Friday, January 19, 1996
By Joan Conrow and Mary Adamski
Anahola, Kauai - Hawaiian homesteader Hilbert C. K."Kahale" Smith blamed his "broken down" house for ruining hishealth, destroying his marriage.
Still, he loved his Anahola home and vowed to torch itrather than turn it back to the Department of Hawaiian HomeLands.
And during an eviction yesterday morning, Smith did justthat, burning to death in flames that engulfed the house. HawaiianHomes was trying to repossess the house, saying Smith wasdelinquent on lease payments.
"It's a tragedy," said Kauai police Lt. Martin Curnan. "Hewas burnt beyond recognition."
The house, the focus of an 18-year fight between Smithand Hawaiian Homes, was gutted. Only the metal roof and frameremain of the home that Smith claimed had been cursed by faultyworkmanship since he moved in.
The state attorney general has begun an investigation,said Kali Watson, chairman of the Hawaiian Homes Commission.He set a meeting today to debrief his department employees.
Curnan said Smith, 58, reportedly was cooperating withthe surprise eviction when he suddenly went back inside thehouse, where he apparently had earlier poured gasoline. Smithwas seen lighting a match about 9:50 a.m., Curnan said, and thewooden structure was quickly engulfed. "He made no attempt toget out."
Police are unsure whether Smith intended to kill himselfor got caught in the blaze and couldn't escape.
Curnan said an autopsy may help answer that question.
But Smith's brother, Henry, who witnessed the eviction,said he doesn't think the fire was planned. "He had too manydocuments that I know he wouldn't burn," said Henry Smith, whowas evicted by Hawaiian Homes last October after a similarhousing repair dispute. A valuable old coin and paper moneycollection also was in the house.
Henry Smith said his brother initially was "in a joyousmood" during the eviction, "but there were too many bossestelling him to do this, do that. They were touching a lot of stuff he
didn't want them to, and it was getting him upset, depressing him.
"I believe they drove him to that, to the point of noreturn."
Once the fire started, he said, he tried to reach hisbrother but was blocked by law enforcement officers.
"If they hadn't blocked me, I know I could have gottenhim out. They didn't do anything, and nobody came up to me tosay so much as 'I'm sorry.' They had 20 guys there. Don't tell methey couldn't prevent this."
Ten sheriff's deputies joined Hawaiian Homes and theattorney general's office in serving the eviction papers.
Smith told deputies that he needed gasoline to start upand move his cars, said Gregg Takayama, spokesman for thestate Department of Public Safety.
"They allowed him to get the gasoline to pour into thecars," Takayama said.
"It happened very quickly. There wasn't much they coulddo once he set himself on fire."
Takayama said none of the deputies knew that Smith hadpreviously threatened to burn the house rather than turn it over.
Smith threatened to set the house afire when he wasinterviewed in June and October by a Star-Bulletin reporter, whotold Hawaiian Homes officials Chad Taniguchi and John Hirotaabout the threat.
Watson said he could not comment on whetherdepartment staffers were forewarned.
"I don't know what was said or conveyed to departmentpersonnel. We are in the process of investigation to find out thecircumstances leading up to this tragic incident," Watson said.
Curnan said Kauai police were never told that Smithintended to burn his house. Police didn't respond until the call of a fire came in, he said.
Kauai attorney Ken Carlson, who represented Smith inhis last legal fight against Hawaiian Homes, knew of Smith'sthreat to burn his house but said he didn't go to Anaholayesterday because "there have been so many false alarms that Ididn't think that this time it would be anything otherwise. Still, it
doesn't really surprise me, because how many years has he beengoing through this frustration?"
Kay Smith, married to Smith's second cousin, wasstunned to learn that the man who once baby-sat for her childrenhad perished in the flames. She found it difficult to believe hisdeath was planned. "He's like the most congenial, wonderfulperson," she said. "He's always been a real happy guy."
Carlson said Smith called him about 8 a.m. yesterday andalerted him to the eviction. "He sounded pretty up," Carlson said,certainly not like someone who planned "to do himself in." Hesaid Smith was talking about moving his cars, "like he was tryingsave his assets."
Henry Smith said his brother had been hospitalizedrepeatedly because "of the stress he was going through with this,"and was under the care of a cardiologist and psychiatrist.
"His avenues were exhausted and I think he saw thatthere was nothing for him after this," Carlson said. "He's madethis issue his life and now they've defeated him."
Hawaiian activist Harold Jim, who had aided Smith in hisfight for more than a decade, said he believes his frienddeliberately took his own life because he was "disgusted, sick ofHawaiian Homes. They drove a man insane, to kill himself andburn himself. That's how they treat Hawaiians."
Jim said he believes some Hawaiian Homes officialswere waging a personal vendetta against Smith.
"I'm very, very angry," Jim said. "It was totallyunnecessary what the commission did to him. They just wantedto get rid of his ass. They cost him his wife, his job, his kids,everything."
Carlson said: "He had no other avenue but to give his lifeso maybe somebody would review what DHHL has done.
"Kahale has played the ace in the hole here."
See related sidebar: A step-by-step anatomy of a tragedy
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