‘We Are All Unlucky’

February 1, 2020, 6:00 AM HST (Updated January 31, 2020, 11:38 PM)
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Hawai’i County Firefighters stand outside the 3rd Circuit Courtroom after the sentencing of Christopher Helmlinger, Friday morning. (PC: Tiffany DeMasters)

Christopher Helmlinger wept before a crowded courtroom as he apologized for causing the death of a community hero.

“Words can’t express or come close to how sorry I am,” Helmlinger said through tears Friday in a 3rd Circuit courtroom at the Keahuolu Courthouse. “I made a horrible err in judgement that day.”

On Friday morning, 21-year-old Helmlinger appeared before Judge Melvin Fujino after pleading no contest to manslaughter in the death of Hawai‘i Fire Capt. David Mahon. More than a dozen firefighters were present at the hearing. Members of Mahon’s family addressed the court along with Helmlinger’s parents.

“I don’t know what the fair punishment is — I don’t think there is one. I do know I don’t want him to do this again and to feel remorse,” said Mahon’s partner Esther Wyler. “There’s nothing fair about what happened.”

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Fujino sentenced Helmlinger to prison for an indeterminate period of eight years as a youthful offender. The 21-year-old was taken immediately into custody after the hearing.

“Your parents say you are good son, but good people can commit horrific crimes,” Fujino said.

Mahon, 49, was killed in a motorcycle crash on May 22, 2019, when Helmlinger, who was driving a Honda Pilot SUV at the time, struck the firefighter head-on while traveling to Kona on Highway 190 near mile marker 14.

Hawai‘i County Deputy Prosecutor Stephen Frye told the court that evidence shows Helmlinger was attempting to pass several vehicles in a no-passing zone over a knoll and when Mahon crested the hill, neither party had time to react.

Mahon’s death is “100% the defendant’s fault,” Frye said.

Hawaii County Firefighters showed up to the sentencing of Christopher Helmlinger with mourning bands on their badges for Capt. David Mahon. (PC: Tiffany DeMasters)

Helmlinger’s attorney Michael Schlueter told the court that his client doesn’t dispute the facts, adding prison is not a place for someone like Helmlinger.

“He is a good person, his family are good people,” Schlueter said. “I assure you, this will follow this young man. I do believe he’s been changed to his core.”

As he’s gotten to know Helmlinger, Schlueter said, he knows this has devastated the 21-year-old. However, the attorney added, nothing can compare to the suffering the Mahon family feels.

Mahon was recognized twice by the Daniel R. Sayre Memorial Foundation for risking his life to save others as a member of Hawai‘i County Fire Department.

“You’ve can’t even imagine that kind of heroism — that kind of personality that puts their lives before everyone else’s because that’s their calling in life. That’s what the community lost,” said Foundation president Laura Sayre outside the courtroom.

‘We are all unlucky’

“I’ve had so many thoughts of what to say and what this moment was going to be like, but there was one thing ringing true — anybody before David could’ve died,” Wyler said.

The day of the crash, Wyler recalled breaking the news to their then 10-year-old son.

“I had to pick him up (from school) and tell him the worst thing a mother could ever tell her child, ‘your father is dead,'” she said. “I hope Christopher understands what he took.”

Wyler added, “we are all unlucky.”

Mahon’s father, Donal also addressed the court.

“I’ve been doing my best to avoid thinking about why I’m here,” he said. “But it can’t be avoided now.”

As bad as it is for him and the rest of the community, his grandson will grow up without a father, Donal Mohan said.

“Nothing makes up for that absence,” he said.

When Mahon’s mother Chris Anderson addressed the court, she spoke directly to Helmlinger.

“I’d like you to take a look around this room,” she said gently to the 21-year-old, gesturing to more than a dozen firefighters in the gallery. “These are people who represent the love they had for my son.”

Anderson went on question Helmlinger why he would risk his own life by driving the way he did.

“There are signs posted everywhere. You ignored all those signs,” she said.

Anderson told Helmlinger he has an opportunity to change his life.

“The only way to redeem yourself is not to live in guilt forever,” she said. “Take the time to get to know yourself and become a good man.”

‘If he could take that day back, he would’

Helmlinger’s parents were also given the opportunity to address the court. The 21-year-old’s mother, Carolyn Perry, spoke first saying all she could do was speak from her heart.

From the day of the accident, Perry said, she and her son have wanted to reach out to the Mahon family, but were instructed by Helmlinger’s council to wait.

“I know that if he could take that day back, he would,” she said. “We are extremely sorry and I hope you find it in your heart to forgive my son.”

Joe Helmlinger said he was heart broken when he heard about the crash.

“He is the kindest, sweetest kid,” Helmlinger’s father said. “He made a horrendous mistake. Nothing he can say will make you feel better.”

Joe Helmlinger said he understands the anger and hate. He only hoped to show the court that his son is a good, caring person.

“My purpose today, I want you to understand who Chris is,” he stated to the court.

Joe Helmlinger talked about his son’s caring and compassionate personality and actions.

“He came to this island to make a difference,” he said. “This was somewhere where he wanted to make a life.”

Joe Helmlinger asked the court to save his son’s life, adding a prison term would ruin his life.

During his statement to the court, Helmlinger said there’s not a moment that goes by that he don’t think about it.

“For me to lose my father, I don’t know what I’d do,” the 21-year-old said. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I never want to hurt anyone. There’s nothing I can say or do that will make it better. I’m so sorry. I wish I could bring everyone together.”

‘Moving forward’

Outside of the courtroom Donal Mahon was quiet.

“One guy walked away, one guy’s dead. There’s no justice for that,” he said. “I don’t think a life time sentence was warranted.”

Donal Mahon added that no rational human being would pass a car on that highway (190) let alone five.

Outside the courtroom, Assistant Fire Chief Robert Perreira, said the fire department lost one of its heroes.

“But the bigger loss is the loss of a father, and son,” the chief said. “Chris going to prison will never make up for the loss that Dylan (Mahon’s son) faces, department faces, community faces.”

Perreira said people make mistakes — some big, some small.

“Unfortunately for Chris, he made a big mistake that day and he’s gotta pay,” he said. “I believe in God. I believe God will forgive him if he truly seeks that forgiveness.”

The chief also prays that the community of firefighters and Mahon’s family can learn to forgive him as well.

“That the only way we can truly move forward,” he said.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat. Tiffany is an award-winning journalist, receiving recognition from the Utah-Idaho-Spokane Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists. Tiffany grew up on the Big Island and is passionate about telling the community’s stories.

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