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To Catch a Killer
B
y David King

With the click of a button, Kurt Mausert located the man indicted in the stabbing death of his brother, something prosecutors failed to do for 27 years

In 1979, 21-year-old Kurt Mausert care-fully tailed a car through the streets of Honolulu. He thought the vehicle carried the man who had stabbed his brother in the heart. Knowing that police had allowed this man to flee the country once before, Mausert had taken things into his own hands; he was not going to give the killer another chance to get away. But Mausert’s days of surveillance came to an abrupt end when he discovered that the car he was trailing was not being driven by the man he sought. That man was, in fact, still somewhere safe in his home country.

Twenty-seven years later, after many abortive attempts at justice and a life shaped by the quest, Mausert, now a successful defense attorney and a resident of Schuylerville, was on the hunt again. This time, he was sitting in front of a computer in his Saratoga Springs office, ready to give his quest for justice one last shot. Slowly he typed the name of the man who had been arrested and indicted for the murder of his brother into the empty space on Google.com. Then he clicked the search button.

On Feb. 22, 1979, Kurt’s brother Eric, who (like Kurt) was a Hare Krishna devotee, was accompanying a recently married couple on their way to the airport in Honolulu. Although the couple were trying to escape their parents, who disapproved of their new religion, the bride insisted she stop at her parents’ house to say goodbye. Another member of the Krishna temple accompanied the couple into the home, where the parents tried to trap them. According to witnesses and police, after a scuffle, the couple ran from the home, followed by the bride’s irate brother, Juvenal Llaneza.

“Eric gets out of the car and raises his arms and yells, ‘Stop!’ He didn’t assume a violent position; he just wanted to stop what he saw as an escalating, violent situation,” says Kurt. Eric’s pleas for calm fell on deaf ears and he found himself under attack.

“My brother knew he had gotten hit. . . . He says, ‘OK, you can hit. Then I’m gonna hit back.’ He does not know he has been stabbed, at this point,” says Kurt. Eric had been stabbed directly in the heart with a five-inch blade. “He put his arms down and decked Llaneza.” With Llaneza on the ground, “Eric notices the guy’s got blood on the front of him and realizes that blood is spurting from his own heart.”

Later, Kurt says, “I saw the puncture wound in my brother’s body. The knife would have been hard to see in daylight, not to speak of the evening or dusk.” Eric’s companion told Kurt that his brother did not suffer, and that when he told him to leave his body and think of Krishna, Eric nodded his head that he was. When police finally arrived, Llaneza was arrested.

Then, after two days, he was released. Llaneza’s father put him on a plane back to his home country, the Philippines. Kurt insists that Llaneza was allowed to flee because of his father’s status as a Philippino diplomat.

Not knowing Llaneza had fled the country, Kurt Mausert boarded a plane and headed for Hawaii to oversee his brother’s cremation.

This first trip to Hawaii would also include Mausert’s first attempt to push for justice in his brother’s slaying. It would not be his last. For the past 27 years, his struggle has been marked by multiple starts and stops and painful disappointments that have left him wondering if anyone really wants to try the man accused of stabbing his brother.

It began on that 1979 trip, when for five weeks, Mausert says, he tried to persuade police and prosecutors to re-arrest Llaneza, to no avail. “No one from the county attorney’s office or the police department tells me that this guy is gone,” he says. “They allow me to have the illusion that I actually have the chance to catch the guy.”

Kurt’s older brother Mark was at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, Calif., at the time. He went to his dean to explain the situation. As Kurt tells it, the dean said, “ ‘Let’s see who I’ve got as an alumnus.’ He finds a U.S. attorney and he says, ‘Will you look into this?’ They call the county attorney and ask, ‘What are you guys doing? What’s the story?’ They tell him, ‘Oh, this guy’s left the country.’ That’s how I find out.”

Confused by the way the case had been handled, Mark called to speak to the Honolulu county prosecutor. Mark says he was told by Larry Grean, a member of the county attorney’s screening intake division, that there was no way to indict the man because he had escaped the country. Mark says he knew that wasn’t true, and that after he quizzed Grean on the legal particulars, “the guy, he just clams up. So I told him, ‘Larry, you are a fucking whore!’ ”

Kurt says a grand jury eventually was convened to indict Llaneza, but no evidence was offered and no witnesses were called to testify. After pressure from the Mausert family, a second grand jury was impaneled and Llaneza was indicted on a charge of manslaughter. However, he was long gone and there was no way to bring him back; in 1979 the United States had no extradition treaty with the Philippines.

