By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The state Director of Public Safety said that two inmates staged a daring and violent escape from Hawaii Community Correctional Center shortly before 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Police initiated a massive manhunt for the escapees, 35-year-old Jarvis Naoki Higa of Hilo and 31-year-old Ryan Jeffries-Hamar of Kona. As of press time Wednesday evening, both were still at large.
“My understanding is that the two inmates were in the (law) library at the facility,” DPS Director Ted Sakai said. “They beat up a correctional officer, threatened another staff member, stole her car keys and were able to break open through a gate. Apparently, they were able to break it down, and took the librarian’s car.”
Police said that corrections officers tried to follow the stolen car but lost it. Police recovered the librarian’s car abandoned at the end of Kukuau Street in Sunrise Ridge.
Sakai said that the guard, whom he described as a “veteran adult corrections officer” was taken to the emergency room at Hilo Medical Center. The 63-year-old ACO was later released after treatment for head injuries and bumps and bruises. He said that the librarian, a 49-year-old woman, wasn’t physically injured.
Sakai said that the corrections officer wasn’t carrying a sidearm or a nightstick.
“We don’t like to arm our correctional officers inside the facility exactly because of this situation. Then the inmates become armed,” he explained.
There were at least two sightings of the inmates after the escape. The first public alert by police shortly after 10 a.m. stated that they had been spotted in the Sunrise Ridge subdivision, less than a mile from the Punahele Street jail.
The Puainako Street extension was closed to traffic and re-routed for about two hours while police and correctional officers, aided by the county’s fire helicopter, conducted an extensive manhunt for the suspects.
A written police statement received by email at 1:14 p.m. said that the escapees were last seen on foot around noon in the vicinity of Alahelenui Street and Kaumana Drive. Both were barefoot and wearing grey sweat pants and white T-shirts. Police speculated that one or both might have been attempting to hitchhike to Kona.
Police discovered that a home on the 800 block of Kaumana Drive had been forcibly entered and that a vehicle parked there had been entered in an attempt to steal it. Police diverted their search to that area but couldn’t find the fugitives.
Hilo resident Gary Fujihara told the Tribune-Herald early Wednesday afternoon that there were “choke cop cars and officers swarming houses on both sides of Kaumana Drive between Hokulani and Iiwipolena streets.”
“I saw a helicopter up there earlier,” Fujihara said. “There were cop cars on at least five properties on the Puna side of the street and four of the properties on the Hamakua side of that street. Traffic was just going at a crawl, because the cop cars were parked all along that road … and it was infringing on the thoroughfare going through there.”
A clerk at Hilo High School said that Hilo High, Hilo Intermediate and Hilo Union schools were all placed on lockdown status after notification of the escape. A parent of a student at St. Joseph High School said he was told by his daughter the school also locked its doors, faculty and staff made sure all students were accounted for and an adult working at the school walked her to her car at the end of the school day.
Police Lt. Greg Esteban of the Criminal Investigations Section said he considers both escapees dangerous and advises the public not to approach the men if they encounter them, but to “call 911 immediately.” He said at around 4:15 p.m. that the manhunt had become islandwide.
Capt. Robert Wagner of South Hilo Patrol said at about 6 p.m. that “all the officers we could get” were engaged in the manhunt.
Higa is described as of Japanese descent, 5-foot-6, 160 pounds with black hair and brown eyes. He has tattoos on his arms and chest. Higa is awaiting trial on attempted murder, unauthorized entry to a motor vehicle and firearms charges. The attempted murder and firearms charges are in connection with an alleged July shooting incident in Keaukaha. The intended victim, a 34-year-old Hilo man, wasn’t injured. DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said that Higa also violated his parole.
Jeffries-Hamar is described as Caucasian, 5-foot-7, about 170 pounds with blue eyes and short, reddish-brown hair. Jeffries-Hamar escaped in August from Hale Nani Correctional Facility where he was serving a sentence for burglary. He was re-arrested in September and was facing a second-degree escape charge. That month, police said he was part of a “drug-related burglary ring” operating in Kona and later said that his arrest, along with the apprehension of others in the ring, led to a 90 percent decline in burglaries in Kona.
“Obviously, we’re very concerned about having two escapees from the community and we’re gonna do all we can to work with the police to make sure they’re apprehended,” Sakai said. “But we’re also very concerned about the health of our staff, both the officer who was beaten, and the librarian, who has to be traumatized over this incident.”
Sakai said he would be “sending a team from Honolulu to Hilo to do a complete investigation so we know what happened.” He said that the jail, which is designed to house 226 inmates, currently has “in excess of 300” in its population.
“We need to modernize the facility and we’re developing plans to do so,” he said. “But right now, we have needs across the state. I’m not trying to minimize the needs at HCCC. I realize that there are serious needs. And it’s badly overcrowded, and we’re looking at that.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.