When Brian Smith made a call one night from a business in the Captain Cook area of Hawaii to turn himself in for a murder he had committed, police were confident that they would have him in court and behind bars without too much effort.
When he was arrested but then released by mistake, police in Hawaii were left with some explaining to do. As soon as he was back in custody investigators began to get to the bottom of his motive for killing 42-year-old Thomas Ballesteros Jr.
Brian Smith, a Honaunau resident, was accused of murder at his preliminary hearing recently. He attended that hearing wearing a hospital gown and sitting in a wheelchair. Police officers from the Hawaii Island Sheriff’s Office flew to Oahu to pick Smith up for his court appearance, on charges of murder and weapon violations.
Painted Church Road
It was one fateful day in June when the incident occurred on Painted Church Road in Honaunau. As soon as officers arrived, they found one man dead and two others injured from gunshots. The victim was later identified as 42-year-old Thomas Ballesteros Jr., of no permanent address. The two injured men identified Smith as the shooter when questioned by police.
While the shooter himself was also injured during the altercation, law enforcement arrived quickly at the scene. The two men were later located and taken to the Kona Community Hospital for treatment. They were then flown to The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu for further treatment. Officer Joel Furuto was the first cop on the scene that day.
When Hawaii Police Officer Joel Furuto attended the scene over the weekend, he saw two cars stopped in the road and a body with its legs up in the air. One man stood outside the white Chevy pickup on site while the driver of the vehicle was “pacing and excitable,” according to a West Hawaii Today report.
Officer Furuto told the court: “Initially I was 20 to 30 yards away from the body,” he said. “As I got closer I saw that it was lifeless and in the state of rigor mortis.” But when the officer checked the body, he found a small puncture wound on the left side of the forehead of the victim. “I believed I recognized him to be Thomas Ballesteros,” he stated. The fact that Ballesteros was a cop just made the crime even worse.
Officer Furuto found a white bag underneath the victim’s head but was surprised at the lack of blood from the wound. He told the court that a Luger-style gun was found in the immediate area along with five shell casings from a .22 caliber long rifle. A mango picker was also found at the scene of the shooting. Smith was known to be a gardener on the island.
Following Smith’s arrest, community members came out in support of him, claiming he was the least violent man they knew. Outside the courthouse, Candi Baker, who employed Smith to maintain her property in Napoopoo Road said, “He works his a** off and tries to keep his nose clean.” And there were more people at the court who spoke out in support of Smith.
According to Elizabeth Miller who also employed Smith on a freelance basis to maintain her home and rental units, “He’s a remarkable individual. … He’s a kind and gentle soul.” More than that, Miller added, “We’d trust him with our house.” Smith called Miller for help from the hospital following the shooting.
Smith seemed to be scared at the time he made the call to Miller. Having no family on the Island, Smith was considered a loner but not a strange one by any means. When he called Miller from the hospital, he said, “I just went home and these two men were laying in wait for me,'” she recalled. “He told me it didn’t turn out well and he just wanted to thank me for being kind and for ‘being the person you are.'”
Despite being charged with second-degree murder, second-degree attempted murder, first-degree attempted murder, two counts of ownership or possession (firearm) prohibited and two counts of carrying or use of a firearm in the commission of a separate felony, Miller claimed that something wasn’t right. “He doesn’t fit the profile of what he’s accused of,” she said.
Due to the nature of the crime, Smith has now been detained on $1.15 million bail. But having been taken into custody initially, Smith was released due to a police error, as Maj. Robert Wagner from the Hawaii Police Department explained at the time, according to a Khon2 report. “He was in jail for murder and attempted murder. He has killed one individual and attempted to kill another, so he’s considered extremely dangerous so we’re looking for him right now.”
Having made the error, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety was forced to release a statement: “Hawaii County Prosecutors informed HCCC this morning that the facility may have erroneously released Brian Smith on 7/24/18. The Public Safety Director’s Office was notified at 11:30 am Following contact with HCCC, it was determined that Brian Smith was released on 7/24/18, as ordered, for matters before the District Court. It was quickly confirmed through documentation that the inmate should have remained in custody in a Circuit Court matter, and public notification was made. As soon as we knew, we took action to alert the public.”
Having been released erroneously, deputy prosecuting attorney Mark Disher explained that they tried to conduct a hearing in court, hoping that Smith would show, although he didn’t. “In the morning when our office was made aware of his release,” explained Disher, “we attempted to have a hearing today in hopes … [that] he would show up. But apparently, there’s no contact or known whereabouts at least in the last day or so.”
Even the Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim spoke about the matter, saying that the release of Smith was an “unacceptable mistake.” “This is not a good time for Hawaii County or anybody’s time I guess on something like this,” Kim said. “The other sergeant was murdered and now you give me this news? On a personal basis, you feel like you’ve been reeled a one, two, three punch.”
The shooting incident rocked the people of Hawaii to their core, and even Governor David Ige spoke out to reporters about his dismay. “I am upset and deeply concerned about the erroneous release of pre-trial detainee Brian Smith. Residents … have had to deal with the lava emergency and the recent murder of a police officer, and I know this news is another blow,” he said. But he assured residents that their safety was his number one priority.
In the period before Smith turned himself in from the Captain Cook area following his mistaken release, Ige said through the media: “Our number one priority right now is your safety, and that means getting the suspect into custody. I assure you that law enforcement agencies are doing everything they can to locate him. I urge … residents to remain alert and call 911 if they see or hear something that could help.”
He went on to reassure the public that he was personally dealing with the Smith issue, as per standard operating procedure. “As is standard operating procedure,” he said, “the department is investigating to determine what led to this error. I have asked Public Safety Department Director Nolan Espinda to personally oversee this investigation and report back to me as information is gathered.”
But according to Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chair of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs, the error feeds into a much bigger issue. “It shows they need to have a better system of oversight to see these things do not occur,” Nishihara said. “Clearly we need to fix our system of how we handle people who are incarcerated, make sure they’re vetted before they’re released. It’s bad enough we have people on furlough not returning, and then we have a problem of looking for them later. So, clearly, public safety has major issues in how they protect the safety of the public.”
As Nishihara pointed out, this isn’t the first time that a suspect has walked free in Hawaii due to police error. Back in May, Oahu Community Correctional Center detainee Winston Kailimai was supposed to be taken to the Hawaii State Hospital but was released instead. Fortunately, he was arrested the next day again and tried in court. But all’s well that ends well as the saying goes, and Smith soon saw it fit to turn himself in.
By all accounts, Smith, who had no criminal record behind him, will receive a long sentence if found guilty of the charges against him. While the details of the shooting still need to be ascertained and clarified, it does seem strange that an otherwise peaceful man with no criminal past ended up shooting one man to death and injuring others.