Defeated, Kurt Mausert settled in California and decided to take up Eric’s work indexing sacred Krishna texts. Although he says he was happy with the work, he soon found himself obsessing over his brother’s murder. Nine months later, after receiving various tips about his brother’s killer, Mausert went back to Hawaii, as he puts it, “playing private detective.”

Although his attempt to track the accused killer himself proved fruitless, Mausert continued to keep up his calls to the county prosecutor to see if the warrant for Llaneza was still in place. Nearly 20 years later, in 1998, Kurt received a jolt of hope when an investigator told him his case was being reopened and the office was going to aggressively go after Llaneza with or without an extradition treaty.

Two years after that, having heard nothing, Mausert contacted the investigator, and, he says, “It was a completely different tune. ‘Oh, no, we can’t get him without an extradition treaty,’ and ‘Oh, he’s gonna be really hard to find in the Philippines. They aren’t computerized like we are. There is nothing we can do.’ So I put the file away. I figure, what the hell, I’m just gonna live with this ’til the day I die.”

Kurt Mausert’s attempts to see justice in his brother’s murder have weighed heavily on his life decisions.

First, “I wanted to go make war on the criminal element, so I tried to become a cop,” he says, but he wasn’t accepted. “The LAPD wasn’t taking white males. . . . [so] I went to law school because I realized that I was never gonna grow up and be tough enough to be Batman.”

Determined to become a prosecutor, Mausert worked his way through school doing something he had dreamed of doing as a kid: coloring comic books. He also studied martial arts and lethal self defense.

“My brother’s murder certainly changed my view of the world,” he says. “He was larger than life; he was Captain America. The idea that some little punk with a tiny knife could take his life really turned my world upside down. I realized how dangerous a place the world can be and I made a decision that I will not go quietly. If I’m ever in a situation like that I want to be trained, and I don’t ever want my family members to live with the pain that I’ve had to live with for the last 27 years because I don’t come home to them.”

Mausert makes it clear that he is ready to take a life if he is attacked. “My brother’s murder was the formative moment in my life,” he says, leading him to an existence based on a battle between “fear and prudence.”

“I think I’ve made my peace with Krishna,” he muses. “Being a parent, having kids has helped me do that, but it’s put a lot of fear in my life. I’m gonna teach my children martial arts. They are gonna learn to take precautions for their safety. Why? Because for 17 years I’ve been practicing law. I’ve seen the evil people do to each other. I see ugliness every day come across my desk. My wife thinks I sometimes have a slanted view of the world. I sometimes think I have a slanted view, but other times I think I have the real view and it is everyone who does not practice [law], who isn’t a cop, or [who doesn’t] work in emergency care, that doesn’t see the fallout from how we treat each other as a species, who have a slanted view.”

“I had lunch with a friend who said, ‘You know, Kurt, I don’t live in that world.’ I said to him, ‘Yeah, Bob you do. You just don’t see it.’ ”

Still, practicing law in the real world after college made Mausert realize he could not achieve his goals or uphold his principles while working as a prosecutor. Ironically, the man who is haunted by a criminal not brought to justice became a criminal-defense attorney. There is a common thread, though: fighting corruption and favoritism in the legal system, which he first encountered in the county prosecutors who “abused their authority and let my brother’s killer go because he had political connections.”

Mausert has become noted for going after judges and prosecutors he believes are corrupt.

“I’ve spent most of my career defending individuals against criminal charges,” Kurt says. “Some of them are innocent; some of them aren’t. But I’ve run into one or more district attorney that makes decisions not based on the law and the facts but based on who knows who, based on political favoritism. Whenever I run into that, I feel an old heat come into me, and I know it’s my old issue. I know it is why I became an attorney, and I have zero tolerance for it and I go after them real hard.”

But all this work and passion for his practice didn’t exorcise his obsession with his brother’s murder. A few years into his career as a defense attorney, Mausert called Larry Grean at the Honolulu district attorney’s office. “I say, ‘This is Kurt Mausert. Do you recognize my name? You let my brother’s killer go in 1979. I’m an attorney now. I’ve been practicing defense law for two years and prior to that I was a prosecutor. I’m having trouble sleeping at night. Do you sleep at night? And if so, tell me how.’ He had nothing to say.”

