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VIDEO: Priceless Niihau shell lei stolen: A fortune in Niihau shell lei stolen from Makawao store

Burglar appeared to know what he was looking for, staying in building only a minute

Maui Police Department Detective Christopher Schmitt dusts for fingerprints Tuesday afternoon at Maui Hands in Makawao town. • The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

A man broke into a Makawao store early Monday morning, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of shell lei, handmade by Niihau residents, the store owner said Tuesday.

Surveillance video shows a Caucasian man about 6 feet tall with dark hair smash a glass door at 4:56 a.m. at the back of Maui Hands on Makawao Avenue. The man entered the store and put on a black ski mask, while wearing a black hoodie with a large skull on his chest, blue pants and gray shoes.

“He knew exactly what he was doing,” owner Panna Cappelli said. “He obviously had cased the joint so already I have a person looking at every single bit of footage we have for the past three weeks trying to identify him a bit better.

“His plan was to get in and out very quickly. He was only in the building less than a minute.”

Maui Hands owner Panna Cappelli demonstrates Tuesday afternoon to Detective Christopher Schmitt how a man stole tens of thousands of dollars worth of lei from her store early Monday morning in Makawao town. • The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

After smashing the glass door, the man walked to a glass case holding expensive hunting knives and kicked it twice attempting to break it open. He then jumped and grabbed a hidden key above the case that he used to unlock it and grab four knives.

The man then walked farther into the store, directly to a glass case holding the lei, which he broke open with his elbow.

“Because they’re long strand leis, he was able to swipe his arm through and get them,” Cappelli said. “That case holds about a quarter of my entire (lei) collection. He ran his hand along and got everything except the earrings and bracelets that were too short.”

Some of the leis stolen are worth $26,000, Cappelli said. She is offering a $5,000 reward for anyone who can lead police to the arrest of the man and return her shell lei.

“The leis are irreplaceable,” she said. “It’s an art form not many people can do anymore.”

Surveillance video shows a Caucasian man breaking into Maui Hands through a back door just before 5 a.m. Monday. • The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Niihau shell lei and jewelry have become increasingly rare, Cappelli said. She began collecting the lei about 22 years ago when there were about 200 permanent residents.

It is now down to about 40 residents, she said.

“There’s people on Kauai that aren’t getting any shells from Niihau anymore,” she said. “A lot of people that moved are not allowed to go back to Niihau because they’ve been gone too long and their family is not picking up shells to make the lei so it’s very hard to find lei anymore.

“Many of those pieces I bought five to 10 years ago.”

Niihau shells are gathered on the shores of, what some call, the “Forbidden Island” and masterfully handcrafted into lei. The practice is protected by state law, which prohibits the sale of seashell items with a description or label using the term Niihau unless 100 percent of the shells are from the island and it is made entirely in Hawaii, according to the Ni’ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation.

About 20 Niihau shell lei were stolen early Monday morning from Maui Hands in Makawao • The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

The 2004 legislation was intended to protect the integrity of one of Niihau residents’ few sources of income.

Cappelli said the colors of the stolen shells cannot be found anymore, and she was looking to put them in museums eventually. She said the Niihau people have already been paid and will not be affected by the theft, but the lei may never be seen again.

“If he ends up throwing them away, it’s a huge loss,” she said. “The money to me is not really the big thing. It’s really those are my leis, and I’ve been buying those to help the people of Niihau. They don’t sell super quickly, and I figure if I end up with anything it’s my collection.

“I love the people of Niihau, and the intricate artwork they do creating those leis and these shells are so rare and beautiful,” she continued. “This is part of a culture that is hard to sustain, so the money I give them for these leis is sometimes all they have.”

Cappelli said she gets a “tiny bit of shoplifting here and there,” but has never been burglarized. She said she did feel “a little nervous lately” so she bolstered security around her collection.

“I just had a gut feeling,” she said. “I started feeling a lot of people coming in and not looking really good at things and being interested in the leis.”

Makawao town has had other break-ins recently, forcing the community to install large lights in parking lots and stores “beefing up security,” Cappelli said. She said she recently changed the locks and added more cameras to her Paia store.

Maui Police Department Detective Christopher Schmitt spoke to Cappelli Tuesday afternoon to gather more information and dust for fingerprints. Patrol officers had already recovered fingerprints from the store and were monitoring the Upcountry area for any suspects, police said.

The crime is being investigated as first-degree theft case, police said.

Cappelli said the break-in has caused her to be more nervous. She said she has always been “very open” to anyone curious about the Niihau shell lei, taking them out and letting people try them on while providing history of Niihau.

She added that the store is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month.

“It really breaks your spirit,” she said. “I hate that because I’m not a nervous person at all. I’ve been blessed that way, but this is the kind of thing that breaks people down.”

Despite the theft, Cappelli has received support from friends, customers and others.

“The outpouring of concern and love from the community has been really heartening,” she said.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Maui Police Department at 244-6400.

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

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