Man rides for months after alleged assault

Before a 2nd Circuit judge ordered a Kahului man to stay away from the Maui Bus last month, he had continued to ride the bus even after being arrested for punching a driver last year.

The driver, Punahele Hoopii, said she was upset that the county didn’t act earlier to keep the passenger off the bus. By contrast, she said two girls’ photographs were circulated, and they were banned from riding the bus after it was determined that they had used a marker pen to leave graffiti on the back seat of a bus.

“My gripe is we’re telling the public it’s not OK to graffiti on the bus, but you can punch the driver in the face and continue to ride,” Hoopii said. “He should have been banned from the bus. What kind of process does the county have? I want a clear message to the public that you cannot do this.”

Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said that the county does want to protect bus drivers from being assaulted.

“If we’re going to go after people who are vandalizing our buses, of course we would go after someone that assaulted one of the drivers,” he said. “But the difference here is in one case, the identities were clearly established and in the other there were some issues.”

Because Hoopii is an employee of Roberts Hawaii, which has a contract with Maui County to operate the Maui public bus transit system, the company would have had to go to the county to have the passenger banned, Antone said. To do so, he said the county would need a report establishing the facts and the identity of the passenger who allegedly punched Hoopii.

“If somebody does something against the driver, against other people in the bus, defacing bus property, that person can be banned from the bus,” Antone said. “There’s a procedure we go through.

“Definitely, we want to protect our drivers. They work very hard. They have to interact with many members of the public.”

In an Oct. 10 email to Roberts Hawaii, county Transportation Director Jo Anne Johnson Winer said: “We are more than willing to support any effort to make certain that drivers are protected from potential harm.”

But Antone said that when initially reported, “there was a lot of confusion” about who assaulted Hoopii. “And without an established identity, we couldn’t even start the process,” Antone said.

He said the county wasn’t provided with a photo of the passenger that could be circulated to other drivers so they could keep him off the bus.

Hoopii maintained “there was never a problem with identity.” She said she gave Roberts officials the name of the passenger on the day in early May that she was punched while operating the bus providing commuter service from West Maui to Central Maui.

At about 5 p.m., Hoopii had pulled into the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas to pick up riders when she recognized a passenger as someone whom she thought had urinated in the bus several months earlier. When she told the man he couldn’t get on the bus, he said he wasn’t the one who had urinated on the bus. The man walked onto the bus and Hoopii told him she had to call police.

She said the man walked back to her at the front of the bus and asked for the name of the passenger who had urinated. Hoopii said she didn’t have the name and told the man, “You got to get off the bus” while she waited for a call back from her manager.

She said the man looked at her and swore, then “punches me in the face and he walks off the bus.”

“I was shocked,” Hoopii said.

While she wasn’t injured, Hoopii said the bus was running and on a downhill slant as she sat in the driver’s seat with her foot on the brake. Had her foot been knocked off the brake, the bus filled with about 25 passengers would have gone into a parking lot full of cars, Hoopii said.

Shortly after being punched, Hoopii said she learned from another passenger that the man wasn’t the one who had urinated in the bus but had been with another man who did.

“I felt so bad,” she said.

She completed the route, then called police.

Hoopii said another passenger had identified the man who punched her as Haloti Mahe. He was questioned by police and arrested at 7:50 p.m. that day before being released pending further investigation.

Reached at his residence Wednesday afternoon, Mahe said he had just gotten off work from his housekeeping job at the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas when he boarded the bus to go home that day, only to be told by the driver that he had to get off because he had urinated on the bus.

“She’s putting me down. A lot of people on the bus – they all knew it wasn’t me,” Mahe said. “I told her, ‘I’m sorry, this is my only transportation home. You have the wrong guy. You have no right eighty-sixing me and telling me I can’t be on the bus.’ ”

After the driver told him he needed to get off the bus, “I was so mad, she made me feel so ashamed, I backhanded her and I just walked off,” Mahe said.

He said he didn’t get home until about four hours later.

Since then, Mahe said he hasn’t gotten on the bus when Hoopii has been driving. He said he now has a landscaping job on Lanai.

“I’m sorry for what I did,” he said. “I was just really upset, and I didn’t mean to do that. I’m not that type of person. All I do is go church, work, home.”

Mahe said he didn’t think he should be banned from riding the bus.

“I think it’s really unfair because if someone was accused like that in front of a full bus, I would think they would get upset too,” he said.

After being arrested and charged in the case on Jan. 19, Mahe’s bail was set at $5,000. He was released on his own recognizance when he appeared in court Jan. 24, according to court records. As a condition of his release, 2nd Circuit Judge Peter Cahill ordered Mahe to have no contact with Hoopii and to stay away from Roberts Hawaii and the Maui Bus, court records show.

Mahe, 22, has pleaded not guilty to the felony charge of interference with the operator of a public transit vehicle. An April 15 trial date was set for him.

The charge carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. According to commentary on the law, the offense was added in 1996 “due to the increased danger to the public involved when the operators are terrorized or assaulted.”

Information about the law is posted in buses, Hoopii said.

Hoopii said she has worked for Roberts since 2007, starting as a dispatcher and working as a driver for about three years.

Before the day she was assaulted, Hoopii said she had seen Mahe riding the bus when she would drive the commuter service route between Central and West Maui.

Hoopii said he was still riding the bus months afterward, although not when she was the driver.

“I’d shake my head and say ‘no,’ and he would turn around,” she said. “But that was just me refusing service. I know he continued to ride the bus for months after.

“To this day, as far as Roberts and the county are concerned, this man can continue to ride the bus.”

Hoopii said “going for prosecution wasn’t at the top of my priority list.”

“All I wanted was for him to be banned from the bus,” she said. “But there was no punishment.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at