The State of Aloha
With former prosecutor Katherine Kealoha and her husband and former Honolulu police chief, Louis, in the news, you might surmise that they are the greatest frauds Hawaii has ever seen. I disagree. My money is on a hoax that happened over 50 years ago.
A thunderstorm rocked the territory of Hawaii the day Samuel Apollo Kapi’ikauinamokuonalani Amalu came into this world. His father soon moved the family from Kauai to Oahu and got his son into Punahou School — the institution for Hawaii’s elite.
He flunked physics, dabbled in the swim team, and stumbled through ROTC. The only honors he received were in drama class. And still, he was fondly remembered. His classmates predicted that he was destined to rule the islands.
In 1941 Amalu, no doubt inspired by the surge of patriotism following Pearl Harbor, enlisted in the Army. It didn’t take long for him to get into trouble. Two weeks into his military career, Pvt. Amalu was caught passing himself off as Capt. Amalu.
The impersonations, frauds and cons never stopped after that. Amalu was one of the first inmates of the newly constructed Bilipad Prison in the Philippines after getting caught for passing and writing bad checks. He resigned from the Army in 1943.
Then there are his wives. Amalu was married five times — twice to the same woman. Two happened to be extremely wealthy heiresses that had no problem lavishing him with spending money, fine hotels and champagne. But his most memorable scam came after statehood. In 1962, Hawaii was a very young state. The timing was perfect for a man like Amalu.
Honolulu’s economy had been booming. While sugar and pineapple’s economies had been gradually slowing down since World War II, the tourism industry was on its way to being the new moneymaker for the islands. With that came land speculation and Oahu was on its way to becoming the concrete jungle we know and love today.
In this highly volatile economic climate, a fresh-faced agent named D. Franklin Carson representing the International Trade Exchange Corp. of Zurich, Switzerland, came to Hawaii and made moves to purchase five of the Sheraton’s Waikiki hotels, the Makaha Valley and ranchlands in Waianae, and the Molokai Ranch for around $50 million — which was a ton of money for 1962.
These wealthy corporations, their agents and their lawyers licked their chops to get a cut of this deal.
Sheraton corporate officers flew back and forth from Boston to Honolulu in the new jetliner air route at a ferocious pace. The landowners of Molokai and leeward Oahu were anxious to hear from the buyer for days on end.
Then the deal got more complicated. Word leaked out that the buyer was actually a hui — a “Mystery Hui” — of the wealthiest of the wealthy. Egyptian President Gamal Nasser was somehow involved. So were the Saudis. Investors were rumored to be in financial centers like Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Paris.
Just when the deal seemed to be a go, it was announced that the livestock on Molokai Ranch didn’t add up. A new inventory was ordered and the deal was delayed.
The anticipation and the excitement in Honolulu was palpable. But soon this wave of excitement crested and came crashing down. A couple in Seattle got arrested for passing bad checks. The checks were linked back to the mysterious megadeal in Honolulu. They turned out to be none other than Sammy Amalu, who was impersonating a cultured Englishman, and his fifth wife, a local real estate agent.
Then Carson got cold feet and came clean. The Swiss representative turned out to be a 19-year-old surfer from California. He would later tell authorities that Amalu picked him and his buddies up from the airport when they landed on Oahu for the summer and offered them to chance to pull a major prank.
Amalu was arrested, tried, and sentenced to a year in jail. Other reports and schemes rose to the surface. In Japan, he had posed as a Hawaiian prince. In San Francisco, he told everyone he was an Indian maharajah and convinced auto dealers into handing over a fleet of pricey luxury cars in exchange for $99,000 in bad checks. That led to another prosecution and prison stint.
He fooled the best of them. Lawyers, real estate agents, developers and corporate execs all fell under the spell of his charm and chutzpah. He played to their motivations for profit and arguably corporate greed. And he bilked them all.
While serving time in California’s Folsom Prison, Amalu wrote letters to The Honolulu Advertiser. His erudite writing style and flowery prose won over publisher and Punahou classmate Thurston Twigg-Smith. He was soon given a column that he wrote directly from prison.
He kept at it for decades until he was again caught up in another scandal involving a murder in Honolulu and the paper pulled the column. He was released on parole. Confined to a wheelchair after suffering from an aneurysm, Amalu spent the rest of his life in a small condominium near Diamond Head, smoking two packs of Pall Malls a day and drinking beer and whiskey. He died in 1986 at age 68.
Fifteen years before his actual death, Amalu had the privilege of writing his own obituary. “Sing no sad songs over my mortal dust. I have known laughter. I have known tears. I have tasted victory. I have sipped failure. Is not all this enough?” Perhaps it is just enough.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”