State News

How was a 15-year-old girl rescued from an abductor on the Big Island?

By Tom Hasslinger

Posted September 18, 2022, 4:59 PM HST

Bridge Hartman, an employee at Café Pesto in downtown Hilo, was inside the hallway leading to the restaurant on Saturday when he spied a young girl trying to get away from a middle-aged man.

“It’s her, it’s her,” he said.

Mikella Lani Debina’s mother emotionally shares news of her rescue on Saturday. PC: Facebook

Hartman recognized 15-year-old Mikella Lani Debina from recent Amber Alerts, which were sent to people all over the Big Island and even on Maui.

Hartman ran to help Debina, wrestling the Kealakehe High School sophomore away from her 52-year-old captor and helping her back into the restaurant.

Mario Castillo, the café’s manager, told Big Island Now: “He rushed her in here and told everybody out there to ‘Get that guy’.”

People at the bayfront establishment went after the fleeing man, but were unable to corral him. They were able to get the license plate number of the vehicle he drove away in, and reported it to police.

That launched a manhunt for Duncan Kealoha Mahi, who police believe is responsible for abducting Debina Friday afternoon from a Waikoloa beach. By Saturday afternoon, they had arrested him.

Duncan Kealoha Mahi

“He did a really good job,” Castillo said of his employee Hartman, who went home for the rest of the day after the emotional ordeal. “It was a good day.”

After nearly 24 agonizing hours, Debina and her family were reunited in Hilo, about 70 miles away from where it began in Waikōloa, where the teen was abducted at knifepoint by a shirtless man in construction boots and a T-shirt wrapped around his face that concealed everything but his eyes.

The rescue helped put a harrowing end to what was a terrifying, unknown chapter for the community. News of it came to the family via police, which they shared with the throngs of friends, family, media members and residents who had come out to the scene of the kidnapping to help search for the missing girl.

“Mikella convinced the guy to take her to Café Pesto to get her something to eat,” Mikella’s mother shared with the group in an emotional address. “He told her to stay in the car and she got out; and he tried to scuffle with her and this gentleman saved her.”

The group erupted in cheers and hugs.

“Amazing. We’re feeling so blessed,” Laureen Debina, aunt of Debina, told Big Island Now. “Elated. We’re so thankful for the community that had a hand in bringing her back. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

The teen was reportedly taken by the man between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. Friday from Anaeho‘omalu Bay near Lava Lava Beach Club.

Her family said she was with her boyfriend at the time when the man approached them brandishing his knife, face covered, trudging the empty beach in construction boots.

The area near the spot is fenced off due to major renovations taking place at the restaurant. Her captor reportedly told Debina to tie up her boyfriend with blue duct tape and Zip Ties, which she did.

He absconded both teens cell phones and bolted with Debina. It took about an hour for the boyfriend to free himself, family said. He reported the abduction to police, prompting multiple Amber Alerts Friday and early Saturday morning and a full-scale search by Hawai‘i Police officers and the FBI.

“I knew she would fight,” Laureen Debina said.

The relieved teen was with Hilo police when her family arrived.

“We saw her on Facetime,” Debina’s mother said before making the drive east. “She’s miles away.”

Police originally described the abductor as a local male, approximately 45-60 years old, 5 feet 10 inches tall with an average build and bareback wearing gray shorts.

On Saturday, they issued an alert they were looking for Duncan Kealoha Mahi, 52, wanted for outstanding warrants and a kidnapping investigation. Mahi was last seen in downtown Hilo around 11:30 a.m. Saturday, operating a white Honda CRV, with the license plate ZAE959.

By Saturday afternoon, shortly after 4 p.m., police announced they arrested him in Hilo.

“The investigation remains continuing,” the department stated. “Police would like to thank the community for their assistance.” 

According to state law, kidnapping is a Class A felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

On Saturday morning, before the rescue, dozens of people gathered in Waikōloa to help search for the missing girl. A tent was set up to help organize search efforts where scores of people waited and shared support. Police had blocked off the area they were surveying by air with helicopters and on foot. Law enforcement planned to begin organizing volunteer teams to search the area after the air patrols had finished, but Debina’s rescue occurred on the other side of the island before those teams could start.

“I want to thank everyone for coming out here to help. I’m glad we didn’t need you,” police Cpt. Thomas Shopay told the crowd. “That’s the best news, that she’s safe.”

 Hawaii Island Mayor Mitch Roth posted on social media news of the teen’s safe recovery.

“FOUND!!!” the mayor wrote. “Mahalo nui to our HPD officers, the FBI, and our community for working tirelessly to find Mikella and return her to safety. This is what community is all about – and thankfully we have the best community in the world.”

On Saturday morning, as loved ones of the missing girl waited at the tent beginning at 7 a.m., they shared with each other their grief and fear on what had happened. Many had started to search the area Friday night. Most were in disbelief, like Mikella’s classmates Vaitea Gionson, Maming Bacxa, Malia Bacxa and Alysra Oswalt.

They felt helpless being unable to do anything for their friend, and their thoughts after a sleepless night raced about what she might be going through. They described Mikella as a loving, supportive person with a “beautiful” soul who loved her friends and was always looking to invite more people into her circle. She was the type of person who didn’t want anyone to feel unloved or alone.

“I’m just scared to lose a friend,” Gionson said. “I just want her to return to safety as soon as possible.”

“I feel like this is a really bad dream and I’m gonna wake up in few hours,” a distraught Maming Bacxa said. “

“I miss her,” Malia Bacxa added. “Her friends and family really miss her. I wish I had hugged her tighter.”

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Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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