Grand jury indicts Isabella Kalua’s adoptive parents on murder charges

Local News

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Isaac and Lehua Kalua were charged with second-degree murder, in connection to the disappearance of their adopted daughter, Isabella Kalua — also known as Ariel Sellers. Now they have been indicted on additional charges.

The Honolulu prosecutor announced on Wednesday, Nov. 17, that in addition to murder, Lehua has been charged with hindering prosecution, abuse of a family or household member, persistent nonsupport and endangering the welfare of a minor.

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Isaac was indicted on four of those charges: murder, hindering prosecution, persistent nonsupport and endangering the welfare of a minor. The indictment also revealed more allegations of abuse involving both Isabella and her older sister.

Prosecutors said the parents inflicted mental and physical abuse, and at times, forced the older sibling to monitor the small amount of food given to Isabella.

The grand jury heard several hours of testimony from witnesses including HPD officers and decided that Lehua and Isaac Kalua should go on trial for the murder of Isabella.

“On one occasion in June 2021, the victim was hit in the face by an object by Defendant 1, which caused the victim to suffer a black eye. On another occasion in July and August 2021, The victim’s neck was pushed down against the crib railing in a strangling type position, causing her chin to rub against the crib, creating a large scab to form,” said Tiffany Kaeo, Honolulu deputy prosecutor.

Defendant 1 is Lehua Kalua, but prosecutors said both parents contributed to the abuse of Isabella and her older sister.

“Both children had been duct-taped and repeatedly hit without provocation or justification. The victim had been prevented from eating food and the older child forced to monitor the victim’s eating habits and be punished for trying to help the victim,” said Kaeo.

Prosecutors said Isabella had been kept in a dog cage to prevent her from eating; her mouth and nose were duct-taped when she died. Prosecutors also said the parents then went to great lengths to keep her death hidden, even forcing the older sister to help.

“Defendants took multiple steps to destroy evidence, including throwing away various items at various locations around the island, cleaning the house extensively with various cleaning agents and purchasing products to mask the smell of odors,” added Kaeo.

Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm said the charge of second-degree murder instead of first does not change the sentencing in this case and that he has experience with these types of cases.

“We have done, the prosecutor, of course, working with the police have done, I guess, what you’d refer to as a no body case in the past. I did what I believe was the first one in state vs Michael Cattell back in 1988,” Alm explained.

In Hawaii, first-degree murder must meet specific criteria.

“First-degree murder in Hawaii requires some special circumstances, such as a law enforcement officer, or it’s more than one person or someone who’s a witness in a case. None of those apply in this situation and so that’s why the highest murder charge that the prosecutor can go with in the state of Hawaii was murder in the second degree,” explained Doug Chin, legal expert.

The sentencing will remain the same because the state legislature allows for enhanced sentencing.

Additional charges have been filed because Isabella’s older sister was allegedly abused. Alm called the case sickening, and because Isabella was less than eight years old, he will ask for extended sentencing if the Kaluas are found guilty. He will also ask for life without the possibility of parole.

“The only other circumstances that typically lead to this are mass murders, murders of a police officer, murders of a prosecutor, murders of a witness. It’s very very rare for this to happen,” said Alm.

Alm also added that the investigation continues with emphasis on finding Isabella’s remains. But even if that does not happen, he is confident that there is enough evidence to prosecute.

“So, it’s not the most common situation, but it’s certainly possible if that ends up happening in the case,” he said.

However, Chin added that lesser charges are still possible if the case reaches trial.

“Just because the charges are murder in the second degree, doesn’t mean that at trial the jury won’t be able to consider, potentially, a charge of manslaughter,” Chin stated.

Alm commended HPD for tracking down enough evidence and the public for helping.

“I think the community really embraced the situation and they saw Ariel, they felt compelled, let’s go help, let’s go search. So, we’re looking at this to both hold people accountable and bring some closure to this situation,” said Alm.

Read the indictment below:

It has been over two months since Isabella’s adoptive parents said she was last seen sleeping in her room on Sept. 12 wearing a black hoodie and leggings, colorful socks and pink-soled Nike slides. They initially reported to police that she left their Waimanalo home in the middle of the night and found her missing the next morning. Police said that statement was false, and they believe foul play was involved.

Court documents released on Friday, Nov. 12, revealed that on Sept. 13, video surveillance was recovered from the Kalua residence. Isabella was last seen on surveillance cameras on Aug. 18. During an interview with a detective, Isabella’s older sister revealed disturbing details about what she witnessed.

