Hawaii’s Scoundrels

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Hawaii Aloha Travel > Blog > Hawaii’s Scoundrels

Sammy Amalu

In the 1960’s, a con man who was descended from Hawaiian Royalty (King William Lunalilo) became disgruntled with the disenfranchisement of Hawaiians and decided to do something about it. Amazingly, one of the travel industry’s giants became a willing participant.

Sammy Amalu, in 1962, almost put together a deal to buy the Sheraton-Waikiki Hotel and other prime Hawaii properties for more than $75 million. Sheraton bought into the con and the deal got heavy press coverage. Amalu – his true identity kept secret – had real estate agents and lawyers salivating for their cut of the deal. He actually wrote and proffered the checks. But he didn’t have any money at the time; was living modestly in a small Waikiki hotel. So he went to jail.

While imprisoned, Amalu began writing letters to his former high school classmate, Thurston Twigg-Smith, who then was publisher of the Honolulu Advertiser, Hawaii’s largest daily paper. The publisher found the letters to be amusing as well as well-written and Amalu began writing regular columns for the Advertiser while he was in prison, and he continued to write them after his release.

The columns ran for almost 20 years.

Amalu died in 1986 at the age of 68.

Ron Rewald

In a story bizarre enough to plot a Grisham thriller, Ronald Rewald, who had been a salesman for a Milwaukee sporting goods store, arrived in Honolulu in the early 1980s to head an investment company he called Bishop, Baldwin, Rewald, Dillingham and Wong. Wong, a real estate agent, was Rewald’s actual partner. The other three names were not actually people; but were among the most respected names in Hawaii’s business history. (In New York, the company might have been called Rockefeller, Harriman, Rewald, Roosevelt and Wong.) Incredibly, no one questioned their authenticity. Offering “guaranteed” growth potential, BBRD&W accepted investment funds from many of Hawaii’s leading business people and others with high private incomes. Can you say “Ponzi”? Rewald began to spend lavishly, purchasing a polo club and its grounds, a couple of ranches, a sting of polo ponies, an exotic car dealership and an elaborate oceanfront estate in East Honolulu.

Rewald was actually an operative of a large and secret CIA operation based in Honolulu. He was encouraged to keep a high profile and mingle with local movers and shakers. The operation allegedly had taken over from the infamous CIA operation known as Nugan Hand Bank, which was staffed with several CIA officials and had offices throughout the world — primarily in the Far East. It included drug money laundering, helping to hide Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ assets, and setting up and funding secret bank accounts for some very well known U.S. political figures.

When his cover was blown, he attempted suicide in Waikiki and the story was broken by a Honolulu television reporter. The CIA and Justice Department filed charges against him. A federal judge blocked him from having CIA personnel appear as witnesses, and barred him from introducing hundreds of documents showing he was, indeed, a CIA agent. Rewald was sentenced to 81 years for allegedly making off with large sums of money. This apparently was the money that the CIA moved after his cover was blown. Rewald was released on parole from the Federal Correctional Institution Terminal Island facility in California. He was not to be eligible for parole until 2015, but a back injury he suffered in prison may have been a factor in his early release. He’s eligible to receive $150 per month because of the injury, which confines him to a wheelchair.

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I had brief encounters with Sammy Amalo and a more involved relationship with Ron Rewald.

In 1972, I had just arrived in Honolulu with my family from the East Coast and was creative director of the Carlos Rivas advertising agency. Carlos and I had become close friends and he had invited me and my wife Mary to the Polo matches at Mokuleia on Oahu’s North Shore on behalf of Sammy Amalo, “a local celebrity.”

After the matches, Carlos led us to the club house and introduced us to Sammy, who was dressed all in white, with a plantation hat and flowing scarf. He was an ebullient man who appeared to be in his late 60s. (I learned later he was in his mid 50s.) Everyone else there seemed to be his friend and he greeted us all warmly. “Please help yourself at the bar,” he urged. “And enjoy some of the wonderful food.” So we did. After only about a half-hour, Carlos approached Mary and me. He said, “It’s time to split. Wait here a second.” He went to the bar, wrote a check, and handed it to the manager/bartender. As we headed for the parking lot Carlos explained, “Sammy considers himself to the host of these gatherings, but he never pays for anything. He doesn’t have any money. We all just go along and act grateful. It’s a sort of tradition.” Mary and I continued to go to the matches on Sundays during the summers, and afterwards we occasionally would drop by the club house for the Sammy drill. But we didn’t do that regularly; it was pretty expensive.

* * *

In about 1980, our older daughter Karen was of dating age. Mary was a short-leash mom and insisted on meeting all of Karen’s friends and their parents, and she especially needed to interrogate her dates and their families.

One day Karen told us she had been invited to the movies and dinner by “a really nice guy.” Jimmy Rewald arrived dutifully at our door for scrutiny promptly that evening at the appointed time. He was tall for his age, well-dressed and engaging with an easy manner and winning smile. His limousine idled in our driveway and the driver stood ready by the open passenger-side rear door. Jimmy told us he lived “up the road,” and described the residence. We knew of it. It was on a prized piece of property on Kalanianaole Highway at the Diamond Head edge of Maunalua Bay. I inwardly celebrated the fact that Karen would be taken off our hands and set for life. Mary bluntly asked Jimmy what his father did and was told that he was chairman of a Downtown investment firm. He didn’t mention the company’s name.

Karen’s and Jimmy’s relationship grew warm. They saw each other often, always transported by the limo, and continued to date until Jimmy left for college at USC. (One of our more difficult parental decisions was whether to allow Karen to join him for a big weekend there. We did.)

In the meantime, Ronald Rewald’s corporate profile was skyrocketing as he appeared in photos with celebrities and attended functions with bigwigs such as the governor and other movers and shakers. I asked Karen if the corporate name actually was related to the famous Bishops, Baldwins and Dillinghams. She didn’t know; didn’t care.

We became friends with the Rewalds. He had bought the polo Club at which we had met Sammy Amalu. When Mary turned 40, Ron “loaned” me the club on a polo Sunday, I rented a giant tent and some buses for transportation to and from Honolulu, laid on the booze and food, and Mary had her best birthday ever.

When the top of his pyramid crumbled and the bottom fell out, Ron went to jail on Oahu while he awaited federal trial. Mary at the time was publisher of Island Business Magazine, and used our relative intimacy with the Rewalds to begin interviewing Ron in prison for a series of articles. I put a stop to that when CIA involvement was suggested and I envisioned shady characters planting bugs and peering at our family through binoculars.

We’ve had no contact with Ron since. Karen remains in loose touch with Jimmy, who married and works as a security guard in Southern California.