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Pukalani man pleads guilty to causing traffic deaths

James Walsh, 27, agrees to 10-year prison terms

James Walsh appears with his attorney, Myles Breiner, and paralegal Kristen Pae on Thursday afternoon in 2nd Circuit Court. Walsh pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree negligent homicide for a traffic collision June 20, 2015, that killed three men who were ejected from the bed of a pickup truck on what was then Mokulele Highway. The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo

WAILUKU — Admitting he had been driving recklessly and under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a Pukalani man pleaded guilty to causing the deaths of three men in a traffic collision nearly five years ago.

James Walsh, 27, entered the guilty pleas Thursday to three counts of first-degree negligent homicide.

As part of a plea agreement reducing the charges from manslaughter, he agreed to be sentenced to 10-year prison terms to be served at the same time. Walsh also agreed to serve the full 10 years and not be paroled.

The plea agreement between the defense and prosecution was reached the day after a 2nd Circuit Court jury had been selected and impaneled for a trial. Evidence in the trial had been scheduled to start Monday.

“It’s a lot of mixed feelings. We’re happy that we were able to conclude the case since it’s been four and a half years,” said Kaniloa Kamaunu, whose 27-year-old son, Tyree Kamaunu, was among those killed in the crash. “It came to a conclusion which I think is suitable to both sides, for the Walsh family as well as our families.

“That we didn’t have to go through the trial itself is kind of a blessing. That’s just more grief.”

Walsh was indicted on the charges for a traffic collision at 9:33 p.m. June 20, 2015, on what was then Mokulele Highway and is now Maui Veterans Highway. Police said Walsh was driving a white Toyota pickup truck that was traveling north on the highway when it hit a Dodge pickup truck that was turning left from the highway into the Maui Raceway Park entrance.

Three men in the bed of the Dodge — Waihee resident Kamaunu, 51-year-old Eric Oguma of Waiehu and 25-year-old Howard Pruse of Waiehu — were ejected in the crash and died at the scene, police said.

Had the trial gone forward, the prosecution would have established that Walsh was driving recklessly, weaving in and out of traffic, before his Toyota truck “slammed into” the Dodge truck driven by William Oguma with front-seat passenger Russell Oliveira, Deputy Prosecutor Andrew Martin said.

He said reconstruction of the crash by police traffic investigators would have shown that at the time of the collision, Walsh’s truck was traveling at a minimum speed of 91 mph.

According to a police report, Walsh’s blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.159 percent, which is nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent, and he also had detectable amounts of the main active ingredient of marijuana, indicating possible recent use.

Second Circuit Judge Peter Cahill said Walsh’s blood-alcohol content was ruled inadmissible in a trial because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that a warrant was required to draw blood from someone unless there are exigent circumstances.

Speaking about the crash in court Thursday afternoon, Walsh said, “On June 20, 2015, I was driving recklessly under the influence.”

“Under the influence of what?” Cahill asked.

“Under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” Walsh said.

“And as a result of your actions, you caused the death of the three victims in this case?” Cahill asked.

“Yes,” Walsh replied.

In exchange for Walsh’s guilty pleas, the prosecution agreed to dismiss counts of driving under the influence of an intoxicant and excessive speeding.

Martin said the prosecution agreed that Walsh could continue to be free on bail on the condition that he perform at least 16 hours of community service a month while he is awaiting sentencing. The condition was recommended by the victims’ families, Martin said.

“It’s an important aspect of this case to them,” Martin said. “They are desirous that the defendant use this opportunity to show his commitment to ensuring that this not happen again.”

Family members wanted Walsh to choose how he would do the community service, Martin said.

Defense attorney Myles Breiner said Walsh and his family agreed with the request. “He’s engaged in some of that already,” Breiner said. “His father’s a pastor.”

Turning to about a dozen of the victims’ family members in the courtroom gallery, Breiner said “the Walsh family have a great deal of remorse, aloha, for their loss.”

Judge Cahill set sentencing for Walsh for May 13 and said the hearing could continue into the afternoon if necessary. “I want to give both sides, including the families of the victims, a full opportunity to be heard,” Cahill said.

After the hearing, Kaniloa Kamaunu said family members had talked about the proposal to settle the case for a couple of days and agreed to it.

He and other family members have attended hearings in the case since the indictment was handed down in 2016 and were concerned about the uncertainties of a trial, Kamaunu said.

He said family members sought the community service requirement so Walsh could show “that he really wants to change.”

“With him giving service to whatever organization he’s going to, I think it’s a good thing,” Kamaunu said. “It shows that he’s obviously reflected upon what he’s done and what has happened and he doesn’t want it to reoccur.

“It seems like he has a family that loves him. We just hope the best for him and his family. It’s hard on everyone. There’s no good guys and bad guys. It’s just people involved in an incident that’s tragic.”

Kamaunu described his son as “happy go lucky.”

“He was a helpful person, that’s why he had a lot of friends,” Kamaunu said. “All of his friends and cousins, they really enjoyed him. He always had that smile. When he would smile, everybody smiled.”

Martin, who was assisted by Deputy Prosecutor Brandon Segal, said the plea deal wouldn’t have been struck without the families’ support. “That was what was important to us,” he said.

“We were behind this because the families were behind this,” Martin said. “They have been waiting a long time.”

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