Hunger drives man to assault student; jail ordered in case

WAILUKU – A man who said he had been panhandling to get money for food when he accosted a student on the University of Hawaii Maui College campus was sentenced Thursday to a five-year prison term.

As a repeat offender, Jonathan Wright was ordered to serve at least one year and eight months of the term before being eligible for parole.

Originally charged with second-degree robbery, Wright had pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of second-degree theft, as well as third-degree assault, in the Oct. 31, 2012, incident.

“I’m not a violent person,” Wright, 49, of Haliimaile said in court. “I’m very sorry for what I put this person through. My intention wasn’t to harm anybody.”

His attorney, Benjamin Acob, said Wright had run out of his disability income and his girlfriend had run out of food stamps when the incident occurred.

“They were hungry, and he was panhandling for money so they could buy more food,” Acob said.

He said Wright had been panhandling at Queen Ka’ahumanu Center but was unsuccessful before ending up at UH-MC across the street. “He was not looking for trouble,” Acob said. “My client feels very badly that he placed himself and the victim in a situation that obviously traumatized the victim, though it was never his intent to do so.”

Acob said that Wright questions the accuracy of a police report, maintaining that the victim slapped Wright first.

But Deputy Prosecutor Jerrie Sheppard said Wright accosted the 19-year-old student at about 7 p.m. while he was walking on campus during a class break, wearing earbuds while listening to his iPod.

The student pulled out one earbud so he could hear Wright ask for a cigarette. Then Wright slapped the student, knocking off his glasses, Sheppard said.

“Then he said, ‘Give me a walkman,’ ” using the term to refer to the iPod “because the defendant is of a different era,” Sheppard said.

She said that the victim was alarmed, and Wright pulled at a wire and the iPod fell out of the student’s pocket. He started walking away before going back to retrieve his glasses, Sheppard said.

She said that the victim gave $5 to Wright, feeling sorry for the defendant who was obviously “down on his luck.”

Wright was arrested at Minit Stop across the street and identified by the victim.

As a teenager, Wright had gotten into trouble with the law, with much of it related to his learning disability, Acob said.

But he said Wright had been a “helpful and productive member of the community” while living in Florida with his sister and brother-in-law for nine years. There, Wright helped with fundraising for firefighters, volunteered at a homeless outreach program for youth in distress and helped clean streets and neighbors’ yards after Hurricane Katrina, Acob said.

“There is hope for my client,” Acob said.

Second Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza followed terms of a plea agreement in sentencing Wright.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at