Cave relics thief dies month before prison date
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
One of two men found guilty of stealing Native Hawaiian funerary objects from a Big Island cave to sell for profit has died a month before he was scheduled to go to federal prison.
John Carta, 46, was found dead at a Kailua, Kona, home last Tuesday, according to a Big Island police spokeswoman and his attorney, Rustam Barbee.
While the death is still under investigation and an autopsy has been requested, "at this time, no there is no reason to suspect foul play or any intentional act," said Chris Loos, spokeswoman for the Hawai'i County Police Department.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren last month sentenced Carta to a year in prison for stealing the objects from Kanupa Cave in Kohala in June 2004.
Another defendant in the case, Daniel Taylor, is to be sentenced in May.
The Kanupa case, which generated wide publicity, involves items known as the J.S. Emerson Collection and included wooden bowls, a gourd, a holua sled runner, a spear, kapa and cordage. Federal authorities said 157 items were recovered in all.
Carta's body was found by a friend, Loos said.
Barbee said he learned of his client's fate through a call from a close friend of Carta's. He also got the same information from a pretrial services official at U.S. District Court in Honolulu.
Barbee said he did not know the exact circumstances of Carta's death. While he was surprised to learn of the death, he said, "the information at this time doesn't lead me to believe (the death) was suspicious at all."
CONCERN ABOUT PRISON
Carta was supposed to report to authorities on April 2 to begin his sentence. Barbee said Carta feared for his safety while incarcerated and had asked that he be allowed to serve out his one-year prison sentence at a facility on the Mainland. The court and federal prosecutors both appeared receptive to that request, Barbee said, but the Bureau of Prisons had not yet determined where he was to be imprisoned.
"The general concern was that there may be some animosity toward Mr. Taylor and Mr. Carta for their involvement in the offense," Barbee said. "With the notoriety the case received in the media, there's always a concern for some kind of retaliation or somebody thinking they had been offended in some manner to take it upon themselves to do an assault or any kind of threat."
Believed to have first been taken from Kanupa Cave in the late 1800s and sold to museums, the objects were reburied in 2003 by the group Hui Malama I Na Kupuna 'O Hawai'i Nei, a Native Hawaiian group dedicated to the repatriation of Hawaiian burial remains and the objects that accompany them.
Edward Halealoha Ayau, Hui Malama executive director, said he was not aware of Carta's death and thought he had already been imprisoned.
Ayau said mysterious deaths have befallen others who have tampered with Hawaiian burial sites. "What Mr. Carta did was very terrible, and something like this is what comes with the territory when you invade that world, which is what Mr. Carta did," Ayau said.
Barbee said state attorneys have been ready to file charges in state Circuit Court against Carta and Taylor.
Ayau has been critical of the attorney general's office for not filing charges to date but Barbee called the prospect of the state doing so "ridiculous."
Barbee said Carta felt "very deep and heartfelt remorse" about his actions at Kanupa and that he did not receive any financial gain from the episode.