By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
When Prosecutor-elect Mitch Roth assumes office on Dec. 3, he’ll do so without one of the island’s most experienced deputy prosecutors, Ricky Roy Damerville.
The colorful Damerville, 63, who’s served a quarter-century between the Hawaii County Prosecutor’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office, is retiring on Nov. 30.
“I’d rather be audited by the IRS than prosecuted by Ricky Roy because of the lengths he goes to learn everything about anyone he prosecutes,” Roth said on Friday.
“You can come in here at 10 o’clock at night or on the weekend and you can find him working. It’s gonna be huge loss for us and some huge shoes for anyone to try to fill.”
Damerville, who was born in Virginia and grew up in Florida, said he’d like to “do nothing for a while.” He expects to finish a book he’s writing early next year and visit Germany with his wife, Deborah, where the couple’s older daughter, Laura, is an attorney on a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship. Their younger daughter, Sarah, is a second-year law student at Boston University.
Damerville spent almost eight years in the Navy as a Chinese-language interpreter before going to law school at the University of Florida, where he met his Oahu-born wife, who’s also a lawyer. He was a public defender and private attorney before becoming a prosecutor. In his career, Damerville has prosecuted numerous violent, even heinous crimes. But two cases, he said, have stayed with him. One is the 1988 slaying of Thelma Teves, a 63-year-old neighbor of Damerville’s who was stabbed to death by a troubled 21-year-old named Patrick Garcia.
“Ms. Teves was a wonderful lady; she would help anyone, and she was helping Patrick, because Patrick was on probation and he had a drinking problem,” he said. “And for whatever reason, Mr. Garcia and his friends decided that they would break into her house. Patrick Garcia stabbed her multiple times and then burglarized the house. He went to prison and died in prison. That case sticks in my mind; the photographs stick in my mind. … They say you can’t get PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from photographs.” Damerville’s voice then trailed off, the pained expression on his face casting reasonable doubt on that theory.
The second case is the extreme abuse of a Puna girl in 2005. The girl’s caregiver, Hyacinth Poouahi, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“That little girl was so close to death … that the medic literally threw up because the smell of death was on her when they got there. And her injuries were so horrific,” Damerville said as tears welled up behind his glasses. “The doctors in that case told me that it was the worst case of abuse they’d seen that the child actually lived. That case will always be with me. I tear up when I think about it.
“… The worst thing about it is that it was so needless, in the sense that if school authorities had made the phone calls that they needed to make, it didn’t need to have gotten that bad. There was a civil suit involved in it and the state probably paid millions. The actual settlement amount is confidential, but we have a system in place that if you suspect that a child is being abused, you call Child Protective Services. If a child is not in school, someone supposedly goes out and finds out why this child is not in school, not just accepting any lie a caregiver might give as to why the child is not in school.”
Another case prosecuted by Damerville was the 1987 rape and murder of 65-year-old Rose Chiquita in Hilo. That case went cold until 2001 before DNA evidence tied the slaying to Frank Janto, who was already serving a life sentence for killing another woman, Jackie Koja, on Oahu.
At the 2009 sentencing for Chiquita’s murder, Damerville said Janto displays “all the indicia of a serial killer” and said that only Janto knows how many lives he’s actually taken.
“Thank God, most people are not like that. You don’t have too many of them in your career,” he said. “We have a number on unsolved homicides in this county, and I think it’s incumbent upon prosecutors, police officers and even the media to let those family members know that they’re gone, but they’re not forgotten. Sometimes, it takes a long time for justice to happen. Those shows like ‘The First 48’ make you believe that the first 48 hours are critical in solving those homicides — and that’s sometimes true, but that’s not always the case. Some of these cases get better years after the fact.”
Damerville said some unsolved cases, such as the “Peter Boy” Kema disappearance, garner viral media and public attention, while others hover below the media’s radar and victims’ loved ones grieve for years, perhaps decades, without resolution.
“It’s hard for them,” he said. “Many of them are wondering if something’s going to happen and it’s going to get solved before they die. And I think news media has a role there. One, to take their phone calls and to ask the police department and the prosecutor what’s going on. But another, especially in a small community, if you keep the focus on it, people will help.
“I know you (Tribune-Herald) ran that series about the Dana Ireland case recently, but that’s already solved. There are other cases out there that can use that kind of attention, because somebody out there knows something. Some of these cases are very close to prosecution; they’re not very far away. But you only get one chance. But like Casey Anthony, if you go (to trial) too early, you’ll never get a second chance. If we had more media attention on how close those cases are, somebody may come forward and make the difference in these cases.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.