Reports of burial disturbances at famed Kaua‘i resort denied by developer, state officials

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The developer rebuilding the Coco Palms Resort on Kaua‘i has firmly denied public claims that Native Hawaiian burials were unearthed and moved during construction work at the Wailua site, an assertion also supported by government officials following a preliminary investigation. 

Removal of remaining structures at the Coco Palms site is seen on March 11, 2024. (Courtesy of Reef Capital Partners)

“The accusations are false and frankly absurd,” said Jon Day, the chief financial officer of Utah-based real estate development company Reef Capital Partners in a recent email response. 

“The Coco Palms restoration is designed to minimize digging, and archeological and cultural monitors personally monitor all ground-disturbing activities to ensure strict compliance with all laws and regulations.”

Despite community opposition, Reef Capital Partners is moving forward with an over $300 million project to rebuild the once-iconic Coco Palms, which has sat in ruins since its destruction by Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Day expects the project to be completed sometime in 2026.

The claim that construction workers had moved dozens of ancestral remains began circulating in a Facebook video posted by Charles Hepa last month, who has claimed for years to be the rightful owner of the property through royal ancestry.

“I’m not going to say who or what or anything, but I got word that they dug up over, once again, over 50 bodies,” Hepa said in the video.


Hepa claims to have video evidence of the alleged disturbance but cannot share it due to plans to use the footage as evidence in court. He declined to share the name of the person who provided him with the alleged video, saying he needed to protect their identity.

“They are demolishing and digging areas that (have) lots of ancestral bones. That whole area is filled of bones,” he said in a message response to Kaua‘i Now.

The Coco Palms property is one of the most sacred historical and cultural sites in Hawai‘i. In the 19th century, the property was home to Kaua‘i’s last queen, Deborah Kapule. It’s also the site of the island’s oldest coconut grove, ancient fishponds and burial sites.

In the 1950s, the property opened as Coco Palms, a hotel known to host celebrities including Frank Sinatra, and Rita Hayworth and famously featured in Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawai‘i.

Fern Holland, a board member of I Ola Wailuanui, a nonprofit group that opposes a new hotel, is also concerned about the allegations of disturbances. The group says the original hotel should have never been permitted in the first place because it was built on sacred Native Hawaiian burial grounds.


“We don’t know and haven’t been able to confirm that that (burial digging) happened,” Holland said in an Instagram video, adding that multiple government agencies were investigating the claims.

Kaua‘i Now reached out to officials with both the state and county regarding the accusations of burial disturbances and was told there was no basis for the claim. 

Alan Downer, the administrator with the state Historic Preservation Division, the lead agency responsible for investigating possible burial disturbances, found there was no need to continue with a formal investigation after speaking with onsite archaeological monitor Nancy McMahon.

“Based on our consultations with Nancy, there doesn’t seem to be a need for any kind of follow-up investigation,” he said in an interview.

According to Downer, the claims likely come from people seeing work going on at the site and assuming burials are being disturbed. “‘We know there (are) burials out there. They must be disturbing them’ kind of becomes the conclusion (people make),” he said. 


 “If there was a burial being disturbed, we would be able to step in and say you have to stop while we figure this out,” Downer added. 

He noted McMahon’s extensive experience as a former state deputy historic preservation officer, a position she held for over a decade.

“I have every reason to trust her ability to handle her duties there as the overall archaeological person in charge,” he said.

An archaeological monitor and plan is a requirement for Reef Capital’s county permit for the project, according to the County of Kaua‘i Planning Department.

McMahon is a lead monitor on the construction project, but multiple monitors are reportedly active on the site. Downer confirmed the monitors are hired and paid for by Reef Capital, and that the county/state can’t have their own monitors due to a lack of resources. 

“I would be very surprised if (the county) has the resources or the personnel to conduct monitoring, even to hire somebody on a contract to do monitoring,” he said. 

Given no county staff are supervising, government officials would not be aware of any violations unless they are reported.

“We would not know (if they aren’t reported). But I mean, there’s a significant penalty for encountering a burial and not stopping and reporting it. I mean, there’s a $25,000 fine for that,” he said. 

Kaua‘i Now contacted McMahon through the phone, who referred all questions to Reef Capital’s communications team.

Reef Capital’s communications representative Shane Peters stated in an email that no burials have been disturbed, ground-altering activities will largely focus on the footprints of existing structures, and all rules and regulations for any inadvertent disturbance will be followed.

According to a 2014 Garden Island article, one former worker, Valentine Ako, stated he moved over 81 bodies while hired as a contractor on the original Coco Palms project in the early 1950s. In 1973, another 34 burials were relocated during a resort renovation. The disturbances occurred decades before laws were put in place to protect Native Hawaiian burials.

The new construction project will be very different as Reef Capital does not have any plans, or the necessary permits, to move any burials, according to Downer.

We have been told that they are not intending to move any burials and that they are not doing any work inside, around, and in the burial preserves,” Downer said.

However, Reef Capital Partners has faced land use violations in the past. In April 2023, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources asked the developer to stop all work at the site, announcing an investigation into allegations including failure to maintain the premises and cutting down palm trees without consent.

Downer said he walked the property himself sometime around late December 2023 to examine the coconut grove where Reef Capital staff were reported to have cut down the trees without permission.

“The developer admits they did it. And they know that they should have consulted us beforehand,” he said.

“And we still haven’t figured out what we can do about that. But that is a violation … The penalties are pretty minimal compared to say, picking up a burial and not reporting it.”

Emma Grunwald

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