NORTH KOHALA — Sections of Akoni Pule Highway in North Kohala were shut down as police continued to investigate shootings a week apart from each other in the North Hawaii community.
On Thursday, motorists traveling south on the highway, also known as Route 270, were either stopped or turned around as Hawaii Police continued its investigation into shooting suspect Walter Gomes III, who reportedly shot a woman in the face on March 20. He was later part of three officer-involved shootings on March 21 — one in Kona by Costco and two in Hawi.
The 41-year-old escaped capture after crashing into a police cruiser by fleeing into the North Kohala brush. Eight officers have been put on administrative leave for discharging their weapons in the pursuit. The department’s Office of Professional Standards is investigating the police shootings, as is standard operating procedure in all officer-involved shootings.
Police are also investigating a separate shooting, this one not involving officers, that occurred Wednesday morning in Wainaia Gulch where a 37-year-old man was shot at least twice by an unknown party. The victim was taken by police to North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea then later flown in serious condition to The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu.
“We’re looking for the shooter from the gulch and Walter Gomes,” Lt. Roylen Valera said Thursday, adding that at this point investigators don’t believe Gomes to be connected to Wednesday’s shooting.
Wednesday’s incident closed the highway for most of the morning and prompted a lockdown of Kohala Middle School from about 9:35 a.m. until students were released for the day around 1:35 p.m. Students are normally released at 12:55 p.m. on Wednesday.
For about four hours on Thursday, police conducted additional investigation into the Gomes officer-involved shootings, which took place at Minit Stop and Ohana Fuels on Hawi Road and Hoea Road. The road closures, from Upolu Airport to Hoea Road, hampered traffic throughout the morning, with travelers looking for other alternatives to get out of the Hawi area.
Sitting outside the police station in Kapaau Thursday morning, Valera remarked how these crimes are not typical for North Kohala.
“It’s uncharacteristic of West Hawaii to have these types of incidents,” Valera said.
Valera’s first district assignment was in North Kohala 20 years ago.
“Beautiful doesn’t even express how I feel about North Kohala,” he said. “It’s sad that I’ve been here a couple times this week and it’s been for crimes.”
Valera added North Kohala has a real sense of community and the police department is appreciative of them.
“We’ve disrupted their daily routine on a number of occasions and we’ve received nothing but an outpouring of support and concern,” he said. “They’ve been so helpful to us — and that is very typical for North Kohala communities and that hasn’t changed in 20 years.”
Residents in Hawi on Thursday remained upbeat and relatively unfazed by the investigations. One Hawi resident who works near the Minit Stop recalled seeing officers investigating the scene at the gas station.
“It’s not usual,” he said. “But we deal with it and move on.”
Island visitors also continued to roam the streets and peruse the businesses of Hawi and Kapaau. Kekai Bello, who works at Kohala Coffee Mill in Hawi, said people came looking at maps to find ways to get to different parts of the island. For residents, she added, everyone is still cautious and wondering if Gomes is still in the area.
When the shooting happened on Wednesday, it once again put North Kohala residents on edge.
“Everyone’s first thought was, ‘Was this Walter Gomes?’” Bello said. “Everyone’s was just like, ‘What’s going on? This doesn’t happen in North Kohala.’”