Mahu Surfer

an excerpt

Back to Work

I parked my battered pick-up at a meter on South Beretania Street, about half a block away from Honolulu Police Headquarters, and sat there with the windows open for a few minutes. Keola Beamer was playing a slack key guitar piece on KTUH, the radio station at the University of Hawai'i, and a light breeze rustled the palm fronds. It was nice to sit there, rather than face what was waiting for me inside.

The pick-up was a hand-me-down from my father, a small-time contractor who supported my mom, my brothers and me by building everything from an addition to somebody's house to small shopping centers all over the island of O'ahu. He yelled a lot when I was a kid, and let my older brothers pick on me too much, but he and my mom instilled a sense of honor in me, a need to do what's right. That's partly why I became a police officer six years ago.

That sense of honor made my coming out so hard. I had to admit, to myself and others, that I had been lying about being gay for so long, and it was even tougher because the media dragged me out of the closet when my sexuality became an issue during a case I investigated. My family had to learn I was gay from a TV report.

They stood by me, though, while I was suspended from the force, and they rejoiced with me when the suspension was voided, and I was offered a new job, in a different district, with the boss I was about to report to.

Keola finished, and the station segued into Keali'i Reichel, who sang, "Every Road Leads Back to You." I figured that was a good cue to see where my road was going to lead me, so I locked the truck and headed down the sidewalk.

The sour-faced aide manning the metal detector looked like he knew exactly who I was, and he wasn't happy to see me. I took the elevator up to Lieutenant Sampson's office, and the two cops already on it stopped talking as soon as I stepped in. Neither said a word to me, and I didn't say anything to them.

I started to understand what it was going to be like to come back to work again, now that everyone on the island of O'ahu knew who I was.

Though I met Sampson when my suspension was voided and he offered me a transfer to his division, I didn't know much about him, just that he seemed to be a fair, no-nonsense guy. "Come on in, Kimo, have a seat," he said, standing up to greet me. "How've you been holding up?"

"It hasn't been easy," I said, keeping my back stiff as I shook his hand. I looked around as I sat. The furniture was standard-issue HPD, simple and utilitarian. Sampson's desk was loaded with paperwork and a few framed pictures. A paperweight on a shelf caught my eye; it was a scale model of what looked like a Civil War-era cannon. "Coming out is tough enough when you're just telling your family and friends. When the media gets involved, and you nearly lose your job, it's even tougher. But I appreciate your willingness to bring me into your team, and I'm looking forward to getting back to work."

He sat down across from me. "Good. I'm embarrassed that this department, which I believe in, didn't treat you right, but I think we can put all that behind us." I noticed that he was mimicking my posture, staying stiff and serious. Finally, he smiled. "I'm looking forward to having you work for me. So let's get going."

I relaxed a bit in the chair, crossing my leg, and he leaned across and dropped an 8 x 10 blowup of a dead man in front of me.

I've seen a lot of bodies and I always feel an initial stab in my guts. I think when I stop feeling that I'll have to turn in my badge. This one was no different. After I blinked and swallowed, I forced myself to look closely at the photo.

I saw a Caucasian male, early twenties, obviously fit. He wore a wetsuit, which meant that he had been either a surfer or diver, and he was spread-eagled on the sand, one arm turned at an awkward angle. Someone had carefully parted his wet, dirty blond hair to show a gaping hole in the right side of his head, but otherwise he looked unharmed.

"Michael Pratt," Sampson said. "Twenty-two. Born and raised in Absecon, New Jersey. Lived on the North Shore, in Hale'iwa. He's been using it as his base off and on for the last two years, following surf competitions around the world when he could. He was surfing at Pipeline one morning about five weeks ago, and bang! somebody shot him right off his board. Dozens of people in the water and on the beach, and nobody saw the shooter or even heard the shot. Witnesses said it looked like he fell, and it wasn't until the body washed up with a bullet hole in the head that anybody thought to look around. By that time, of course, it was too late."

