Father calls for full justice, but will prosecutors reopen decades-old murder case?

Aaron Schonlau, present day
Aaron Schonlau, present day

**This is Part 2 of our Always Investigating series into the murder of Aleisea “Lacey” Woolsey Ruf. View Part 1 here.**

The father of a young murder victim is asking for justice to be fully served after learning that the man behind bars for the crime may not have acted alone.

A mainland detective pieced together elements surrounding the murder of 4-year-old Aleisea “Lacey” Woolsey Ruf, and took his findings to the family.

Always Investigating is asking whether it’s enough for prosecutors to take another look.

Timothy Woolsey explains how he endures after losing his daughter in one of Kauai’s most horrific rape and murder cases 23 years ago, scouring land and sea with the search parties, then himself retrieving her submerged body from a deep ocean crevice.

“I turned all my buttons off, because if not, I would end up in a mental hospital,” Woolsey said, “so I created one safety in my mind. Before I pull the trigger, the safety stay on.”

Lacey had been sexually assaulted, her body found deep off-shore. Aaron Schonlau confessed to the killing.

“It’s like I am just trying to draw the picture in my mind right now,” Woolsey said as he walked us to all the scenes of what seemed an open-and-shut case.

But new questions have him calling for full justice despite Schonlau taking all the blame, and long behind bars.

“When you read through this confession, all kind of red flags jump off the pages,” said Ken Lawson, who teaches at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law and is also with the Hawaii Innocence Project, which works on cases where people may have been wrongfully convicted. “If this case came to us at the Innocence Project, it would be one that we would definitely take on to investigate.”

A few years ago, the girlfriend of another person who was at Anini Beach at the time told Oregon police he confessed to her that he was involved in the murder by drowning. She told the same to retired Colorado detective Jim Benish. Benish happened to have talked to that same man decades earlier, and found the man’s account of Kauai details suspicious.

We are not naming this second alleged accomplice as he has not been charged in connection with this case, but Lacey’s family wants justice to come down full force on all involved.

We asked her father, what is his own theory on the crime at this point?

“I’m looking at possibly them both being involved. One suspect puts the body in the water, prior to that, one suspect did the crime,” Woolsey said. “That’s why if one suspect convict the other, after doing 30 years, I would tell the parole board let him go as long as I get this one.”

“I strongly suspect if you give that to an expert,” Lawson said, “they’re going to tell the prosecutor’s office, you need to do some more digging.”

We enlisted behavioral analysis and interrogation expert Roger Strecker to review Aaron Schonlau’s statements, police documents and witness accounts. Among those accounts were two witnesses who describe someone five to 10 years older than Aaron, and wearing different clothes than Aaron was wearing that night, carrying a child across their property around the time Lacey disappeared.

A police officer saw a man wearing the same outfit coming out of the ocean later that night. The clothing described is what the man the Colorado detective spoke with said he was wearing.

Even while confessing the next day, Aaron Schonlau repeatedly told police he was wearing long pants and a tank top. Detectives asking him time and again: You sure?

Police: “What were you wearing at that time?”

Schonlau: “The white T-shirt and bluish green slacks.”

Police: “You were wearing slacks and not shorts?”

Schonlau: “Yeah.”

Police: “Which is it, shorts or slacks?”

Schonlau: “Slacks.”

Police: “That’s long pants?

Schonlau: “Yeah.”

With Schonlau in custody, police gathered evidence and talked to other bystanders, including the man who decades later confessed to the girlfriend and had earlier been interviewed by the Colorado cold case detective. In the Colorado cold-case detective’s transcript, the other camper says that when Kauai police took his statements, he was wearing a shirt matching witness and police descriptions, and they repeatedly questioned him about it.

“He tells me that they pressured him in an interview about the clothes he was wearing and why they were wet and why they were muddy and when did he put them on and things like that,” Benish said.

The Kauai Police Department has not released the police transcripts of their Kauai interviews with him.

“There’s enough question for a reasonable and prudent person, if they picked up the case file and read the documents, to wonder: Is there a huge puzzle piece missing and another person involved in at least disposal of the body?” Strecker said.

“Now maybe this defendant committed the rape, the sexual assault, but maybe they did not do the murder. Maybe it’s the other suspect,” Lawson said. “When you wrongfully convict somebody who is innocent of the actual crime, the real perpetrator is still out there to go and continue to commit crimes.”

The autopsy confirms cause of death was drowning. Lacey did not die at the scene of the sex assault further inland.

Schonlau’s mandatory minimum of 25 years for the murder charge comes up in September 2018. Minimums for the other offenses have long since been served.

