Eighteen years ago, four men pulled off one of the most infamous bank robberies in Hawaii’s history.
The ring leader, Albert Batalona, was not only found guilty of the robbery, but also guilty of trying to kill a police officer.
On July 7, 1999, four robbers wearing ski masks and carrying assault weapons entered American Savings Bank at Kahala Mall.
Fourteen people were in the bank at the time, including a child, and they were ordered to get on the floor.
“They were manhandled and shoved if they didn’t move fast enough,” said then-deputy prosecutor Jean Ireton. “Guns were pointed at them, and they were told in no uncertain terms not to look at the gunmen.”
Two minutes later, the robbers made off with more than $100,000, but not before opening fire on Honolulu police officer Fred Rosskopf in front of the bank.
“I thought I was going to die,” said Rosskopf in a July 28, 2000 interview. “I thought my responding beat partners would die, and some of the people that live in the area would get hurt.”
Shortly after the robbery, police recovered the stolen getaway cars, which had been abandoned. In one of the getaway vehicles, authorities found a supermarket discount card, which led them to Roger Dailey.
Dailey ratted out the other three, including Jacob Hayme and Sean Matsunaga.
With those three in custody, only one suspect remained on the loose: Albert Batalona, 24, the ringleader and, according to Dailey, the shooter.
“We told the court that Mr. Dailey would testify that they were in the getaway car, that Mr. Batalona got on the floor boards of the car, and that he heard rounds of gunfire from his position in the car,” said Steven Alm, who was then the U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawaii.
The manhunt for Batalona was one of the most intensive in Honolulu police history.
“We didn’t get them right away at the scene, but we certainly did get them, and we are going to get Albert Batalona,” Detective Letha DeCaires of CrimeStoppers said in 1999.
Back then, officer Tenari Maafala was part of the Criminal Intelligence Unit.
“Literally four days, nobody slept,” he said. “We would alternate, get a power nap of 45 minutes to an hour, and get back up, especially when it was a hot tip.”
Finally on July 15, eight days after the bank robbery and shooting, Batalona was captured in Aiea.
“It was elation, literal elation, and thankful that it ended the way it did,” Maafala said.
Batalona surrendered in the parking lot of Pecos River Café on Kamehameha Highway.
“Officer Roy Fuata, I remember, we were working very close with him and he was assigned to SWAT I believe at the time, and he was the one that called me because we were moving in to where the arrest scene was. He said, ‘We got him here. He’s in the bed of a truck,’” Maafala said.
“There were at least 20 surrounded. One policeman had his shotgun out, and the helicopter’s flying overhead, and this parking lot was full of policemen,” said a bystander.
“I’m pleased none of our officers were hurt,” said then-Deputy Chief William Clark. “I’m pleased the suspects weren’t hurt, and I’m pleased everything went down the way it went down.”
“No doubt that’s one of the cases I will never forget,” Maafala said, “the magnitude of it and the challenge of tracking him down.”
Most of the money stolen from the bank was recovered.
In August 2000, Batalona was found guilty of first-degree attempted murder since he shot at a police officer, along with robbery and firearms violations.
“You cannot take an automatic assault rifle, aim it at a police officer, and fire 25 rounds without intending to kill him, so we were very pleased with the verdict,” said Ireton.
For trying to murder a police officer, Batalona was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But the story doesn’t end there. Three years later, on April 4, 2003, Batalona escaped from Halawa Correctional Facility.
Once again, across the island and across the state, everyone was on high alert. Even school kids were asked to be on the lookout.
A few days later, a hunter spotted Batalona and the two other inmates he escaped with in Hauula Valley. Police concentrated their search in that area.
Six days after escaping, police finally caught Batalona after receiving tips from the public. A woman spotted him on the bus, tipped off police, and officers stopped the bus in Kaneohe and arrested him.
“The officers said he was right there, that’s him right there. He was holding his hands up already,” said bus driver Hubert Fernandez. “He was just sitting like this and the officers grabbed his hands like this.”
And the community could once again rest easy.