By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A 42-year-old Hilo man has pleaded not guilty to stealing taro plants from a state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands beautification project in Panaewa.
On Wednesday, Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura ordered Robert Myron Smith Jr. to stand trial on May 6 at 9 a.m.
Smith is charged with second-degree theft, second-degree promotion of a detrimental drug, being a felon in possession of ammunition and illegally storing bullets in his pickup truck.
According to court documents, witnesses had spotted Smith’s pickup truck driving away from the project area at the corner of Puainako and Ohuohu streets, across from Prince Kuhio Plaza, at about 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 16 “with the truck bed full of taro plants and the grounds at the project site recently disturbed.”
Police executed a search warrant on Smith’s truck and reportedly found two taro plants, ammunition and about six ounces of marijuana.
Rod Haili, the project’s manager, told police that about 1,000 taro plants were stolen from the site, according to court documents. He said that Smith was working on the project as part of court-ordered community service, but had been terminated shortly before the theft for allegedly harassing people walking through the area on their way to Prince Kuhio Plaza.
Smith talked to the Tribune-Herald last week, and denied both stealing taro and harassing passersby.
“I brought the kalo (taro) in,” Smith said. “It was my kalo. I grow the kalo; the kalo is who I am. I didn’t steal it. How can I steal what’s mine?”
Haili said in December that the taro was mostly ornamental, but anything edible harvested was to be given to elders in the community, but not to be sold.
Smith said that Haili’s wife, Pearl, had sold some taro for $50 and had given him half the money, which he didn’t want.
“He sold the taro, and when she approached him, he told her he couldn’t sell taro there, but he … already did that,” Haili said Wednesday. He added that since the taro was already sold, she kept $25 of the sale as a donation for the Panaewa Neighborhood Watch, which she organizes.
Smith showed the Tribune-Herald a notebook with written testimonials he said others had written on his behalf showing he had been a good steward of the project. Smith said that when he showed Haili the book, Haili became physically aggressive and had to be restrained from attacking Smith.
“Not true,” Haili said. “He’s going around, telling a lot of stories. We have it, the complaints, all documented.”
Smith also disputed that he had been “terminated” from the project.
“How could they fire me?” he said. “I didn’t know I had one job there.”
After the hearing, Smith’s attorney, Georgette Yaindl, appeared to be upset by a statement made by the judge when he instructed Smith to show up for a pre-trial conference.
“He said, ‘If you’re not in jail at that time.’ How do you like that?” Yaindl said. “It never ceases to amaze me, what people are capable of accomplishing, both the wonderful and amazing, and the bad. It’s not the why, or who, or how, but what. And that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.