In the fall of 2005, on what he describes as a lark, Mausert asked his secretary to check with the U.S. State Department to see if an extradition treaty with the Philippines had ever been signed. To his surprise, a treaty had been on the books since 1996. “They either lied to me in ’98 and 2000 or they’re stupid, and either quality—dishonesty or incompetence—is not a quality you want in a prosecutor,” he says. But he still gave them a chance to make good.

“I call [the investigator] and say, “There is a treaty. Remember me? There is a treaty. Here is the treaty number. I personally spoke with the State Department. They said it’s retroactive for crimes happening before the treaty was passed.” The investigator assured him that they would find Llaneza.

Having so easily found the extradition treaty, Mausert decided to press his luck. “I said, ‘I own stock in Google. Let’s see if the thing works.’ I put [Llaneza’s] name in and 20 seconds later I’ve got his face up on the computer, and he works on the board of directors of the Manila Trucking Corporation. So I call [the investigator] back and say, ‘Not only have I found the treaty, I found Llaneza!’ He says, ‘No way! How did you do it?’ I say, ‘I Googled him. So much for not being able to find the guy. Here is your treaty, here is your killer. Go get ’im.’ ”

Finally, the Mausert brothers’ journey for justice seemed to be nearing an end. The man who Googled his brother’s murderer made news around the country. Having presented prosecutors with the two things they had said would be key to bringing the man accused of killing Eric to justice, it seemed like a matter of time before he was brought in front of a jury.

Instead, they have so far found themselves in a rerun of former disappointments. The county attorney’s office has refused to prosecute the case and has shipped it to a cold-case unit under the jurisdiction of the Hawaii attorney general.

The county prosecutor’s office refuses to answer questions about the Mausert case and directed Metroland to the state attorney general. However, The Honolulu Advertiser spoke with Peter Carlisle, the Honolulu County attorney, earlier this month. Carlisle said that he decided his office could not handle the case because Larry Grean pressed charges against Mark Mausert after Mark supposedly made threatening comments in 1991. Mark insists he never made any threats and simply wanted, and wants, to know what is delaying his brother’s case.

Representatives of the Hawaii attorney general’s cold-case division have told reporters that they are committed to completing the case, but have noted it may be challenging to extradite Llaneza.

Kurt insists that the last place his brother’s case should be is in a cold-case unit. “It’s not a cold case. One, [that] means it’s not solved. Two, the trail of evidence is not cold. This case is solved. The guy’s indicted. There is an open indictment, and I just found him for you. It’s not cold; it hasn’t been cold since a grand jury indicted him for manslaughter in 1979!”

Both brothers would simply like to know how a case with an indicted suspect has gone so long unprosecuted. They both desperately want their questions answered. “Why didn’t they try him in absentia?” asks Kurt. “They won’t explain any of this. They won’t answer any of these questions.”

“I’ll tell you why they don’t want him brought back now,” says Mark, who also currently practices as a defense attorney. “ ’Cause when Llaneza is brought back, I know as a defense lawyer. . . . I would say that the state has sat on its hands for 27 years and hasn’t done anything and therefore people and evidence have disappeared, evidence has gone stale.” Mark says there is only one sure way to defeat that defense, and he is certain that the Honolulu prosecutors don’t want to open that can of worms. “To successfully defeat it, you show that his flight was a result of a conspiracy.” The problem, says Mark, is that that approach “opens wide to an inquiry: How did this happen? Why wasn’t his passport taken? Bond taken? That’s why it will never see the inside of a courtroom.”

Kurt and Mark Mausert are left stuck with little hope, trying to adjust, again, to the idea that justice likely will never be done.

Mark no longer blames Llaneza for his family’s suffering. “This is something he likely did in the heat of passion. If he is any kind of a human being, he has had to suffer with this for 27 years. It’s the people who are subverting justice willingly who need to answer for what they’ve done.”

That does not, however, mean he has forgiven his brother’s killer. “The criminal justice system clears the deck for victims to be able to forgive. That’s the healing process, and when you subvert the system the way it has been, it leaves the wound open.”

The religion his brother Eric taught him has been the one thing that has allowed Kurt to find some peace. He says his brother died a noble death with his mind and heart fixed on Krishna, facing an enemy while protecting another devotee from unwarranted attack.

“What I believe is that because of this he attained the supreme destination, to escape the cycle of birth and death and not to have to come back to the physical world,” says Kurt. “I’m sure he would say it was a good death, but that still leaves me stuck. That still leaves me without the person.”

dking@metroland.net


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