Nineteen years after "Peter Boy" Kema disappeared, his mother pleaded guilty to manslaughter and agreed to testify against her husband.
Jaylin Kema was initially charged with murder for her son's death, and appeared in court Thursday, Dec. 1, for what was supposed to be a scheduled hearing on a motion for supervised release or reduction of trial. Instead, she accepted a plea deal for the lesser charge.
In court she said, "I failed to protect my son," and cried as the prosecutor read the details of how Peter Boy was abused and that she failed to report the abuse because she was afraid of her husband.
Deputy prosecutor Ricky Roy Damerville said in court that Peter Boy, who was known as Pepe, was physically abused to the point that his father, Peter Kema Sr., made him stay in the car on public outings.
"His overall physical condition, including his arm, was so bad that a teenage juvenile, who herself was under child protective supervision because she had been a victim of abuse, reported to her CPS worker that Pepe was being abused and that his condition was so bad that she was afraid that he was going to die," he said.
"Pepe's siblings would testify that Pepe had a hole in his arm the size of a quarter that was so deep that you could put your finger in it. There was constant pus of the arm. The arm was swollen and red to the point he could not effectively use the arm and his fingers," Damerville added. "The children would testify that Jaylin Kema was trying to treat the injury by cleaning the arm wound with hydrogen peroxide and iodine, and giving Pepe medicine in his milk."
With the agreement, she can be considered for release in April, effectively serving a one-year sentence, and will be on probation for 10 years.
Kema Sr. is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 23, 2017. Prosecutors say when the facts come out during the trial, the community will be satisfied that justice was done.
Peter Boy was last seen by his siblings in June 1997 when he was six years old. He was reported missing by his parents in 1998 and to this day, his body has never been found.
In an exclusive interview with KHON2 shortly after reporting their son missing, Peter Boy's parents told us he gave the boy to an aunt who lived in Honolulu. But she was never found and likely never existed.
"I was running out of money and couldn't support him, so I was thinking of his health and shelter," Peter Kema Sr. said at the time.
"My main concern is to plead to the public for Auntie Rose to bring Peter Boy back," Jaylin Kema said at the time.
"Are you responsible for your son being missing or did you kill your son?" KHON2 asked.
"Umm, I did not kill my son. As far as I know, no, I did not kill him," Kema Sr. said then.
In November 2014, Hawaii Island prosecutors reopened the case. Hawaii County prosecutor Mitch Roth says he was looking at the case with a fresh set of eyes and started re-interviewing people.
In April 2016, both parents pleaded not guilty after they were indicted by a Hilo grand jury for second-degree murder by omission.
Both parents have been in court on charges from an unrelated welfare fraud investigation.
During a search of the Kema's residence in November 2015, authorities say they found a revolver with its identification serial number altered and removed, and a box of ammunition. Police say they also seized various substances inside the home that tested positive for marijuana.
While prosecutors have said that the welfare fraud case is separate from the murder investigation, they pointed out that there is a connection.
"This is a very intensive investigation and a tremendous number of resources have been devoted to it," Damerville said at the time. "Anytime during that course of investigation, there's some information that comes out that a witness or a target or somebody may have committed another crime and that crime is going to be investigated also."Former prosecutor says Kema conviction would be tough, but not impossible
Now that Jaylin Kema has agreed to testify against her husband, where does the case go from here?
We spoke with former city prosecutor Peter Carlisle, who says murder trials where a body was never found are rare and he calls this case "unusual."
Carlisle has experience prosecuting murder cases without a body, and says it will be challenging, but justice can be served.
Kema told the court she was medically sound, and she understood the circumstances of why she was in front of the judge. After nearly 20 years, we asked, why is she now changing her tune?
"It's probably because it's progressed to the point where she's going to be tried. She had potential to be tried by murder by omission. She was facing a life sentence," Carlisle said.
Carlisle says after Kema testifies in her husband's murder trial, she'll be released on probation for 10 years.
"April is the last time you'll see her in a prison suit," he said.
"So by her turning against her husband, she is evading jail time?" KHON2 asked.
"The answer to that is yes," he replied.
Even though Peter Boy's body was never found, "you can use circumstantial evidence to prosecute a case," Carlisle said. "In my experience, I handled the Lankford case."
In 2008, Kirk Lankford was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Japanese visitor Masumi Watanabe, even though her body was never found.
"In this case, with the overwhelming amount of time that's passed, and the
testimony now of the mother, it is clear they can prove circumstantially, the child is no longer alive," Carlisle said.