By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A Kailua-Kona man who helped to rear one of two men whom police say escaped Wednesday from Hawaii Community Correctional Center said the fugitive has “mental health issues that have never been properly addressed, certainly not in the prison system.”
Peter Schonberg, who’s in a long-term relationship with the mother of 31-year-old Ryan Jeffries-Hamar, described him as “totally bi-polar” and said he’s “been in trouble since he was a little guy.”
“I’m not gonna blame the justice system for where he is, but certainly the mental health system within the justice system doesn’t work at all,” Schonberg said Thursday morning. “It’s just unfortunate, because when he’s not off in outer space, he’s a pretty nice guy.”
He added that if not properly treated and medicated, Jeffries-Hamar is “a hazard to society.”
Police say Jeffries-Hamar and 35-year old Jarvis Higa of Hilo overpowered a 63-year-old adult corrections officer in the law library of the Hilo jail, then intimidated the librarian, a 49-year-old woman, into giving them her car keys.
The ACO was treated and released at Hilo Medical Center. The librarian was not physically hurt.
Police say the men, who have been the subject of a massive manhunt, ditched the car in Sunrise Ridge subdivision, a short distance from the Punahele Street jail. They then took off on foot, broke into a Kaumana Drive home to steal civilian clothes, and made an unsuccessful attempt to take another vehicle on Wednesday.
The pair remained at large on Thursday, and police said they had information that the men planned to rob a bank. Both are considered dangerous.
“We’re spending a lot of resources looking for them,” said South Hilo Patrol Capt. Robert Wagner. “… We know we’ll find them; I just want to find them, like, now.”
“I would say that we have a considerable amount of manpower being placed on this today (Thursday),” he added. “Is it as intense as yesterday? I would say it’s more directed in a different direction, today. Yesterday, it was more focused than in the Kaumana area. We’re focusing on all leads that come in relative to their whereabouts.”
Several Hilo schools were put on lockdown on Wednesday following the escape, as was HCCC itself, which means the inmates were confined to their cells. An HCCC employee told the Tribune-Herald on Thursday morning that the lockdown had ended.
Wagner said there were reported sightings of Jeffries-Hamar and Higa in Hilo on Thursday, but police were unable to locate or apprehend them. He said the search had been expanded to Puna and Kona, as well.
He added that “some aspects of the escape … would lead me to believe that it was planned.”
Word spread via social media on Thursday that the pair had robbed Ainaola Mart in the Waiakea Uka area of Hilo. A clerk at the store told the Tribune-Herald the alleged robbery was “totally rumor, just false.” Police also issued a bulletin saying no robbery occurred at the convenience store.
Higa is awaiting trial on an attempted murder charge for allegedly shooting at and missing a 34-year-old Hilo man in Keaukaha in July. He also faces felony firearms charges. A check of criminal records shows 20 convictions dating back to 1999, including felony robbery, terroristic threatening, drug and firearms convictions, as well as misdemeanor convictions for assault and violating a protective order. He has a court date on Monday to seek a delay in his trial.
If convicted on the attempted murder charge, faces a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.
Jeffries-Hamar, who faces another escape charge for walking away from the minimum-security Hale Nani Correctional Facility in August, has 10 criminal convictions in Hawaii dating back to 2005, according to court records. They include felony convictions for burglary, theft and auto theft. Hale Nani is a facility in Hilo without walls that attempts to re-integrate inmates who have little time left on their sentences into society. Jeffries-Hamar was one of four inmates who escaped from Hale Nani in the period of a month. He was arrested in Kona a month later.
“We were very hopeful, because he’d been studying teachings of the Dalai Lama and he’d been looking at the great philosophies and he’d spent some time thinking about things,” Schonberg said. “And he was sure that he was ready to function in the world, but he went off again. And it’s been a regular pattern when he’s been released. There will be a few months when everything is going good and then, boom, you know.
“When he’s medicated, he’s OK. I’ve looked at the (news) reports and he’s being painted as a really horrible person, a bad guy. We feel really horrible about the officer and the librarian who were assaulted and stuff, but it’s just part of what goes on when people are not treated property. It’s just something that you can’t get people to recognize once they’ve done certain bad things.”
Schonberg said he hopes Jeffries-Hamar, who has a 7-year-old daughter, “can be taken in without being harmed badly.”
“I realize that in a situation where you’ve assaulted an officer, the officers can look on that, even if they see him, that he’s gonna assault them, too, and they can take more drastic measures than they would with other people,” he said.
State Department of Public Safety officials told the Tribune-Herald on Wednesday that HCCC is overcrowded, with more than 300 inmates housed in the facility, which is designed to hold 226, but DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said staffing of the facility was at normal levels.
“The one ACO in the library is standard operating procedure,” she said. “We don’t usually have mass amounts of people in there, so one ACO is in compliance.”
Asked if that procedure will be scrutinized, Schwartz said the department is “investigating the whole situation.”
“I’m not sure what’s gonna come of that investigation, but we’ll look at everything to see what can be fixed and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Schonberg said he believes Jeffries-Hamar and Higa “are being made poster children for other problems in the system.”
“They’re certainly not the first people to have escaped from the place,” he said.
The last reported escape from HCCC was on Oct. 13, 2010, when Kaulike Rice, then 29, was being released from the jail on one charge and fled past a lone police officer there to arrest him on a warrant in a separate drug case. He was nabbed in Hilo almost a month later.
Procedures at the jail were changed at that time to prevent a similar occurrence.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.