I took another look at the photo, trying to imagine Pratt on a board. Pipeline was one of the prime surf spots on the North Shore, a unique combination of an extremely shallow coral reef and waves that break close to a soft, sandy beach. It's the standard by which all tubular waves are measured. When Pipeline waves are six feet and under, they have enough juice to allow you to try any maneuver. But as the waves get taller, you focus simply on the thrill of flying so high and so fast-and then try not to kill yourself when the wave dumps you unceremoniously on the shore, or worse, on some outcropping of spiky coral.

I spent countless hours surfing there as a teenager, sneaking out of my parents' house with my best friend, Harry Ho. I lived about a mile from it during the year I spent immediately after college, learning that though I was good, I would never be good enough to make a living from surfing.

"Damn good aim," I said, thinking of Pratt speeding across the face of a wave. "A moving target like that."

"An M4 carbine, based on the ballistics analysis," Sampson said. "Standard military issue since about 1994. Gives you distance and accuracy."

He dropped another photo in front of me. This victim was female, Filipina, black hair, olive-colored skin just a few shades darker than mine. She, too, had been shot, this time just above the heart. She wore a hot pink strapless mini-dress with matching stiletto heels, and she had the trim, fit physique of a jogger, an aerobics instructor-or a surfer.

"Lucie Zamora. Another surfer. Same weapon. Shot about three weeks after Pratt, outside a club in Hale'iwa. She had walked out about two a.m., and there was no one else in the parking lot at the time. She was found just a few minutes later, but even though a bouncer tried CPR, she was already dead."

I studied the photo. She had obviously fallen just after she'd been shot, her right leg tucked under her, a pink clutch spilling cosmetics onto the black pavement next to her. She wore huge pink hoop earrings and nearly a dozen skinny pink bangle bracelets. "She know Pratt? Any connection to him or his murder besides the weapon?"

Sampson shook his head. "Not that we've been able to figure out." He threw another picture in front of me.

"Jesus, how many of these have you got?" I said, pulling back. This photo was the most gruesome of all. The body had been in the water for some time before being pulled out, and it was bloated and shriveled and had been nibbled on by various sea creatures.

"This is the last one. Ronald Chang. Washed up off Pua'ena Point about two weeks after Lucie Zamora was shot." Sampson sat back in his chair. Around me, I saw the evidence of his investigative and managerial success-commendations, plaques, photographs. Sampson himself was a bear of a man, tall, burly and bearded, and I was interested to note that he wore a navy polo shirt and khaki slacks, not a suit or uniform.

"Let me guess," I said. "Same weapon."

"Nope. This was a handgun, probably a Beretta. From some faint bloodstains we found in the parking lot of his apartment building, we think he might have been shot there. We don't know how or why he ended up in the water; probably just dumped."

"What makes you think they're connected, if the weapon was different?"

"He knew Lucie Zamora, and he disappeared the same day she was shot. He was a computer technician, twenty-eight years old. Originally from Maui, but he had been living in Hale'iwa and telecommuting for a firm in Honolulu for the last few years. He's a surfer, too, though not a competitive one like Pratt or Zamora."

"If somebody's shooting surfers, how come I haven't heard about this before?"

"The press haven't made the connection yet, and we haven't helped them. We don't want to cause a mass panic on the North Shore. Yes, somebody's shooting surfers, but we aren't sure if they were targeted because they were surfers, or because they have some other connection entirely." He looked at me. "That's where you come in."

The Honolulu Police Department covers not just the City of Honolulu, but the County of Honolulu as well, which encompasses the entire island of O'ahu. Sampson was in charge of District 1, downtown Honolulu. But the North Shore and the central island communities of Mililani and Wahiawa were under the jurisdiction of District 2.

"Why are you involved in this case?" I asked. "I thought you ran District 1."

"I do. Let's just say it's an internal matter and leave it at that." He looked at me. "Tell me what you know about surfers and cops."

I laughed. "They don't get along that well. Especially the ones who are mad to surf. They'll go anywhere for a wave and don't care who owns the beach where the wave lands. Surfers don't trust cops, and I don't think many cops trust surfers either-particularly not if they have long hair, no visible means of support, and the faint aroma of marijuana lingering around them."

"Exactly why the original detectives have had trouble getting people to talk, and exactly why the department needs somebody who can go in there and talk to surfers who might shy away from speaking to a cop." Sampson leaned forward. "I need somebody who can hang out on the North Shore and dig deeper in this case than the original detectives could. I need you."

