More than 14 years later, the death of a Kapolei woman remains a mystery. It’s a case that once sent her husband to prison for murder, but has since taken many twists and turns.
The wedding pictures freeze in time a new beginning for Shirlene and Ken Wakisaka, a second marriage for each, a beaming woman for whom family was at the core.
“She was just so beautiful, and so loving, and just a wonderful mother in so many ways,” said Shirlene’s daughter Tammie Cocard.
Soon after her mother moved to Hawaii with their new stepfather, Shirlene’s daughters say something changed.
“She didn’t want us to know the details of some of the things that were actually happening,” daughter Tiffany Young said.
“She withdrew from us and she just became more aloof,” Cocard recalls. “It seemed that she was keeping things from us.”
They flew to Hawaii to see in person what was going on.
“She said that he was very violent toward her,” Cocard says their mother told them. “It is a pattern that’s been going on for a good part of their marriage, and that she was afraid for her life.”
Public record documents domestic violence in their marriage. Ken Wakisaka pled guilty to assault and got a year of probation.
Her daughters say Shirlene eventually left him and returned to the mainland. She reconnected with them and her grandchildren – then disappeared for a week.
“Finally she called us and said, ‘I’m back in Hawaii and I’m back with Ken and everything’s fine I don’t want you to worry, everything’s fine,” Cocard recalls.
About 6 weeks later, Shirlene was dead.
Shirlene died in April 2000 after being taken unconscious from her and Ken’s Ko Olina townhouse.
“Initially everyone thought it was an overdose,” said former Honolulu Police Department detective Nick Cambra. “I thought there was a little bit more.”
More, but what? It started with rambling voicemails from Shirlene to her daughters the night before and the day of her last conscious day on earth.
“I called her immediately and Ken picked up the phone and he said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with your mother,'” Cocard said.
From California Cocard scrambled to get an ambulance to the Ko Olina home while Young, in Arizona, tried to call Shirlene back.
“I heard the ambulance in the distance coming,” Young said. “All I could think was she’s going to be ok, the ambulance is here, and I’m just so grateful.”
She says Ken thought he’d hung up the phone, but it didn’t disconnect, and she stayed on the line listening.
“I heard him yelling at my mom,” Young said. “His demeanor was extremely agitated, he was definitely upset.”
Whatever EMS saw wasn’t enough to take Shirlene away, at least not then. Ken Wakisaka called the ambulance back to the house hours later, and paramedics rushed an unconscious Shirlene to the hospital. Days later, she was taken off life support and died. Ken was caught on tape saying this to the daughters:
“Telling them don’t talk to the police until you talk to me,” Cambra said. “He talked to the daughters and said I don’t want you to say anything to the police to make them suspicious of me.”
But police had their suspicions, such as a pill bottle found out in the bushes after police had done a search.
“The pill bottle was the same pill bottle I had seen in the master bedroom bath,” Cambra said. “He had made statements about the Quinidine prior to the autopsy getting back, but the thing is the Quinine Sulfate was the bottle.”
Quinine was an over the counter cramps remedy she’d been known to take. Quinidine is prescription-only for heart rhythm treatment neither of them were undergoing. Months later the medical examiner’s autopsy noted nonlethal levels of Quinidine in her blood, but the cause of death was ligature strangulation.
A jury found Ken Wakisaka guilty of her murder. He went to prison.
“Once we heard the guilty verdict, I felt like for the first time I could actually breathe,” Young said, “and had the freedom to just come down off the ledge for a minute.”
Just a minute would become just a couple years, after a chance meeting of Ken and this defense attorney John Edmunds, who was at Halawa prison to see another client.
“And he said before we talk about my case I gotta tell you something that’s driving me nuts,” Edmunds recalls. “He said this guy in my cell with me shouldn’t be here.”
“So I went and met with Mr. Wakisaka,” Edmunds said, “and I got the transcripts of what happened at his trial, read them literally did not believe what I read.”
Closing statement transcripts, the words of this prosecutor:
“It was a comment on his right to remain silent, he (Wakisaka) had chosen not to testify,” said former deputy prosecutor Dan Oyasato. “We all make mistakes. That happened to be one of the biggest ones I made as a prosecutor.”
“You can’t do that,” Edmunds said, “and when you do the trial has to be thrown out a mistrial declared.”
And it was. On appeal to the Hawaii Supreme Court, the case was unanimously reversed, citing prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective counsel for the original defense attorney not to have objected, and this:
“Kenneth Wakisaka had claimed that his wife was suicidal,” Edmunds said, “so to get into her emotional background, the kinds of medications her doctor had been prescribing, whether her doctor felt she needed in or outpatient care at a psychiatric facility was highly relevant.”
But the trial judge wouldn’t let that testimony in and the Hawaii Supreme Court said that also was an error. So a trial and a jury again would have to weigh whether it was murder, could it have been suicide?
On Wednesday, KHON2’s look into this decade-old case continues.
We’ll explore the evidence that the defense attorney says could clear his client: “The marks on Mrs. Wakisaka’s neck,” Edmunds said, “could not have been caused by an attempt to strangle her.”
What Shirlene’s daughters found that leave them convinced it was murder: “She had the wherewithal to hide it in something she knew we would ask for in the event something were to happen to her.”
When will either side get resolution in case that’s been waiting for justice for a decade? The story continues Wednesday night at 10 on the KHON2 News.