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Hawaiian dies during eviction

Kauai man burns home, himself, after long court fight with state

Honolulu Advertiser
Friday, January 19, 1996

By Jan Ten Bruggencate and Greg Wiles

Ananhola, Kauai - Hilbert Kahale Smith, a huge, gentle man, appeared calm and resolved as he walked around his Anahola Hawaiian Homes living room, pouring gasoline on the floor.

State sheriffs and a moving company had showed up at 8 a.m. yesterday at Smith's home on rural Mahuahua Road. They had a writ of possession issued by the District Court, and proceeded to evict Smith from the house he has owned since it was new.

Smith had a box of wooden matches in his hand.

One mover was in the house with Smith.

"I said, 'Don't do it,' be he just lit one and dropped it," said Manuel Lomosad . "As soon as it hit the floor, the flames came out. We were standing in the flames."

An hour later, Smith was dead inside, and his brother, Henry, was accusing the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands of murder.

"Hawaiian Homes murdered my brother. They drove him to this," said Henry, who was himself evicted from his Hawaiian Homes property last year.

"They knew something like this would happen. He did indicate that he wasn't going to move out peacefully."

Hawaiian Homes Chairman Kali Watson said he was shocked and saddened by Smith's death, and called for an investigation of the entire case. "There's a sincere feeling of deep sorrow and we'd like to express our deep felt condolences for the family," said Watson, explaining that the department will try to help the family out if it can.

Hawaiian groups on other islands were planning memorial services yesterday. But on Kauai, many in the Hawaiian community were simply stunned.

"I can't talk about it now," said Michael Grace, a Hawaiian lands activist who has been the subject of sheriff-led evictions ordered [by] the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the Office of the Attorney General.

Hilbert Clarence Kahalelehua Smith, 59, was a soft-spoken man who weighed over 300 pounds. He once owned a shop in the Coconut Plantation Marketplace, and once ran the snack shop in the Lihue State Building. He prepared taxes for people, and was a quiet supporter of Hawaiian causes.

He was firm when he believed he was right. And when it came to his Hawaiian Homes house, he believed he was right. He and many other residents were awarded house and lot packages in 1977, but quickly found the houses flawed.

Smith and other residents reported rusting and leaking roofs, floor weakness, electrical and plumbing problems, collapsing cabinets and other construction defects.

So he refused to pay his DHHL mortgage. The department found him delinquent, canceled his lease and in 1984 ordered him to vacate the property.

Smith and other lessees sued the department because of the construction defects, and the court halted the eviction process. But when Smith and the state couldn't reach agreement about repairing the defects, it again held a hearing, canceled his lease and ordered him to vacate.

He appealed, but his appeal was dismissed. Legal maneuvering continued until Jan. 5, when the District Court issued a writ of possession, which allowed the department to evict Smith.

"He fought the fight," said his attorney, Mark Zenger, who had planned to file an appeal of the eviction order. "He went to the newspapers. He went to court. He went to the Supreme Court twice. He went to three (DHHL) administrative hearings. He kept coming back. He never stopped. His claim remains unresolved today."

Other residents accepted Hawaiian Homes offers of repairs to their homes. But Smith said many of those repairs were insufficient, and left people with the need to repeatedly fix their houses. His brother Henry likened it to a car.

"You had four flat tires and they only fixed one," Henry said yesterday.

The analogy was an appropriate one for Hilbert Smith, a car buff who made money repairing and reselling old cars and selling parts. Several older cars and antique vehicles stood in his yard yesterday, surrounding the burned-out shell of his home.

Zenger said Smith, who often fought without the help of an attorney, was exhausted by the battle but continued fighting for the house because he wanted to be able to leave it to his children.

"He was a martyr," Zenger said.

"He called me this morning and said, 'Come help me. They moving me out,'" Henry Smith said.

State officials said when he was informed of the eviction, Hilbert Smith began assisting sheriff's deputies and employees of Kauai Freight in moving his belongings out of the house.

Lomosad of Kauai Freight said that one point about 9 a.m., he and Smith were alone in the house. Lomsoad said he was standing in the living room near the front door, when Smith walked in from the back of the house with a red plastic gas can.

"He just got the can and turned it upside down and walked around. He was mumbling - he talked very softly - something about 'If I can't have the house, I might as well burn it.' Something like that."

"He didn't show any signs of being in distress or anything like that," Lomosad said.

Lomosad said he was near the front door, and ran out, expecting Smith to follow. But when he looked back, Smith was no longer there.

"Within a couple of seconds, there was smoke everywhere and flames were coming out the front door."

Sheriffs deputies broke in a window to try to reach Smith, but couldn't find him. They tried to enter the kitchen door, but it was barricaded by Smith's body.

It was not clear whether he was trying to prevent entry, or whether he had collapsed there.

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