Hana man spared additional jail time, placed on probation for assault

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The Maui News

September 1, 2022


WAILUKU — With a judge saying she was aware of conflict between residents and tourists in Hana as well as a defendant’s reputation in the community, a Hana man was placed on four years’ probation Wednesday for an assault on a tourist three years ago.

James Pu, 33, was spared any additional jail time as part of the sentence.

“As far as what happened on this night, it’s unfortunate for everybody,” 2nd Circuit Judge Kirstin Hamman said in sentencing Pu. “I hear you. I understand what you mean to your community, to your family. I do not think a prison term is appropriate in your case.”

In a trial in June, a jury found Pu guilty of a lesser charge of attempted second-degree assault of Arizona resident Jeffrey Funicello. He testified he was attacked by Pu and others, suffering a concussion and possible bone fractures the night of July 21, 2019, when he was camping at Koki Beach Park with his girlfriend and two children.

Pu also was found guilty of second-degree terroristic threatening of Funicello and two counts of second-degree endangering the welfare of a minor. He was found not guilty of another charge of second-degree terroristic threatening of Funicello’s then-girlfriend.

“I just would like to see justice served,” Funicello said, appearing by videoconference for the hearing. “There were others involved in this, but James was clearly the ringleader and had the power to make this not happen. I’m very lucky to be alive. If I didn’t know how to defend myself, I would be dead. They definitely tried to kill me in front of my kids.”

Along with dozens of Pu’s friends and family members in the courtroom gallery Wednesday, there were numerous letters to the court from family and friends, said Deputy Prosecutor Carson Tani.

“They say James couldn’t have done what he did or it was Jeffrey’s fault,” Tani said. “They’re mistaken. None of them were present at Koki Beach.

“The last thing that Jeffrey Funicello wanted was a fight because his main concern was with his two children,” who were 9 and 10 at the time, Tani said.

He said Pu started the fight by grabbing Funicello around the throat and by his ears and pushing him back before Funicello responded by punching Pu in the face.

“Jeffrey didn’t feel like he had a choice because he was being surrounded by James and his friends,” Tani said.

He said Funicello asked the men to “stop, please stop,” then ran and was followed by Pu’s friends, who continued assaulting Funicello.

He was put in a chokehold by Pu and was kneed in his body, Tani said.

“He was told, ‘You will pay for being here,’ “ Tani said.

He said Funicello was punched in his face, body, back of his head and neck.

When Funicello said he was concerned about his children’s safety, Tani said the defendant responded, “We don’t care about your children. Your children are going to watch you die.’ “

After Funicello, his girlfriend and children were allowed to leave, they called police.

While the prosecution asked for Pu to be sentenced to a five-year prison term for the assault charge, Pu’s friends and family said they didn’t believe the facts presented in court.

Richard Rutiz, former executive director of the nonprofit Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike, said he has known Pu since he was 14 and described his “gentle demeanor, his even-headedness.”

“In the years I knew him, he never got into a fight. He broke up fights,” Rutiz said. “Don’t take him away from our community. He is essential. He is the one the kids look up to. He is a role model. That’s why this whole thing is crazy.”

Rutiz said Pu, who took over the building part of the nonprofit, was “the only one I could have possibly turned this over to.”

Some Hana residents described Koki as Pu’s home and a refuge overlooking a fishpond that he was trying to safeguard from visitors intruding on traditional fishing practices. The area is overrun with tourists during the day and illegal campers at night, some said, blaming the county and state for allowing the intrusion by tourists into their backyards.

Vance Pu, a lifelong Hana resident, said what was said about his son “tried to negate his true nature as a protector and provider.”

Hana resident Sol Church said he was torch fishing with his grandson that night and saw Funicello attacking Pu.

“Why they make a point of taking our innocent people and making them criminals?” Church said. “We have tourists attack people that live here, that are stewards of our land. That’s all James was doing.

“This is an injustice to our people.”

Elijah Gold, 32, said he and Pu were heading back from the hotel that night when Pu noticed a camper at Koki Beach. “James asked me if we could stop and he could tell them not to camp there,” Gold said.

After no one answered for a couple of minutes after Pu yelled “hello,” “someone came running up from the river side,” Gold said.

He said Funicello was face to face with Pu. “All of a sudden, he just punches James in the face,”Gold said.

He said he went to separate the two when Funicello “punches me.”

“James did not hit the guy not once, did not touch him,” Gold said. “We didn’t touch him, he beat us.”

Pu said he wouldn’t have stopped that night “if I had known the person I was about to interact with would react the way he did.”

He said his intentions were misunderstood and “it escalated quickly.”

“I’m pleading with you to consider who I truly am,” he said in court. “I’m a husband and father of two young daughters that need me to be present.”

As a teacher, he said, “I try to show my students all the different possibilities they have while working with their hands.”

Pu said he has also participated in building kupuna houses, working on the community farm and volunteering with the Hana Canoe Club.

“I truly care and appreciate the quality of life we are still able to live in Hana,” he said. “That is why we stopped at Koki that night.

“I’ve learned from this incident that even with the best intentions, it’s always best to let the police handle illegal camping situations.”

Gold, who was indicted in the case along with Pu and another man, pleaded no contest in July to a reduced charge of third-degree assault and was given a chance to keep the conviction off his record if he follows court requirements for six months.

Pu’s attorney, Jon Apo, cited the differences in asking for Pu to be sentenced to probation and no jail.

“That’s the least this court can do to avoid the disparity or to try to correct the disparity between these defendants,” Apo said.

Judge Hamman said she recognized the disparity, as well as the concerns raised by Hana residents.

“I’m aware of the conflict with tourists and the local people because Hana is such a special place,” she said. “It’s not lost on me that there’s a tension, there’s a clash. It’s unfortunate that the county doesn’t provide the resources to police the illegal camping that occurs. There’s a need to educate tourists about how special that place is.”