BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU – James Pflueger’s Oct. 15 sentencing in Kauai’s 5th circuit court caused a great stir in the islands after he was given just seven months in prison on a reckless endangering charge.
Pflueger, 89, had earlier pleaded “no contest” to recklessly causing the deaths of 7 people when his Ka Loko Dam breached in the early morning hours of March 14, 2006.
The breach sent 400 million gallons of water down the mountain along with tons of debris, killing seven people including a toddler and his parents, as well as a pregnant woman and her fiancée whom she was about to marry.
Kauai’s Fifth Circuit Judge Randal Valenciano sentenced Pflueger to what amounted to one month in prison for each death.
But in reality, Pflueger will spend less than a week behind bars per death. He was released this week from the Kauai Community Correctional Facility to home detention just six weeks into his 7-month sentence.
Public Safety Director Ted Sakai made the decision in conjunction with Attorney General David Louie.
In a letter to Senate Public Safety Chair Will Espero obtained by Hawaii Reporter, Sakai explained: “On Monday, I received a memo from the facility physician indicating that Pflueger has developed an additional condition that might require urgent care, and that our M.D. does not believe that we can appropriately care for Pflueger at Kauai Community Correctional Center or any other facility.”
“He recommended that Pflueger be granted medical release so he can be under the direct care of his own specialist physicians on Oahu, who are familiar with his conditions.”
“After consulting with the Attorney General, I was advised that I have the authority to grant such a release.”
“As such, effective today, we have placed Pflueger on home detention on Oahu, where he resides. He will be restricted to his home and to visits to his physicians. He will be monitored electronically and supervised by the Intake Service Center,” Sakai said.
Bruce Fehring, who lost his daughter Aurora Solveig Fehring, his son-in-law Alan Gareth Dingwall, and 2-year-old grandson Rowan Grey Makana Fehring-Dingwall, in the breach along with four family friends staying on the property, was stunned by the news, which he learned from the media, not the state attorney general’s victims’ advocate.
Fehring said he’s also shocked the public safety director relied on the opinion of one corrections department physician to conclude the state was unable to medically care for Pflueger.
“I find it quite incredible that one state employee, not a judge, can unilaterally make such a decision without any notification to the families of the victims,” Fehring said.
Fehring questioned why Pflueger was released from prison when he does not require hospitalization and there was no opportunity to have an independent medical exam.
“Mr. Pflueger will be released to his home, where he is likely further from a hospital than he was at Kauai Community Correctional Center, just a few miles away from Wilcox Hospital. Released to his home, to sit in his easy chair, watch TV, surf the Internet, eat gourmet meals, drink alcoholic beverages, and cuddle with his girlfriend in his king sized bed with silk sheets and feather pillows. He should be back where he belongs: Sitting on hard chairs and laying on a hard bed in a jail cell with a male roommate, with steel bars and rules to follow and guards to obey,” Fehring said.
In a letter to Sakai that Espero shared with Hawaii Reporter, he said he personally feels Pflueger should still be in prison.
“The public will think he got special treatment, especially when others are dying in prison,” Espero said, noting he was not aware the public safety director could unilaterally grant such releases.
“Moving him to Oahu may have helped with his care, but I am not the expert or administrator here. Having him spend weekends in jail could have also been somewhat of a compassionate response and a compromise,” Espero told Sakai.
Listed as one of the richest men in the state by Hawaii Business magazine in 2007, Pflueger spent a vast amount of his fortune and more than six years fighting the criminal charges filed against him in Nov. 2008 by then State Attorney General Mark Bennett.
Under Bennett, the state alleged Pflueger recklessly and knowingly caused the 7 deaths by covering the dam’s main safety feature, it’s spillway.
Pflueger was indicted on 7 counts of manslaughter and one count of reckless endangering in the first degree after a grand jury reviewed 207 exhibits and listened to 20 witnesses over four days, resulting in a record of 600 pages.
However, in a much criticized plea deal, David Louie, the attorney general appointed in 2010, allowed Pflueger’s company, Pacific 808 properties, to take responsibility for the 7 counts of manslaughter.
Ironically, State Deputy Prosecutor Vince Kanemoto fought for a year in prison, not home detention, in court on Oct. 15, saying Pflueger showed no remorse and was reckless: “The reckless conduct was him (Pflueger) covering the spillway. And leaving it covered despite warnings from Tom Hitch (the water system manager), from Mike Dyer (local realtor), despite the Pilaa fiasco that happened, and then he was sentenced for 10 felony offenses for water pollution. He should have known better.”
He pointed out Pflueger had not learned his lesson after causing a devastating mudslide at Pilaa beach by illegally grading another of his Kauai properties in 2001, which led to 1,000 tons of mud and debris going into the ocean during a heavy rainstorm. In 2006, just 6 weeks before the dam breached, Pflueger was sentenced on 10 felony counts related to pollution of the pristine Pilaa bay.
Pflueger has only spoken twice about the tragedy, most recently in court at his sentencing.
In court Oct. 15, Pflueger cried and said not day goes by that he is not reminded of the tragedy. He maintained he tried to bring attention about the dam’s disrepair to the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and also said he had no authority to repair the dam because he wasn’t the water system manager, C Brewer and Kilauea Irrigation Company was.
“Tragically, however, my constant calls over the years were ignored,” Pflueger said.
Pflueger talked about the impact the breach had on him and his family.
“There is a lot of pain in this court room today for all of us. Since that horrible day on March 14, 2006, there has been 8 years of headache for my family. I have sold nearly all my assets to pay for the legal and settlement costs.”
But Fehring didn’t buy Pflueger’s speech, saying Pflueger has taken no responsibility and showed no remorse.
While Fehring said Oct. 15 he was happy Pflueger would spend some time in prison and that justice had been served, he didn’t feel the same today after learning Pflueger will be serving out the rest of his sentence at home.
“To me, the father of a victim, father-in-law of another, grandfather of a third and friend or acquaintance to all the rest, this latest development in the saga of Pflueger’s old-boy manipulation of the justice system stinks like corruption and smells like big money,” Fehring said.