I was baffled. "But anybody on O'ahu who reads a newspaper or watches TV knows that I'm a cop, thanks to all the media attention my coming-out story and my suspension got. Even though I've been surfing my whole life, nobody who's a serious surfer will trust me."

Sampson looked me straight in the eye, something I admire him for. "Actually, all they know at present is that you were a cop, until you were suspended. The department hasn't made a public announcement of your reinstatement, and I know you haven't either."

It took a minute for Sampson's words to sink in. "You want me to go undercover?"

Sampson nodded. "Who have you told about the deal we made with you?"

I started ticking people off on my fingers. My parents, my brothers and their families. Harry Ho, my best friend since high school. Terri Clark Gonsalves, my best female friend. I didn't know if any of them had told anyone else, but it wouldn't surprise me. I had been in the news, and that made me fair game for anyone's gossip, even those who were near and dear to me.

Sampson's expression was grim. "Well, I can't blame you. If I were in your shoes, I'd want the world to know, too." He paused. "Unfortunately, that leaves us with a problem. In order for this to work, the world has to believe that you've left the force, and that includes your family and friends."

Sampson put his hand to his cheek and thought for a minute, while I looked up again at a photo where he was being commended by the mayor. I had known guys in Vice who were allowed to tell their friends and families that they were undercover, just not the specifics of the investigations. I wondered why I couldn't do the same. It's not that I had gone into police work for the glory, but it would be nice some day to get my name in the papers for something that would make my parents proud of me. Something that reflected my skill as an investigator, not some sleazy investigation into my personal life.

Sampson steepled his fingers and looked at me. "You'll have to pretend that you've decided that this job offer just isn't what you need at this time of your life. You need to think about who you are, where you're going from here, that sort of thing." He released his fingers and motioned with his right hand. "Being who you are, you'll want to do that kind of soul-searching near a big wave, so you'll head up to the North Shore and plunge back into surfing. That'll be a good cover to get you up there, where you can get to know people, ask questions, and find out who's behind this."

"Why can't I tell my parents and my brothers?" I noticed my back had gone stiff again, that I was clutching the arms of the chair. "Why do I have to lie to them?"

"Your oldest brother's the station manager at KVOL, isn't he?"

I clenched my teeth and nodded. KVOL was the scandal-mongering station of the islands, with the slogan "Erupting News All The Time." KVOL had broken the news of my suspension from the force, and though my brother had been able to tone down and eventually stage manage the coverage in my favor, he and his station were in large part responsible for how big the story had become.

"You may trust your brother, but I don't," Sampson said. "I know what these media types are like. And if you tell him a different story than you tell your parents or your other brother, he'll figure it out. I can't have this investigation compromised."

By the time he was finished, I was shaking my head. "I can't do it. You're asking me to lie to everyone who matters to me. I can't do that, not after what I went through just to be able to tell the truth."

The fact that he didn't trust my brother Lui stung me. Sure, I didn't have the best relationship with him and my other brother, Haoa, when we were kids. They were eight and ten years older than I was, and they picked on me mercilessly. But as adults, we'd become friends, and both my brothers had stood by me during that time-only a few days before, though it seemed like a lifetime-when I had been suspended from the force and needed their help to reinstate my good name and get my job back. Hadn't Lui shown that family mattered to him?

But then again, he had run the story about me without telling me in advance, without letting our parents know that their youngest son's life was going to be splashed across the evening news. Did that prove that he couldn't be trusted, when there was a story at stake?

"There is a greater good here, Kimo," Sampson said, leaning across the desk. "I want you to remember that. There's a murderer killing surfers on the North Shore, and you're the only one who can get in there and find out what's going on." He paused. "And you know the only way you can do that is by pretending that you've left the force."

I didn't know what else to say. He wasn't asking me to step back into the closet, as God knows I couldn't. But after all the hurt I'd caused my family and friends, I couldn't imagine tearing everyone up yet again. "But…" I began.

"No buts." He handed me a pile of folders. "Take these home and read them. Don't tell anyone we've had this conversation. Think about it. Then come back here tomorrow morning and we'll talk again."

"What if I say no?"

