryson Jose and Keala Leong, all part of the group Kamaka saw that morning.

Kamaka said he heard someone in the group say, "Halt, who goes there," and "Stop, before I shoot," as they crossed Farrington Highway, walked past an auto parts store and headed in the direction of the Waianae Recreation Center, or Rest Camp.

A short time later, the group returned from the area of Rest Camp and were still joking and laughing, he said. But this time they were running hard and out of breath.

He recognized Leong, who was wearing a backpack, and Jose was trying to stuff a rifle into the backpack.

When Jose passed him, he told Kamaka, "Uncle, you better go, we just went shoot somebody."

Kamaka said he didn't take Jose's words seriously because he thought they were "playing around."

Moments later, Kamaka saw Leong hand Jose the backpack, and Jose placed the rifle inside.

Latchum was found later that morning fatally shot just outside his beachside cabin at Rest Camp, where he and his wife and two children were vacationing.

In an unexpected twist, Kamaka also testified he spoke to Leong on the telephone sometime last month.

The phone call was intended for his son, but Kamaka said he took the call because his son was in the shower.

Kamaka said he recognized the voice on the other end as Leong's, but asked who he was anyway to confirm.

When Leong acknowledged who he was, Kamaka confronted him about a name Leong had called him for talking to police. "I told him, 'What you said? I was one rat?' "

He said Leong confirmed he had said that.

When asked by Leong's attorney, Rustam Barbee, whether Leong had called him a liar instead, Kamaka denied it.

Kamaka said he was arrested by police later that morning on a contempt warrant as he walked toward Waianae Valley Road. He sat in a cellblock for four hours before he was questioned about an incident at the Rest Camp.

He said he didn't tell police or the FBI anything at that point. "I wasn't sure what they were talking about because I never see anything."

It wasn't until he was taken to the Honolulu Police Station that he reported what he had observed about the group he saw going to the Rest Camp and returning.

Kamaka also admitted during cross-examination that a friend of his had walked to the Rest Camp five minutes before he saw the group of boys headed there. The friend had returned and cautioned Kamaka not to go there because there were a lot of cops.

He told Kamaka he had heard a "rat-a-tat-tat and a lady yelling."

U.S. District Court Judge Helen Gillmor yesterday denied the testimony of a witness who would claim that Miguel had made statements to him about the shooting while they were housed together at the Oahu Community Correctional Center.

Gillmor said she was not confident that instructions to the jury not to use the witness' testimony against Miguel's codefendants was sufficient.

The statements were contained in a letter from the witness to U.S. Attorney Steve Alm, saying Miguel told him he planned to do a "home invasion" on the cabin and shoot everybody, but didn't because his companions panicked and fled.

Miguel's attorney, Federal Deputy Public Defender Peter Wolff, objected to the witness taking the stand. He characterized the witness as a "typical jailhouse informant" who was trying to better his own situation.

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