According to Isabella’s sister, the Kaluas asked her to keep it a secret about what happened to Isabella, including that she was in the bathroom in a dog cage, with duct tape on her mouth and nose, and did not wake up. The sister said the incident happened two months ago.

She said she knows what happened because her parents woke her up around 3:30 a.m. and that they took Isabella out of the dog cage and put her in the bathtub. Lehua then filled the bathtub with water and put Isabella in it to see if she would wake up, but it did not work. Her sister said she helped carry Isabella to her bedroom, but she does not know what her parents did with her after that.

Court documents also stated that Isaac went to the doctor — according to the sister — to pretend that he had COVID and took time off work to stay home to “help mom” and “to get rid of stuff… evidence.”

Lehua is accused of putting duct tape on Isabella “plenty of times” because of the sneaking around, which Isabella’s sister says is the reason for buying the dog cage. Her sister said she was also duct-taped on other occasions and that their adoptive father saw but did nothing.

Read the court documents below:

Isabella’s biological family was horrified to hear the details.

“No child deserves to be treated like an animal. No animal deserves to be treated horrifically like that by monsters,” said Alena Kaeo, Isabella’s biological aunt. “I’ve kind of run out of all emotions as far as crying. Now I’m just hurt and I’m angry, and I just want to fight the battle of just getting these girls into a safer environment.”

Kaeo is worried about her niece who saw what happened.

“There’s no words to express the agony that she had to endure, all of that, and still have to try to live her own life. It’s just crazy,” Kaeo added.

Robbie Akana, a close friend of Isabella’s biological family who has helped search for her since she was reported missing, said they want justice and closure.

“What needs to happen now is we need to find Ariel’s remains,” Akana explained. “We need to find her to bring her home to give her a proper goodbye. The family never got to say goodbye.”

Honolulu Police Maj. Ben Moszkowicz addresses a news conference in Honolulu on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, where law enforcement officers said they arrested the adopted parents of Isabella “Ariel” Kalua, shown on the screen to the left.
(AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher)

On Wednesday, Nov. 10, the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) released details about the investigation following the arrest of Lehua and Isaac Kalua earlier that morning. They believe Isabella was murdered in mid-August, a month before her adoptive parents reported her missing. Although her remains have not been recovered, police believe the Kaluas are responsible. They are the only suspects at this time.

State of Hawaii Child Welfare Services (CWS) records indicate that Isabella and her older sister began residing with Lehua and Isaac in February 2019. Records also show that the Kaluas adopted Isabella and her two biological siblings early this year; they are also the foster parents to another biological sibling who was born in 2020. Police confirmed that Isabella’s siblings remain in CWS custody as the investigation continues.

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

June 2021: Isabella’s adoptive parents file paperwork to withdraw her from distance learning at Waimānalo Elementary and Intermediate School to home-school.

Aug. 18: Isabella is last seen on surveillance video at their home.

Aug. 21 – Sept. 7: Isaac Kalua takes vacation after visiting the doctor.

Sept. 13: Police meet with the Kaluas for a missing person case.

Nov. 10: Isaac and Lehua Kalua are arrested and charged with murder.

Nov. 12: Isaac and Lehua Kalua make their initial court appearance.

Nov. 17: Isaac and Lehua Kalua are indicted on murder charges.

Watch Lehua and Kalua make their first court appearance below:

Investigators continue to search for evidence that will lead them to finding Isabella’s body. HPD Maj. Ben Moszkowicz said developments connected to evidence in the case allowed police to begin investigating the case as a criminal investigation. HPD did not go into detail about what the evidence shows, but this allowed officers to get a search warrant request granted by a judge.

Watch the full news conference below:

Isabella’s case has drawn national attention and encouraged the community to rally together to find her. The first week of her disappearance drew in hundreds of people to Waimanalo where they supported several law enforcement agencies with the search. Weeks later, family members and smaller groups of neighbors continued their search, but their hope has turned more into a need for closure.

The fence line fronting the home has turned into a makeshift memorial for Isabella as people who knew her and strangers continuously stop by with flowers and stuffed animals, paying their respects.

The fence line fronting the home has turned into a makeshift memorial for Isabella Kalua as seen on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

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HPD is looking for witnesses that knew or may have interacted with Isabella and her sisters between 2019 and August 2021. Police also want to talk to anyone who may have seen Lehua or Isaac Kalua during August or September of this year. Witnesses are encouraged to contact CrimeStoppers at (808)-955-8300. The public may also send anonymous web tips here or via the P3 Tips app.

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