Sampson sat back in his chair and stared at me for a minute, and in that show of confidence I had an inkling of why he had received so many of those commendations. "You're a good cop, Kimo. I need you on this investigation. If you can't do it, well, we'll talk about that when we have to."

When I left Sampson's office, I didn't know what to do or where to go. I'd prepared myself to begin work again that morning, and that clearly wasn't to be. I walked to my truck, turned the engine on and started to drive, not knowing where I was going.

There was a lot of traffic in Honolulu as I circled past the Aloha Tower, that old 1920s building where people used to gather to watch the cruise ships go in and out. Past the Iolani Palace, the only royal palace on American soil, guarded by the tall gold statue of King Kamehameha. Around and around, through downtown, along Ala Moana Beach Park and the Ala Wai Yacht Basin, where Gilligan and the Skipper left with their boatload of tourists for their three-hour tour.

I ended up at the top of Mount Tantalus, overlooking Honolulu. It was a real tourist office day, temps in the low 70s, trade winds off the ocean, just a few puffy white clouds floating across the sky to add interest to what otherwise would have been an unbroken expanse of light blue.

From up there, I could see all the way from the extinct volcano of Diamond Head to the naval base at Pearl Harbor. It was only about a dozen miles, but it was a trip that ran from the origin of the island all the way to the latest innovations in military technology. I looked out at the city for a while, saw the line of surf where waves broke against the shore, planeloads of tourists landing and taking off from Honolulu International, the steady traffic of tiny cars along the ribbon of the H1, the highway the federal government requires us to call an interstate. I guess subconsciously I'd hoped that coming up there would allow me to put all my troubles into perspective, see myself as just one of those infinitesimally small people below me, going about their daily lives.

I'm not sure it worked, but I did get out of the truck, sit on a bench, and start to read the dossiers, as Sampson knew I would.

Though there was a lot of paperwork-crime scene reports, interviews with witnesses, friends and relatives-there wasn't much information. There was no thread that tied together all three victims other than the fact that all three were surfers. Michael Pratt was haole, or white, a mainlander who lived in Hale'iwa when the surf was high, traveling around the globe to compete, from France to Australia and Costa Rica to South Africa. He usually finished in the money in surfing championships, and supplemented his income by teaching surfing at clinics and exhibitions.

Nineteen-year-old Lucie Zamora was a Filipina who had moved to Honolulu at age ten when her mother, a maid at a Waikiki hotel, sent for her and her younger brother. She had been living on the North Shore for the last two years, working as a clerk and waitress while struggling to become a professional surfer. She had a couple of high finishes in local tournaments, but was nowhere near Pratt's caliber.

Ronald Chang was twenty-five, a computer technician and weekend surfer. Born in Hong Kong, he had grown up on Maui, where his parents ran a Chinese restaurant. Like me, he'd been surfing most of his life, and like me, too, he had a full-time job. But he'd never placed in the money at a surf competition.

Though Zamora and Chang knew each other, neither seemed to know Pratt. Zamora and Pratt were shot with the same gun, and Chang had disappeared earlier on the day that Zamora was shot. There had to be a connection between these three that had led to their deaths, but the detectives on the case hadn't been able to find it. Did I think I was better? No. I knew I was good, but almost every detective I'd met on the force was as smart, or as dogged, or as lucky, as I was. Sampson believed that because I was a surfer, I'd have some special entrée to the world of North Shore surfing that would provide the missing clue. But was it worth lying to people I cared about-and the general population as well-and putting my life on hold to find out if he was right?

That phrase struck me. Putting my life on hold.

Michael Pratt's life, Lucie Zamora's life, and Ronald Chang's life had been put on permanent hold. How many others would suffer the same fate if I didn't do anything?

I closed the dossiers and looked out at the landscape again. Those big puffy clouds had multiplied and were massing over Diamond Head. O'ahu is an island of microclimates-it can be gloriously sunny in Kahala, but rainy in Manoa, just a few miles away. Partly sunny in Pearl City, windy in La'ie, cool in Hale'iwa. And yet, they say if you just stay where you are, the weather will change soon.

I felt as unsettled as the weather, and equally vulnerable to being blown one way or the other. So I decided to get my father's advice.