When we started asking questions, the Hawaii Paroling Authority came across an error they’d made in 1995. Administrator Tommy Johnson told Always Investigating: “I noticed that a previous parole board had not included the level of punishment nor major criterion relied upon in determining the level of punishment. Therefore he is entitled to a new minimum-term hearing.”

That hearing is scheduled for next month.

So will authorities take another look? Kauai police say only the prosecutor can reopen a case to be reinvestigated.

“On what would qualify an adjudicated case to be reinvestigated, that would be a decision made by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office,” county spokesperson Sarah Blane said on behalf of KPD.

The Kauai prosecutor’s office had assigned two staff investigators some time ago, not reopening the case but spending about 100 hours reviewing the Colorado detective’s leads. They talked to the girlfriend who had said the other man confessed, but she recanted when reached by Kauai authorities.

“What they said to us did not bear out,” said Kauai prosecuting attorney Justin Kollar. “People’s circumstances sometimes lead their memories and recollections to shift for whatever reason.”

“It’s still information that only someone who was there would know,” Benish said. “He describes the material that he used to weight the body down. He describes not being able to make the body sink and dragging her back out of the water and looking for something heavier to weigh her down with.”

But Kauai investigators did not speak to the man who allegedly confessed this role.

“Because of the nature and circumstances of his situation, that was not possible to speak with him,” Kollar said of the second alleged accomplice. “He’s not interested in talking to us about the case. … Even if one person is saying that another person told them that they were there, we’d still need some corroborating evidence to move forward with that kind of hearsay evidence basically. We would certainly ask if that evidence is out there, if those witnesses are out there to come forward and let us know.”

Neither the prosecutors nor Kauai police are actively looking at any of it now. The case in their eyes is and remains closed.

A young cop who heard Schonlau’s second confession — the one used in court — is now Kauai County Council chairman Mel Rapozo. Always Investigating asked, as a city councilmember, would he be supportive of resources KPD or the prosecutor decide they can or should spend on a second look?

“Absolutely. We fund the cold case unit for the prosecutor’s office,” Rapozo said. “Keep in mind, especially in cases like this, not all the leads are accurate. Not every lead is legitimate, but I believe it is our responsibility to make that determination at some point utilizing some investigative action. You’ve re-sparked my interest in this case and I will definitely be chatting with the prosecutor to figure out what more we can do.”

The prosecutor says they don’t plan to reopen or have police reinvestigate unless additional new leads surface.

“We are confident that the person who did this is in prison,” Kollar said, “and if at some point sufficient evidence comes to light that enables us to charge additional suspects, you know we are all for that, but as of yet, that’s something that hasn’t happened.

“If we had evidence to bring charges, we would be more than willing to do so,” Kollar added, “evidence that would enable us to be confident that we could pursue a case beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.”

Benish hopes the feds might take action. A federal grand jury meets regularly in Honolulu, and in January they looked at a filing he made, a motion asking for grand jury review. No charges have been announced; grand jury proceedings are kept secret and status reports are not given; no updates are provided if indictments do not materialize.

But what does any investigator who chooses to revisit the case have to work with, besides he-said-he-said confessions?

“Obviously if there’s physical evidence that’s still here, and there is some new leads I guess if you will, then absolutely, those leads should be investigated to the fullest extent. That needs to be done,” Rapozo said.

Kauai police say they have in storage an item of clothing from the victim, as well hair samples and saliva collected just from Schonlau. They provided Always Investigating with a photo of a storage container and a cardboard box holding some of the evidence. DNA-related evidence is stored in a freezer. Records show Honolulu police at some point were sent several other items for forensic analysis.

“At the time I had obtained his confession, in my mind, it was clear he was alone,” Rapozo said. “There was no reason for me to think otherwise, and then again a couple of decades later, there’s a lot of allegations and you know, your mind starts going, and thinking, is it possible someone else is involved? Is it possible he had help? And you know of course it’s possible. Anything’s possible. That question hopefully will be answered for the family’s sake.”

“The family deserves more. That little girl deserves more,” Lawson said. “If we made a mistake, we should admit we made a mistake. It’s never too late for justice, never. Let’s reopen the investigation and get the right guy. That’s what justice screams for.”

“Justice for my daughter, for her murder and the people that are involved in covering up her murder,” Woolsey said. “She just telling me, ‘Go get ’em, Dad. Through you, she telling me, ‘Go get ‘em.’”

The Hawaii Department of Public Safety says it has no record of misconduct or any other incidents involving Schonlau as an inmate. Officials say he has completed substance abuse, mental health, and anger management programs in prison, and continued his education.

He has not, however, taken the Sex Offender Treatment Program. They say inmates are not eligible for that until two years from parole. He would qualify right around now.

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