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Public Critical of Police Handling of Investigation of Missing Women

Failure to communicate leads to abundance of rumors, conjecture & fear.

February 27, 2014
Susan Halas - Contributing Writer (wailukusue@gmail.com) , Maui Weekly

By now, everyone not living in a cave knows that two women have gone missing on Maui recently, and that the best efforts of their families, friends, acquaintances and the Maui Police Department to find them have yet to produce results.

Moreira "Mo" Monsalve was last seen Sunday, Jan. 12; less than a month later on Sunday, Feb. 9, Carly "Charli" Scott, five months pregnant, also disappeared.

Both women were last seen in the company of their former boyfriends. Neither has yet been found. Media coverage of the search for the pair has been extensive and included CNN, USA Today, ABC News, People Magazine as well as in-depth reporting statewide in digital, print and broadcast media.

Article Photos

Still missing (left to right): Laura Vogel, Moreira “Mo” Monsalves and Carly “Charli” Scott

These two latest victims are only part of a longer list of unsolved local missing person cases that include:

Noquisi Ama Blossom, missing since Oct. 18, 1995, from Makawao;

Astara Aisha Evenstar, missing since Jan. 10, 2004, from Ha'iku;

Article PDFs

Laura Vogel, missing since Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010, from Ha'iku.

Trying to get a handle on the role of the Maui Police Department (MPD) in this story, the Maui Weekly contacted Ron Vaught on Sunday, Feb. 16. Vaught is a longtime Kihei resident and 10-year veteran of the Police Commission, where he presently serves as vice chair. He pointed out that Police Chief Gary Yabuta and his staff were scheduled to make an appearance at the Kihei Community Association (KCA) the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 18, and would be on-hand to answer questions from the public. Though the meeting had long been in the works to discuss Kihei issues, it was open to the public and could now serve as an opportunity for those concerned about the status of the missing women to get answers from the MPD.

Vaught pointed to information that appeared as a short item in the Sunday Maui News lying on his couch. It was not posted on the MPD's county Website pages or the MPD's Facebook page.

Assuming the families would want to attend, the Maui Weekly relayed the date, time and place on their Facebook pages. As soon as they received the news, both groups urged their friends and supporters to turn out in force. The meeting information was circulated to the press by the families and was then also widely broadcast on statewide television, as was the announcement that a $10,000 reward was also being offered by the Scott family.

Word had gone out to the public, but it didn't come from the police.

From the police, there was complete and total silence.

Despite what they later termed a "barrage of media inquiries," the Maui Police Department made no public response of any kind to the families, the public or the press until the afternoon of Feb. 18, when it announced at 2:15 p.m. that it would host a press conference at 4 p.m. the same day in the Wailuku Police Department conference room and only a few hours before what was sure to be a large and emotional gathering in Kihei.

The apparent motivation for finally breaking their silence was to tell their side of the story before the public meeting began at 6:30 p.m. the same evening. (See "Maui Police and Community Parley About Missing Women" on the front page.) At that meeting, hundreds of friends and family of the missing women packed the Kihei Charter School assembly room, and many did indeed express their anger and frustration at the way matters had been handled to date by the department.

Though the press welcomed the opportunity to finally hear from the MPD, some members of the media viewed it as "damage control" and a last-minute attempt to get out in front of the increasingly vocal criticism of the police and their failure to address public and family concerns about the women and the status of their investigation.

Though the police in their press conference mentioned the need to separate fact from rumor, it was, many thought, their lack communication that fed the rumors--rumors that there might be a serial killer at large, rumors that a body had been found, and a host of other half-truths and non-truths that could have been avoided by providing a clear and open channel of communication from the start of the investigation.

Communications Needs Improvement

On the tech side, the Maui Police have all the latest gadgets and gizmos, weapons and vehicles. But when it came to media and communication, they seemed ill at ease and unprepared in the digital age.

In the past, their method of operation has been to host or attend periodic meetings like the one in Kihei--and often these events received little advance notice and were thinly attended by the public. At some, the number of police officers attending outnumbered area residents.

As for MPD public information, that slot has only recently been assigned to a new person. This officer is in charge of sending out news releases and maintaining a Facebook page. This page, which presently has 2,336 likes, provides some, but not much information. Click the tab marked "Events" to find an announcement about the Great Wall of Spam (the canned meat) posted in 2011, or more recently, a notice of a meeting of the Maui Police Relief Association last August.

The MPD also has a number of county-hosted Web pages. When it was pointed out to the county that the page on "missing persons" was last updated in 2007, and that its Web page dedicated to photos and descriptions of those wanted for serious crimes was even more out of date, the response was not to bring the pages up to date, but to entirely remove all the information. Like the missing women--they just disappeared.

Many Comments From the Public

In the days leading up to the press conference and public meeting, hundreds of comments were posted online at various sites related to both cases that reflect the mood of the public and their attitude toward the police. Here are a few samples:

Michael McCartney (Feb. 6): "This is incredibly troubling and causing emotional stress of extreme sadness, frustration and physical fatigue. I wish that that the investigators would release some sort of information. Family and friends are being left in the dark. We will not let this rest."

