By TOM CALLIS and JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writers
Police shut down a section of Old Stainback Highway on Thursday morning to search for a car theft suspect officers believe fired shots in their vicinity.
Hilo Patrol Capt. Richard Sherlock said that officers tried to stop a stolen black Toyota Tacoma pickup on Highway 11 in Panaewa shortly after midnight.
“It fled up the Stainback and was found on one of the side roads,” he said.
Officers then followed the truck onto Quarry Road, a narrow, steep, unpaved road, Sherlock said.
“It attempted to flee again and it got stuck in the brush,” he said. “When the officers approached the vehicle, the driver had already fled out of the vehicle but while there, investigating the vehicle, they (the officers) heard gunshots. At that point, because it was rainforest and it was in the middle of the night, for the officers’ safety, they backed off and secured the area to come back in the morning when it was clear.”
When police returned after daybreak, neither the truck nor the suspect were found.
“We had reason to believe the suspect was still there, so at that time, we decided to shut down that back road in case something else happened, like the suspect tried to jack a car,” Sherlock said.
The daylight response included officers from Hilo Patrol, Criminal Investigations Section and the Special Response Team — the department’s SWAT unit. Police staged by the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and didn’t allow most vehicles to travel mauka on Old Stainback Highway. That included the Fire Department, who responded to an 8:04 a.m. report of a vehicle fire on Quarry Road.
East Hawaii Battalion Chief Warren Sumida said firefighters were told by police to stand down before reaching the scene.
“I guess they were busy with something going on up there that we don’t know about,” he said.
Employees at the University of Hawaii at Hilo College of Pharmacy research facility and the University of Hawaii at Manoa Waiakea Agricultural Station, which share a property off Stainback, were allowed through the roadblock to go to work, but were later told to evacuate.
“They advised us around 11 that we have to evacuate the lab,” said Andrea Bandino, a post-doctoral researcher at the pharmacy facility.
Bandino said staff were told police were searching for an armed man who is considered dangerous.
Sherlock said police do not have the identity or a description of the suspect, who’s still at large.
“Any help from the public is appreciated,” he said.
Anyone with information about the identity of the suspect or his location is asked to call the police non-emergency line at 935-3311. Those who prefer anonymity may call Crime Stoppers at 961-8300 and may be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000.