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Misconduct Shades Sexual Assault Suit As Hawaii Settles With Prisoners for $2 Million

by Douglas Ankney

In a surprising twist to a horrific story, the State of Hawaii agreed on July 27, 2023, to pay six state prisoners whose federal civil rights suit alleged they were sexually assaulted at Women’s Community Correction Center (WCCC) a $2 million settlement—after a jury found they were not entitled to damages.

The prisoners’ complaint reads like an x-rated film script, describing degradation and exploitation by staffers who forced them into oral sex, lap dances and vaginal penetration—often with fingers, but once with a dildo—all the while buying the prisoners’ silence with smuggled drugs, food, cosmetics, cellphones and other contraband. At other times Defendants allegedly threatened Plaintiffs and wrote false disciplinary reports to coerce their compliance with guards’ sexual demands. Some incidents were videotaped on one defendant’s cellphone—including the moment he ejaculated into a plaintiff’s mouth. Most of the alleged abuse occurred in 2015 and 2016 inside the guards’ control booth, where there were no surveillance cameras.

Two of the defendant guards were criminally charged. Brent Baumann pleaded guilty in 2020 to second-degree sexual assault; Gauta Va’a pleaded no contest to the same charge the same year. Each was sentenced by a state court to five years of probation. They and fellow guards Chavon Freitas and Taofi Magalei, Jr. were also fired by the state Department of Public Safety (DPS)—now the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—along with maintenance worker James Sinatra.

Plaintiffs won default judgments against Baumann, Va’a and Magalei, Jr. in January 2020. That same month Victoria Saunoa-Piper settled her claims, which were all against Sinatra; since they were also the only claims against him, Sinatra was dismissed from the suit, too. Freitas had already been dismissed in 2019 because Plaintiffs failed to serve her with a copy of the complaint on time.

That left to proceed to trial the claims of remaining plaintiffs Leinette Reyes, Dana Baba, Darnell Maluyo, Shawna Tallman, Reyna Banks and the estate of Dawnielle Panlasigui—who tragically had committed suicide in 2018—against former DPS head Nolan Espinda and WCCC Warden Eric Tanaka.

After a 2020 mistrial, the case proceeded to a second trial two years later in the federal court for the District of Hawaii. There the evidence presented showed that Tanaka immediately removed the guards and launched an investigation as soon as he learned of the allegations. Tanaka also claimed he wanted to upgrade the surveillance system, including installing cameras in the control booth, but said he lacked authority. The jury found in the state’s favor, ruling that Plaintiffs were entitled to zero damages from the remaining Defendants on November 17, 2022.

But the next month, evidence surfaced that Tanaka had misled the jury. Minutes of the staff meetings where Tanaka requested upgrades to the surveillance system and cameras in the control booth showed he did so out of concern to prevent thefts; he made no mention nor showed any concern about the rape allegations. Furthermore, the minutes showed Tanaka also opposed hiring more female guards and insisted on employing additional male guards, even though he was aware that guard Irwin Ah-Hoy was convicted of sexually assaulting prisoner Stormy Rae Smith in the control booth in 2013, leading to a suit Smith subsequently settled for $100,000, as PLN reported. [See: PLN,June 2018, p.42.]

Plaintiffs’ attorneys immediately cried foul, demanding a new trial or judgment in favor of their clients. In April 2023, U.S. District Court Judge Jill Otake decided to call in the state’s lawyers to answer for the apparent discovery violations. On May 12, 2023, newly appointed state Attorney General Ann Lopez (D) announced the settlement had been reached “to put this case to rest.”

Offered Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz, who was not involved in the case but followed it with interest: “I think what happened was that clearly there was evidence that somebody had cheated along the line, and the outcome would not have been the same if that information had been turned over … as it should have been.”

The settlement payout included costs and fees for Plaintiffs’ Honolulu attorneys, Richard E. Wilson and Terrance M. Revere, along with Myles S. Breiner. See: Reyes v. Tanaka, USDC (D. Hawaii), Case No. 1:17-cv-00143.  


Additional source: Hawaii News Now, Honolulu Civil Beat

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Related legal case

Reyes v. Tanaka