Thursday, April 19, 2001

HPD officers
performed heroically,
chief says

The officers did their jobs
the way they were trained to
do them, says Donohue

By Rod Antone
Star Bulletin

Honolulu Police Chief Lee Donohue says police officers involved in Tuesday's deadly shoot-out on the H-2 freeway in Waipio were "heroes."

Levi Esperas was killed and two police officers wounded in the confrontation. Officer Robert Steiner, a 9-year veteran, remains hospitalized at Queen's Medical Center.

"They did very well, they did the job the way they were trained to do and they did very well." Donohue said yesterday of his officers.

Police shot and killed Esperas, 27, believed to be the driver of a stolen van, after they said Esperas fired several times at officers.

Yesterday, Donohue recounted the events that led to the ultimately fatal shooting, as reported by police investigators

Esperas, also known as Levi Laa, was attempting to make a U-turn across a grassy median of the H-2 freeway, about a half a mile north of the Ka Uka Boulevard overpass, when the van hit a concrete barrier.

Three of the four suspects jumped out of the van and attempted to flee, while the fourth -- Esperas -- waited in the front passenger seat.

Esperas got into a scuffle with Steiner. During the scuffle, according to investigators, Esperas picked up a 12-gauge shotgun and fired once or twice, hitting Steiner's left hand at close range.

After that, investigators said, Esperas ran for the brush on the town-bound side of the H-2. The lone woman, Bernadette Oili, 27, also known as Bernadette Laa, had already escaped into the brush.

Standing between Esperas and the brush were two other officers, Curtis Loui and Aaron Bernal, investigators said. At that point, they said, Esperas again opened fire, this time hitting Bernal partially on the right side of his face.

Loui and Bernal returned fire, striking Esperas from across two traffic lanes. Donohue said police fired a total of 10 rounds.

Emergency Medical Service technicians initially called for an Army helicopter to airlift Steiner and Esperas, the two victims in most need of medical assistance, to a hospital. While emergency personnel worked on Esperas, he went into "critical condition" said Donnie Gates, EMS chief of operations.

At that point, Gates said, emergency protocol stated that Esperas could not be airlifted because he required "aggressive treatment," which could not be given in a helicopter. It was then, Gates said, that the decision was made to take Esperas by ambulance to Kapiolani Medical Center at Pali Momi and for Bernal to take his place in the helicopter, headed to Queen's Medical Center.

Bernal was released from Queen's later Tuesday. Esperas died early yesterday morning at Pali Momi.

Donohue said that the incident started at about 4:50 p.m. on the H-1 freeway, Koko Head-bound, near Manager's Drive in Waipahu, when an officer in an unmarked car noticed that a van was "speeding and weaving in and out of traffic."

Donohue said the officer contacted two solo bike officers, who attempted to pull the van over.

The driver instead drove onto a northbound off-ramp of Kamehameha Highway, Donohue said. At one point the van did stop and Donohue said one officer walked toward it to speak to its occupants.

But the van "started up again," knocking the officer down, he said. The suspects then took the Ka Uka Boulevard on-ramp to the Wahiawa-bound lanes of the H-2, where the van finally came to a stop on the median.

Police said the van was reported stolen on April 15. Donohue said the shotgun used by Esperas was reported stolen "after the incident."

Police said the three surviving suspects -- Samuel Hao, 29, Jessie Ani, 28, and Oili -- have been booked for auto theft, although they are under investigation for first-degree attempted murder.

As is the procedure any time a police officer fires his or her weapon, HPD's Internal Affairs Division also is conducting an investigation.

In response to reporters' questions about whether police were being shot at more often, Donohue said, "We're the 11th-largest city in the United States and we've got big-city problems like other big cities do."

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