Kauaʻi police say public safety wasn’t in jeopardy during manhunt for suspected killer
For the past week, a manhunt was underway on Kauaʻi to find a 22-year-old with alleged mental health problems who was suspected of killing his father, possibly with a speargun, at a Lāwa‘i home on the south shore.
The search was centered around Kōkeʻe and the Waimea Canyon, called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
The reason: a few hours after the murder, a white 2017 GMC pickup truck, believed to have been stolen by Kody Gardner for his getaway, was found abandoned at the Waimea Canyon Lookout, a popular sight-seeing destination approximately 24 miles away.
Day after day, the public was kept in the dark surrounding the manhunt until Friday, when the Kauaʻi Police Department reported that searchers on Thursday had found what they believed to be the corpse of Kody Gardner in Waimea Canyon State Park.
On Thursday, when the news of the discovery of Gardnerʻs body was not publicly known, West Side locals and tourists interviewed in and around Kōkeʻe revealed a grieving community interacting with visitors oblivious to the unfolding situation.
“Most have no idea … because they [state and county authorities] haven’t publicized it,” said Kyle Kiyotsuka, an employee at the Kōkeʻe Museum above the Waimea Canyon Lookout.
The Waimea Canyon Lookout has been closed for most of the week-long search for Gardner. While there is no sign at the entrance explaining why, the state’s website said it was due to “an ongoing KPD investigation,” with no mention of a murder suspect likely being in the area.
The police made no effort to inform Waimea Canyon and Kōkeʻe state parks visitors that a murder suspect was likely at large in the area. Asked why, Bryson Ponce, assistant chief of the police department’s Investigative Services Bureau, said authorities felt: “He was not a threat to the public … or some type of killer on the loose, based on circumstantial and physical evidence that we found up in Kōkeʻe.”
This assessment was made despite the fact that Gardner was called mentally unstable by his sister in a Facebook post and was suspected of killing his father, 52-year-old Delwood Kalei Gardner, with a speargun, according to unidentified police sources of Hawai’i News Now.
On Friday, Ponce described the cause of death of Kalei Gardner as “multiple penetrating sharp force injuries to the neck.”
Ponce also said on Friday: “We had a strong feeling that [Kody Gardner] was in Kōkeʻe and probably may have fallen in the area that we found him.”
In the police press release on Friday, it said that foul play is not suspected in the death of Kody Gardner because preliminary findings suggest “a fall from height.”
During the manhunt, despite repeated requests for information, scant details were made available.
It was only after the manhunt was over with the discovery of Kody Gardner’s body that Ponce provided details. He said on Friday that between 30 and 40 individuals searched for Gardner.
Partners in the search included personnel with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Kaua‘i Fire Department, Kaua’i Search and Rescue, friends and family of the decedent and other volunteers, according to Kaua‘i police. The fire department’s Air-1 helicopter, drones and search and rescue canines also were used. But the Hawaiʻi State Department of Safety said that its Sheriffʻs Division was not involved.
Ponce has been the sole police official to speak publicly about the Gardner case since it began on Feb. 16. Kaua‘i Police Chief Todd Raybuck has not said a word publicly about the manhunt or the discovery of his body, despite requests from Kauaʻi Now.
For Wai Kuapahi, caretaker of the Historic Kōkeʻe Civilian Conservation Corps Camp adjacent to the Kokeʻe Lodge and museum, it was especially tragic. She is a distant relative to the murdered Kalei Gardner, whom she described as a beloved member of the island community.
“A lot of hearts are hanging heavy,” Kuapahi said. “He was a very loving person, very laid-back.”
The back-to-back deaths of Kody and Kalei Gardner are the latest tragedies to befall their family. Less than one year ago, the body of Moses “Lono” Gardner – Kalei Gardner’s brother – was discovered in Kōke‘e State Park by Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry personnel conducting routine operations.
No foul play was suspected in Lono Gardner’s death. Police at the time described him as a hiker who went missing while picking maile, a vine-like native plant popular in lei-making.
At the closed Waimea Canyon Lookout at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, about four members of the Gardner stood near the cone barricade waiting to speak with police. Family friend Springwater Kaulili said it was the first time family members made a trip there since the death of Kalei Gardner.
It is not known if the family members knew at the time that a body had been found, but they were there the same day the presumed remains of Kody Gardner were found.
The family members did not wish to speak, but Kaulili politely introduced himself and offered a bottle of water, showing great kindness even as his own grief was evident.
“At least we know where they all are,” Kaulili said of the deceased Gardners. “They’re with God and we’ll be with them one day.”
It may take days to retrieve the body of Kody Gardner. Inclement weather had hampered searchers’ efforts to find Gardner and now bad weather is preventing the collection of his remains.
“I’m definitely hoping within the next week,” Ponce said. “The safety of our Air-1 pilot, firefighters/rescue personnel, police officers and partnering agencies involved in the recovery attempts is priority.”