Abby Hale (Feb. 14): "... saw the remains of the vehicle after it towed by MPD, and am stunned that they didn't bag and tag everything inside and out after it burned. There (were) obvious items from the vehicle after it was towed, just laying there in the dirt. I mean, I found a dollar in coins from her car! I gave it to her sisters, but that shows how little police training they have in these kinds of cases."

Logan Wellbright (Feb. 14): "This was the central point of KHON's report last night interviewing Mo Monsalve's daughter Alexis. MPD does a poor job of engaging the public's help in missing person cases. She pointed them to Maui County's Website, where missing persons' info is listed and it had not been updated since 2007. Says a lot about talk vs. commitment."

Clayton Logue (Feb. 14): "Why is there never any word from the police chief? Never gives updates, media reports, etc. Police chiefs in other cities are always speaking to the media, except here."

Barbara Lindsey (Feb. 17): "Does MPD have a public information officer who gives regular updates, and answers questions from the media and the public? They should."

Chuck Turner (Feb. 18), reacting to the police press conference, wrote: "The MPD needs to realize they are in over their heads on these cases and need to ask the FBI to come in and take over the cases. How many unsolved crimes are committed on Maui each year and these cops, especially CID, cannot get it together. Trained professionalism comes from the top and we are not seeing it here. Laurel and Hardy could do a better job."

Former MPD Detectives Also Concerned

Also concerned about the actions of the department were a number of former MPD detectives. The men, all veteran officers, had served under five chiefs, including the present one. Here are some of their comments:

In their view, the current leadership is not "media friendly" and tends to regard the media as an adversary. They also stressed that department is internally in a state of flux. There are many recent retirees, new, inexperienced officers and also many vacancies--both sworn and civilian--that have yet to be filled.

In the past, said one, under other leadership, the department was more willing to turn to outside sources when it lacked equipment, know-how or specialty skills. However, he said, current leadership is reluctant to ask for help when help is needed.

One former detective said that two suggestions which were put forward in the past--things that might give the public a better sense of what is going on with the MPD--were both rejected. These were:

A proposal to let members of the force anonymously comment and evaluate their superiors was turned down. Though the department does a biennial review, it is seldom candid because it is possible to identify the person answering the questions.

Moving the Police Commission's monthly meeting to a more accessible and public-friendly setting, such as the County Building, has been recommended but rejected.

Presently, Police Commission meetings are held in the chief's conference room at 9 a.m. on a weekday morning the Wailuku Police Station. For a member of the public to attend these meetings, it is necessary to call in advance, get a door code and an escort to the room.

The room has a long table with chairs for the commission members. On the side, there are about 20 chairs for guests, but most of them are filled with police officers during the meeting. A first-time visitor easily gets the impression that the Police Department is in charge of the commission, and not the other way around.

Discussing the Monsalve case itself, one of the former detectives asserted that when the investigation was transferred from Lead Investigator Lt. Wendell Loo to Detective Oren Satterfield (because Loo had to go out of town on an extradition), the transfer of information did not go smoothly from one to the other.

At the press conference, Capt. John Jakubczak, head of MPD's Criminal Investigation Division, was asked if this was true and he responded that it was not. All the information, he said, had been passed along.

However, according to Alexis Felicilda, the daughter of Monsalve, Satterfield told her that he had never received many of the documents the family initially gave to Loo. She said that there was at about a week's gap before that information came to light.

The former detectives also pointed out that the burden of investigation has been placed on the family, who do not have the skill or knowledge to do the job. This is a police function, they said. Evidence was not handled properly. Follow-ups were not done, neighbors not interviewed, boyfriend's house not searched. The list, they said, "goes on and on."

Capt. Jakubczak denied these allegations.

Others Think MPD Doing a Good Job

But not everyone who spoke to the Maui Weekly or posted comments online was critical of the department.

Police Commissioner Vaught had only praise for the chief and his men.

Likewise, FBI Special Agent Tom Simon (who also handles media relations from Honolulu) said, "the Maui police are an outstanding police department. We have a great relationship with them and we always have. If they need assistance, we will be happy to assist. If there is any information we can provide in their investigation we will provide it to them."

Laura Ulibarri (Feb. 19) posted her reaction to the Kihei meeting online: "Emotionally charged meeting with MPD in Kihei," she wrote. "The police chief impressed me. While they didn't supply any info beyond the earlier press release, he put his men on the spot to answer the public's questions, but also emphasized the dedication of his team. His answers gave me confidence that he is listening to the public. He spoke in detail about the resources he has access to and said he'd be able to get anything he needed from the county. I think the police chief genuinely wants to establish a better partnership with the community. I think there's a good opportunity here"

Asked the next day about the about the Kihei meeting and public reaction, Yabuta replied succinctly, "I thought it went well." He said no date has yet been set for the next public meeting.

 
 

 

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