By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A 41-year-old Michigan man accused of embezzling cash from a Kona coffee grower has been extradited back to the Big Island to face charges.
John “Jason” Walaskay of Whitmore Lake, Mich., was arrested Aug. 2 at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club in suburban Detroit on a warrant filed by local authorities with the National Crime Information Center. A source who asked to remain anonymous said it was Walaskay’s second day on the job as comptroller of the yacht club.
Walaskay, who used to live in Waimea, was indicted by a Kona grand jury on June 18 with two counts each of first-degree theft and use of a computer in the commission of a separate crime and five counts of second-degree theft.
The indictment states that Walaskay stole money from Kona’s Best Natural Coffee in Captain Cook, where he was employed as comptroller, on seven occasions between March 1, 2009, and April 30, 2010. If convicted on all counts and sentenced to consecutive terms, Walaskay could face up to 75 years in prison.
Cathy Kleger, bookkeeper for Kona’s Best Natural Coffee, called Walaskay’s arrest and extradition “great news.”
“I’d like to see Jason go to prison. I’d love to see him pay us back, but that’s not gonna happen,” Kleger said Wednesday morning. “… The company itself lost nearly $200,000, but it didn’t put us out of business.”
She said that Hawaii Coffee Co. bought the company’s Internet business and trade name, Koa Coffee Plantation.
“They’ve been renting out our roasting facility the past few months while they get transferred to Honolulu, where they’re based,” Kleger said. She added that the remainder of Kona’s Best Natural Coffee’s business, including its coffee farms, is also for sale.
Walaskay pleaded not guilty to all charges on Wednesday afternoon. Hilo Circuit Judge Glenn Hara ordered Walaskay to stand trial on Oct. 3 at 8 a.m. before Kona Circuit Judge Elizabeth Strance.
Deputy Public Defender Belinda Castillo Hall requested the judge reduce Walaskay’s bail from $100,000 to $10,000.
“Mr. Walaskay was questioned about these matters two, two-and-a-half years ago when he was living here,” she said. “He cooperated with police and was released pending investigation. He had recently just moved to Michigan, didn’t believe that anything came of (the investigation). … It doesn’t appear he has any prior criminal history.”
Deputy Prosecutor Jason Skier argued against a bail reduction.
“Given the nature of the charges, I would consider the bail appropriate and would ask the court to consider raising the bail, considering when the warrant was issued he was not in the state … and ultimately had to be extradited from the mainland,” he said.
Hara maintained Walaskay’s bail at $100,000.
Kona attorney Joseph Fagundes III, who represents Kona’s Best Natural Coffee, told the Tribune-Herald in late June that “inconsistencies in the records of the accountings” were discovered while Walaskay was working at the coffee company.
“What was being shown in the records was payments being made to certain creditors and vendors when, in fact, the actual checks were being made out to Mr. Walaskay,” he said at the time. Fagundes also said that federal authorities had Walaskay “under surveillance for some time.”
This is not the first time Walaskay has been accused of stealing from an employer. According to a report by the Hendry County, Florida, sheriff’s office, Walaskay was arrested and charged with grand larceny on Feb. 28, 2008, for allegedly stealing more than $100,000 from The Wallace Group, where he was chief financial officer from September 2003 to November 2007. He was released after posting $50,000 bail. No record was found of that charge being prosecuted.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.