Hotel: Reputation ‘tainted’; bellman nets jail in thefts

WAILUKU – Saying the crimes had a “ripple effect” that hurt others, a judge ordered an 18-month jail term for a former Wailea hotel houseman who was convicted of stealing from the luggage and rooms of hotel guests.

John Bueno, 38, of Kahului also was placed on five years’ probation and was ordered to pay $72,738 in restitution.

He was charged with stealing jewelry, electronics and other valuables from March 2012 to February 2013 while he was working at the Grand Wailea. The thefts were from eight victims in 24 cases – 13 involving luggage in hotel storage and 11 from guest rooms, police said.

“We call these property offenses, but they’re not really property offenses. They’re people offenses,” said 2nd Circuit Judge Peter Cahill. “There’s a ripple effect.”

He read from a letter written by one woman who said the pieces of jewelry stolen were “symbols of milestones in my life.” They included her wedding ring, which she and her husband now can’t afford to replace.

“It is something that will haunt me for many years to come, if not for the rest of my life,” her letter said.

Her claim was denied by the hotel’s insurance company.

The couple had stayed at the hotel for many years before the thefts. “Sadly, my children are very fearful of traveling to Maui and have learned to mistrust people,” the woman’s letter said.

Bueno had pleaded no contest to first-degree theft, second-degree burglary, seven counts of second-degree theft and third-degree theft.

Mike Palazzotto, director of security at the Grand Wailea, said that when he confronted Bueno about the thefts in February 2013, Bueno wasn’t cooperative.

Palazzotto showed Bueno a bag that he was seen taking from hotel storage and returning before the owners discovered that a camera and jewelry were missing.

“I tried to reason with him,” Palazzotto said in court. “He just told me, ‘I didn’t do anything. I didn’t touch anything. Prove it. Arrest me.’ ”

Police were called.

“When we started investigating, there were a lot more cases that came from that bell storage linked to Mr. Bueno, as well as on the guest floors,” Palazzotto said.

Palazzotto said he worked with the hotel insurance company to try to help guests who were victimized and went to pawn shops to try to recover some of the stolen property.

Of the $112,000 in valuables stolen from the eight victims, $26,000 was recovered, police said.

“It affected the hotel, tainted our reputation,” Palazzotto said, noting that the hotel has many loyal guests. “We’re trying to recover from that and get back their loyalty.”

Arguing for the 18-month jail term, Deputy Prosecutor Emlyn Higa said Bueno had been in a position of trust that allowed him access to guests’ possessions.

“That he did this repeatedly indicates a certain amount of premeditation and planning on his part,” Higa said. “He just kept going back to that well over and over again to take something of substantial value from these guests.”

Defense attorney Sonya Toma recommended a six-month jail term for Bueno, who has no prior criminal record.

“At the time of the thefts, he was in the throes of his drug addiction,” she said. “He didn’t have money to fund his drug addiction and that’s the reason he took those items. I don’t think he was in his right mind at the time and didn’t consider the victims in this case.”

Toma said Bueno had been working as a night cleaner – a job he can return to when he’s released from jail.

“Since the incident occurred, he has not done drugs,” she said. “He completely stopped. He’s focused on his family and being a good father.”

Speaking in court Thursday, Bueno said: “To all the people I hurt by my bad actions, I’m really sorry. I want to thank my family. Despite all the actions I did, they’re still supporting me.”

Toma said Bueno had cooperated in the police investigation, voluntarily meeting a few times with police Detective Leif Adachi, the lead investigator in the cases.

But Higa said Bueno admitted only to thefts that police could prove, in part through hotel surveillance video. “He was not of any assistance in the investigation,” Higa said.

Cahill said that he was more disturbed that drug-testing conditions hadn’t been imposed on Bueno while he was free on bail in the cases. Bueno admitted to long-standing methamphetamine abuse, beginning in his teens, Cahill said.

“He’s betrayed his family. He’s betrayed the community. He’s betrayed his employer,” Cahill said. “And most of all, he’s betrayed himself.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at