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Suspect says Fires started to keep police from arresting boyfriend

Bail raised to $50,000 for man facing arson charge; suspected accomplice out on bail

Fire crews mop up the remains of a 5-acre brush fire along Maui Veterans Highway on Thursday afternoon. A man facing arson charges in connection with the fire said in court on Tuesday that it was a woman’s idea to set a series of fires to divert police from arresting her boyfriend. The Maui News / ROBERT COLLIAS photo

WAILUKU — A man arrested in connection with six suspicious brush fires last week told police the fires were a woman’s idea to try to keep officers from apprehending her boyfriend.

John Hlis, 34, of Haiku was charged with second-degree arson for the largest and last fire, which was reported at 2:04 p.m. Thursday and burned about 5 acres along Maui Veterans Highway near the National Guard armory in Puunene. Hlis also was charged with keeping a revolver in an improper place and having a loaded firearm on a public highway.

Hlis, who was arrested at 3:47 p.m. Thursday, was among three suspects that police reported arresting last week in connection with the fires. Krystale Kaneakua, 33, of Pukalani and Steven Sarol, 36, of Pukalani were arrested Friday, police said.

Kaneakua, who was charged with second-degree arson along with Hlis for the Puunene fire, was released after posting $5,000 bail, police records show.

Sarol was arrested on warrants totaling $248,000 for contempt of court and violating conditions of his release on bail. The warrants were issued after he didn’t show up for a court hearing May 3, court records show. Sarol wasn’t arrested or charged in connection with the fires, according to police records.

According to a declaration filed in court to support the charges against Hlis, a driver traveling south on Maui Veterans Highway saw a man standing outside the passenger door of a black SUV parked on the southbound shoulder past the Maui Humane Society before seeing brush on the southbound shoulder catch on fire. The driver reported seeing a woman in the driver’s seat of the vehicle and obtained its license plate number.

Hlis was alone and driving the vehicle when a police officer stopped it on Haleakala Highway near Keahua Road.

Hlis told police that Kaneakua, who owns the vehicle, had picked him up Thursday morning and they went to the Kahului Safeway.

Police said video from the Safeway gas station store on Hookele Street showed Hlis and Kaneakua in the store buying charcoal, lighter fluid, Lysol and a gas can at 12:45 p.m., shortly before the first fire was reported at 1:06 p.m. on Amala Place near the Kahului Wastewater Treatment Plant.

According to the declaration, Hlis admitted to starting a 1:40 p.m. fire at Waiale and Waiko roads that was quickly extinguished and the fire on Maui Veterans Highway. He told police it was Kaneakua’s idea to start the fires to help Sarol by trying to keep the police away from him because police were looking for him, according to the declaration. Hlis reportedly told Kaneakua “that she was crazy for doing this,” the declaration says.

At Kaneakua’s direction, Hlis reported getting out of the vehicle along Maui Veterans Highway and setting two bottles of lighter fluid on fire, according to the declaration.

The fire spread in windy and dry conditions and at one point jumped the highway, which was closed for a while, before firefighters brought the fire under control. Four engine companies and two tankers responded to the fire, getting help from Mahi Pono with four water trucks and two backhoes.

After Hlis was arrested, police obtained a search warrant for the vehicle and reported finding a butane torch and loaded Smith and Wesson revolver behind the driver’s seat in a shopping bag. Hlis told police he had gotten the loaded firearm from a man he wouldn’t name and was delivering it to another man he also wouldn’t name, according to the declaration.

During Hlis’ initial appearance Tuesday in Wailuku District Court, Deputy Prosecutor Lewis Littlepage asked for bail to be increased from $25,400 to $50,000.

“The state considers him an extreme danger to the community,” Littlepage said.

Deputy Public Defender David Pullman asked for Hlis to be released on supervision or to have bail reduced to $5,000 to $10,000.

“This is the first time he’s gotten in trouble with the law,” Pullman said.

He said it appeared Hlis was being told what to do by Kaneakua “who had this harebrained idea of starting fires to divert police from catching her friend Steven Sarol.”

Pullman said Hlis has “never done anything like this before and it appears to be just a really bad idea on the part of his associate that he followed.”

Judge Blaine Kobayashi granted the prosecution’s request to increase bail to $50,000, citing the charges and “the extreme dangerousness to the safety of our community.”

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

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