House of key witness in Pacheco murder trial burns to the ground

Arson suspected; it’s where she testified victim was shot, killed

A memorial dedicated to Dennis Pacheco is set up on the side of Piilani Highway in Kanaio. Pacheco was killed in a shooting May 21. Justin Namauu is charged with second-degree murder in Pacheco’s death. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photos

KANAIO — Maui police have launched an arson investigation into fires that burned the former residence and car of the woman at the center of an alleged Kanaio murder.

The fires were reported to police around 5 a.m. June 2 at 1170 Piilani Highway in Kanaio, Maui police spokesman Lt. Gregg Okamoto said Monday. He said both fires are suspicious and could have started some time before they were reported.

Okamoto could not comment on whether there were any suspects in the ongoing investigation. No injuries were reported.

Christine Mendes was the former occupant of the residence, though no one was home at the time of the fire. She estimated damage to the home and contents at $25,000, said Okamoto.

Mendes claimed ownership of the Toyota sedan, but no plates or vehicle numbers could be identified on the burned vehicle, Okamoto said.

Dennis Pacheco (pictured), 45, of Kanaio was with Christine Mendes in her house when he was allegedly shot to death on May 21 by Justin Namauu. Mendes’ home has since burned to the ground, prompting an arson investigation by police.

The fires occurred two days after a preliminary hearing at which Mendes testified that Justin Namauu shot 45-year-old Dennis Pacheco of Kanaio. Namauu currently is being held in lieu of $2 million bail at the Maui Community Correctional Center on a second degree murder charge.

Namauu, 42, has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

The shooting occurred at about 7 a.m. May 21 at her former residence, Mendes testified at the preliminary hearing on May 31. Mendes explained that she had been dating Namauu but clarified that it was not a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. She described Pacheco as a “good friend,” who had been her boyfriend when they met about nine years ago.

Pacheco had been sleeping on the couch before getting into bed with her just before Namauu arrived at the house, she said. Mendes said she was going to get out of the bed after hearing Namauu’s car arrive when Namauu “barged in” through the front door, which is within sight of the bed.

After a struggle, Mendes said Namauu shot Pacheco.

Murder suspect Justin Namauu appears in Wailuku District Court on May 29. Namauu is charged with second-degree murder and firearm offenses in the shooting of Dennis Pacheco of Kanaio.

Detective Nelson Hamilton testified at the preliminary hearing that Namauu told him in an interview that Pacheco was shot after Namauu arrived at the house and found the victim in bed with Mendes. He said there was a struggle and a fight over a .38-caliber revolver that Namauu had with him.

Namauu said “they fought over it, the gun went off twice and Dennis dropped to the ground,” the detective said.

After the shooting, Namauu told police that he stashed Pacheco’s body in a crevice in a bushy area. Namauu later guided police officers to the location where the body was recovered on May 25.

Mendes’ former residence was inaccessible Monday afternoon. Pacheco’s family members said it was difficult for fire and police to reach the house as it was burning down due to the steep and rocky roads in the area.

Pacheco’s sister, Francine, said her family was shocked when they heard about the fires but was not too surprised. She said many people in the small community are not happy with Mendes and her testimony at the preliminary hearing.

“I am not sure who did that, but when I heard it I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there was a lot of people who don’t like her here,’ ” Pacheco’s sister said.

Francine Pacheco said they see Mendes on the road daily and noticed she painted her truck a different color. She did not know where Mendes currently is living.

“My feeling is she’s a big part of this (murder),” Francine Pacheco said.

Okamoto said any connection between the arson investigation and murder at this point “would be speculation.”

A phone call to Mendes was not returned Monday afternoon.

While Pacheco’s family awaits the trial set for Aug. 27, they are preparing for his funeral Saturday. The public is invited to attend the 6 p.m. service at Ballard Family Mortuary in Kahului as well as a celebration of life the following day at noon at Baldwin Beach Park in Paia.

A roadside memorial featuring a large cross made of trees and other mementos can be seen on the mauka side of Piilani Highway. The memorial was placed across the street from Pacheco’s home and another cross was placed around Mile Marker 25, where his body was found.

“It’s been almost three weeks, and our family is still in shock he’s not here,” Francine Pacheco said. “His boys are really taking it hard just as much as my mom.

“I just thank everyone who is still supporting our family in this time of need. He was loved by many, and they are still supporting us.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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