Hawaii prep school graduate faces sentencing for bird deaths

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(Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

HONOLULU (AP) — A college student who graduated from one of the most prestigious high schools in Hawaii — former President Barack Obama’s alma mater — is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday for slaughtering vulnerable seabirds at a nature reserve.

Prosecutors and wildlife conservationists are pushing for one year in jail for Christian Gutierrez, saying he deserves to be punished with jail time for participating in savagery against the federally protected Laysan albatrosses.

In March, Gutierrez pleaded no contest to animal cruelty, theft and other charges.

His defense attorney is asking the judge to defer acceptance of the plea, which would allow Gutierrez to avoid a conviction if he stays out of trouble for a specified amount of time.

Gutierrez and a group of buddies from Honolulu prep school Punahou drove out in a Land Rover to the island of Oahu’s westernmost tip in 2015 to go camping.

While the youths were camping near the Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve, at least 15 Laysan albatrosses were bludgeoned to death with a bat and machete and shot at with a pellet gun, according to prosecutors. The youths cut off the birds’ legs, tied the dead birds together and threw them into the ocean. