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No probable cause in attempted murder case sparked by FEMA $$

American Samoa District Court building
Judge tells prosecutor to file the right charge, if there is any

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — District Court Judge Elvis P. Patea dismissed without prejudice yesterday morning, the government's case against Savelio Vaimoe, who was charged with second degree attempted murder and first degree assault.

Vaimoe, who has been held without bond since last month, underwent a mental health evaluation and was deemed competent to stand trial.

For the preliminary examination hearing, the government called one witness: Det. Vasa Wells, the supervisor for the domestic violence and sexual assault division of the DPS Criminal Investigation Division.

On the stand, Wells detailed what she found during the course of the investigation. According to her, it was Jan. 21, 2019 that she received a call from the watch commander at the DPS Tafuna substation, indicating that church members had brought in a man, who claimed to have "killed someone."

Wells said when she interviewed the victim (Vaimoe's sponsor identified as Matamatafua Semaia) he told her that he was awoken by "someone trying to kill him, by slicing his neck."

She said there were no injuries to Semaia's neck however, she only observed a minor scratch on his chest.

She said Semaia told her that he didn't know who tried to kill him, he could only "assume."

That same day, Wells said, she was able to speak to Vaimoe, who told her that he had been discharged from the LBJ Hospital the day before and he didn't have any money to pay his bill.

Vaimoe told Wells that he caught a ride home to Asili and that night, he couldn't stop thinking about his family situation, because he didn't get any money from the FEMA check that was issued for damages to the home he occupied, following Tropical Storm Gita.

Wells testified that Vaimoe told her that the only way he knew to deal with the situation was to kill his sponsor, and then himself.

At 3am, said Wells, Vaimoe walked from Asili to a bus stop in Leone with a backpack containing a knife and a 2.5gallon bottle of pesticide.

Vaimoe caught a bus to Faleniu to the victim's residence. Vaimoe entered the structure and found Semaia sleeping. Wells said Vaimoe told her that at that point, he took the knife and made two "slicing motions" on the victim's neck.

Following the second slice, the victim awoke and that's when Vaimoe "fled the scene". He took a back road and was thinking of drinking the pesticide to end his life, but he came upon a church.

According to Wells, Vaimoe told her that he felt the Holy Spirit in him and that's when he entered the church and told the congregants who were there, that he had just killed a man and he needed to go to the police station.

Defense attorney, Assistant Public Defender Anna Whiles asked Det. Wells if there were any injuries sustained by the victim on his neck, and the witness said no. Whiles pointed out that despite the defendant's alleged confession, that he had killed someone, the victim did not die, he only suffered minor scratches.

Whiles argued that the victim himself couldn't even positively identify his alleged attacker, and the minimal injuries he suffered weren't even on his throat, where the defendant allegedly sliced him twice.

Prosecutor Jason Mitchell said the case involves "attempt" and is based in part on the defendant's own admission.

In delivering his decision, Judge Patea explained in detail, the language of the statute regarding second degree attempted murder and first degree assault. He said the government does not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, probable cause. The court only needs to be 'satisfied' with the facts that are laid out.

He said the government's case notes 'slicing motions, not stabbing' and the defendant's statements echoed that. But the lack of physical marks on the victim is not enough to find probable cause. 

According to Judge Patea, there is no doubt that a crime was committed, but the facts do not support the charges of first degree assault and second degree attempted murder.

He told prosecutor Mitchell to "do your investigation" and "file the right charge, if there is any."

The case was dismissed, without prejudice, and a teary-eyed Vaimoe was released from custody yesterday.


The case against Vaimoe is said to have been sparked by an $11,000 FEMA check.

It is alleged that in April 2018, Semaia showed Vaimoe the check and told him it would be returned to FEMA because there was an error in the name.

Vaimoe told police he accepted the explanation, but was expecting a portion of the money to help recoup the money he spent on fixing up the damages.

In the months that followed, Vaimoe approached his sponsor "several times" to inquire about the FEMA check, to which his sponsor responded, that he didn't know.

In July 2018, Vaimoe's Immigration ID was set to expire, and he wanted a portion of the FEMA money to help pay for his ID renewal. Again, he got nothing when he asked Semaia, who allegedly told Vaimoe that his niece had departed the territory with the check.

In November 2018, Vaimoe sought help from the Immigration Office regarding his status — and that's when he learned that Semaia had terminated his sponsorship and that Immigration now considered him an overstayer.

Vaimoe's frustrations continued to mount until the day of the alleged incident.