It was 8:15 a.m. The sun had only been up for a little over two hours, and there was a light breeze at Pier 24, where David Walden, a Missourian in Hawai‘i on business, waited for the arrival of one of his company’s trucks. At that moment, a motorcycle carrying two men stopped near Walden, according to witnesses from the nearby Pine Garden Restaurant. The motorcycle carried two riders, both estimated to be around 180 to 200 pounds and no more than 5 feet, 9 inches tall. One wore a white helmet with red triangular stripes and the other wore a black helmet. Both had on long-sleeved shirts and jeans. One of the riders approached Walden and then shot him in the head with a handgun.
It was April 16, 1994, a date still discussed by detectives of the Honolulu Police Department. His murderers were never found. On the 20th anniversary of the unsolved crime, Honolulu police and Walden’s family appealed for public assistance in finding those behind the killing. “It’s been 20 years of frustration and devastation,” Angela Whitworth, Walden’s daughter, said from her home in Missouri, where she and her three brothers were raised and still live. Whitworth was a 15-year-old high school student when her father was slain. “I’ve got kids now that I know would be so in love with my dad. But they never knew him. … What should have been wonderful times in my life—high school graduation, college graduation, my marriage, my children’s birth—he missed all those things. Twenty years later, and it still affects me so much.”
Walden was a recent arrival to the islands. The 51-year-old’s family company, Star Suites, Inc., was based in Kansas City, Missouri, but had expanded westward, supplying vehicles to movie and television productions on the West Coast and in Hawai‘i. Transportation services like those Walden provided are an integral part of the complex, behind-the-scenes machinery used to mount television shows and films shot on location in Hawai‘i and elsewhere around the world. Large trucks, trailers, and specialty vehicles like “honey wagons”—mobile dressing rooms equipped with bathrooms—are needed to move people and materials between sets and location shoots. It is a business that had already seen its fair share of turf wars by the time Walden arrived. His homicide, whether industry-related or otherwise, cast shadows far and wide, setting off shock waves that rippled through Hawai‘i’s film and television industry, and are still quietly reverberating today.
At the time Walden arrived on the islands, the local movie and television business had already been roiled by violence. Three years earlier, in 1991, production trucks owned by two local companies had been deliberately destroyed by fire. Vehicles including a production van, camera trucks, and mobile dressing rooms were doused with a mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline and set on fire. The sabotage forced the two local companies, Auto Mastics, Inc. and Mokulua Consultants, Inc., out of business. And it left one company, George Cambra Movie Production Trucks, Inc., as the dominant player in the local market.
A lengthy FBI investigation of the arson case resulted in the conviction of George Cambra and Joseph “Joe Boy” Tavares. Both men were members of the Teamster Union’s special production unit in Hawai‘i, a group of drivers created in the 1960s by Hawai‘i labor patriarch Arthur Rutledge, who was eulogized in the New York Times upon his death at 90 years old in 1997. Over the years, the membership roster of the production unit has included men with lengthy criminal records, several who have been identified by local and federal law enforcement as organized crime figures. (Rutledge explained that he gave such men jobs because he was trying to help rehabilitate them.)
In fact, arsonist Tavares was the half-brother of organized crime hit man Ronald Ching, another Teamster movie driver. Ching had worked on the original Magnum P.I. television series while simultaneously feeding a serious heroin addiction. In 1985, he admitted in Hawai‘i state court to participating in at least four notorious Hawai‘i contract killings: the 1970 slaying of State Senator Larry Kuriyama, who was shot to death at his home; the 1975 killing of Charles “Chuckers” Marsland III, son of Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Charles Marsland Jr.; the 1978 murder of Drug Enforcement Administration informant Arthur K. Baker, who was buried alive in a beach dune; and the 1980 shooting of gambler-turned-police informant Robert Fukumoto at a bar. Ching’s only stated motive was that he committed these murders “at the request of others.”
With some 1.4 million members, The Teamsters Union is one of the largest and most influential labor organizations in the country. Members work in a variety of industries, from freight driving to sanitation—a broad array of people performing essential labor throughout North America. The production unit is a small group within a much larger organization meant to protect the rights of workers. Major Hollywood film and television production companies are contractually obligated to hire union drivers for their shows, paying substantial wages that can now sometimes run as high as $1,000 a day.
But a dark thread runs through the Hawai‘i production unit and the broader national Teamsters Union: a history of connections to organized crime. Longtime national Teamsters president, James R. “Jimmy” Hoffa (whose son now oversees the union) had close business and personal ties to top Mafia figures. His 1975 disappearance is generally believed to have been an organized crime hit. (Coincidentally, at one time, one of the prime suspects in Hoffa’s disappearance, New Jersey mobster and Teamsters Union executive Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, was locked up in a California federal prison with Hawai‘i hit man Ronald Ching. In 1981, Ching offered to share information he had about Provenzano with the FBI, but the offer was rejected by authorities, who doubted his trustworthiness.)
Members of the union are, overwhelmingly, law-abiding citizens. But ties between some Teamsters and the mob have been so longstanding and widespread that in 1989, the U.S. Department of Justice obtained a federal court order that allows close supervision of the union and forbids all Teamsters, including those in Hawai‘i, from “racketeering activities” or associations with any “criminal group.” In June of 2014, the union asked a federal judge in New York to end the government oversight. But a Department of Justice attorney said some supervision is still necessary. “Corrupt and undemocratic practices persist at all levels of the union,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara La Morte wrote in a letter to the court, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In 1999, a Honolulu federal grand jury heard evidence on the case of Walden’s murder, calling several production unit drivers to testify, but nothing came of it. Cambra and Tavares, convicted in the arson case, denied involvement, but accused each other of complicity in the homicide. About a month after Walden was killed, Cambra had been severely beaten by several production unit drivers. According to court records, Cambra told authorities that his assailants were trying to force him to give them ownership of a production vehicle. Tavares, on the other hand, claimed that a “meeting” was called because “Cambra was spreading rumors” that other production unit drivers had murdered Walden.
Federal officials now decline to discuss Walden’s murder. Police say they are continuing their investigation. “These cases are never forgotten,” said Honolulu Police Department spokesperson Michelle Yu. A new detective is working the case, and David Walden’s family remains hopeful that fresh information might be found. Local news outlets publicized the cold case in April 2014, and police asked the public for help. “There are people who know what happened, and we are hoping that someone will come forward,” said Yu. But asked if the recent publicity helped detectives, Yu said, “Nothing new was received.”
The Honolulu Star Bulletin said in 1999 that the arson case and Walden murder were “devastating blows” to Hawai‘i’s attempts to attract more movie and television activity. Donne Dawson, now head of the Hawai‘i Film Office, said that in the “dark days” following Walden’s death, industry and union officials joined together in an ad hoc effort to urge a cessation of violence on or around movie sets. And indeed, the level of movie industry-related violence has dropped precipitously since then (though in recent years, production unit members have been convicted of other crimes, mostly related to narcotics trafficking).
Like many states, Hawai‘i has enacted generous tax incentive packages to lure film and TV companies here, and Dawson said the industry places a premium on safe working conditions. “Productions out there have billions to spend and numerous choices of jurisdictions in which to spend those dollars,” she said. “We’ve got to give them every assurance that when they come to Hawai‘i, they’re going to have a successful, trouble-free experience.”
Dawson is optimistic about the future. “I’m not saying that it’s a perfect world that we’re living in now, but I definitely feel that we have come a long way since that much darker period.”