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Infamous murderer recalled for his laughter

Anthony Kekona Jr., 66, pleaded guilty to double-murder in 1978

Kekona

While others knew of Anthony Kekona Jr. as a convicted double-murderer, members of his large Hawaiian family remember the laughter he brought to gatherings.

“We all love him,” said his younger sister Gracey Gomes. “We’re going to miss him, miss his laughter, miss his funny jokes.”

Kekona was 66 when he died of natural causes Feb. 26 at Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., according to the state Department of Public Safety.

He had been incarcerated for more than 40 years after being sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in July 1979.

Kekona had pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in the May 4, 1978, shootings of building contractor Paul Warford, his friend David Blue and Warford’s girlfriend Harriet Savage at a Honokowai condominium. Warford and Blue were killed, while Savage was severely wounded when she was shot in the head.

Anthony Kekona would appear in a 2nd Circuit courtroom several times after pleading guilty to murders in 1978 and testifying for the prosecution in the murder-for-hire case that led to the conviction of John Kalani Lincoln. In 1982, he recanted his trial testimony and said Lincoln had no connection to the murder cases. He then recanted his recanted statement, saying he wanted a trip back to Hawaii from prison on the Mainland to see his family. He was acquitted of attempted murder involving another inmate at Maui Community Correctional Center in 1996. -- The Maui News file photo

Kekona later said John Kalani Lincoln, a notorious organized crime figure at the time, offered him $10,000 to murder Warford.

The prosecution “faked” Kekona’s escape from police so Kekona could try to trap Lincoln into admitting he had hired Kekona for the killing. The investigation involved wiretaps that were believed to be the first authorized by a state court under a 1978 act.

After convictions in his first two trials were overturned, Lincoln was acquitted in a third trial.

Gomes said her brother had talked about how he had been told, “Boy, do this because I going give you money.”

Her brother thought, “I going to be able to take care of my mom and my dad,” Gomes said. “In those years, that amount of money was a lot of money.”

This is Anthony Kekona’s police mug shot, taken in May 1978, following his arrest in connection with a double-murder and attempted murder. He pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder charges and helped convict John Kalani Lincoln in a murder-for-hire case. Lincoln’s convictions in two trials were overturned and he was acquitted in a third trial.

“He was young and naive,” she said. “It wasn’t bad intentions. That’s what we grew up with knowing.”

The family lived a plantation life in Honolua after her parents moved from Oahu back to Maui, where her father got a job working at Maui Land & Pineapple Co., Gomes said. Her mother worked 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. as a maid at a hotel.

Kekona was the oldest and Gomes was the second of the couple’s five biological children — three boys and two girls. The number grew to 18 including hanai children their parents took in.

“They loved all the kids,” Gomes said. “Once we get together, it’s that bond we have.”

The children attended Lahainaluna High School. Kekona was supposed to graduate in 1972 but instead was put in the military by their father, Gomes said.

She said he obtained the equivalent of a high school diploma in Talladega, Ala., in the early years of his prison life.

While incarcerated, Kekona continued creating the artwork that had been praised by his teachers at Lahainaluna.

In an online post about his art, he said stories from his tutu about the old days and his Hawaiian culture influenced his artwork.

“I use whatever is available to create my pieces,” Kekona said in the post. “I like to do pencil or rapidograph pens because sometimes that’s all I can have. My canvas is the walls, a pillowcase or sheets.

“Once, I was in solitary confinement for five years. I slept, showered and exercised all in the same cell. That is when I did a piece on all four walls with a pencil. The piece was 20 feet long. It showed Hawaiians surfing, diving, dancing; the kings, queens and Hawaiians in all the old ways. I used my mind and it journeyed into the pencil. Drawing helped me keep my sanity.”

A cousin would sell Kekona’s art under the Banyan Tree in Lahaina. He created a compendium with a Hawaiian design for Napili Surf as well as a design for Punana Leo when the Hawaiian language preschool was starting, Gomes said.

“I spent over a decade in some of the most dangerous prisons on the Mainland,” Kekona said in his online post. “My mission in life is to help young people make positive choices. I am a great example of what can happen when young people make wrong choices. My experience helps me identify and understand the problems most kids face today. Having knowledge is the key to making right choices. Our keiki must understand the importance of our Akua, the ‘ohana, our culture and education.”

Gomes said she and other family members supported her brother through the years, even as the parole board turned down his requests to be released, calling him a “heinous criminal.”

Gomes would tell him: “I no can help what they say, but we know you’re not like that.”

“So he would calm down and get a little happier,” she said.

During periods when he was incarcerated at the Maui Community Correctional Center, including in the 1990s, “our family always made a trek to go and visit — not just my immediate family,” Gomes said.

She said her cousins also would visit Kekona in a tradition “our fathers instilled in us to love each other, all our ohana.”

Kekona was on Maui in November 1996 when he assaulted another inmate in a module in what Kekona said was self-defense. He was acquitted of an attempted murder charge that carried a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In 2004, he was moved to an Arizona prison, where he could get the programming that wasn’t provided on Maui, where he was in his cell for 23 hours and allowed one hour of recreation time, Gomes said.

“My brother was an akamai Native Hawaiian,” she said. “He should have been programmed the right way.”

After digging up his diploma, Gomes sent it to Arizona prison authorities so Kekona could participate in programs, including Toastmasters.

Gomes said she saw Kekona change over the years.

“My brother was very dark and dim in the earlier years,” she said.

At the Oahu Community Correctional Center, before he was moved to the Mainland, he met a man named Makua who protected Kekona and “told him how to live this prison life.”

In turn, Kekona tried to help others while incarcerated, Gomes said.

“He groomed a lot of the kids from Hawaii that got into prison, telling them not to come back in here,” she said. “A lot of these kids took him as their mentor. A lot of these kids, they tell a lot of stories, what he did for them by putting them back on the straight road.”

She said family members sent Kekona prepaid phone cards so he could call home when he was incarcerated in Arizona. Once a year, family members could see and talk with Kekona by video chat at a Kahului church.

The last photos of her brother were from a makahiki celebration in November.

While the programs in Arizona were better, “that type of weather is very bad for us Native Hawaiians,” Gomes said. “The air quality is not good. The heat is very bad.”

The news of Kekona’s death from a heart attack came as a surprise to family members, who were anticipating his return to Maui this year, Gomes said.

“We didn’t know if he was going to be work furloughed first,” she said, before being released on parole in 2021.

She said Kekona had plans “to start his own thing with the youths that was going astray.”

She had talked with him about joining her women’s softball league team, telling him, “You going be the only makule man.”

“He couldn’t wait,” she said. “My brother was a great softball player when he was younger.”

After not being in the ocean for decades, Kekona talked about getting off the plane at Kahului Airport and jumping into the harbor to swim to the bay near family land on Kaae Road, where the river runs in Paukukalo.

“We were going to meet him there,” Gomes said.

Instead, a celebration of Kekona’s life was held Friday in the backyard of the family Paukukalo Hawaiian Homes residence where Gomes lives. His ashes were scattered Saturday morning at D.T. Fleming Beach Park in Kapalua, where the ashes of his parents also were scattered.

“We thought we would be able to hold his body and everything,” Gomes said. “But no can help. We just got to do the best we can and keep his memory going and love him no matter what.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.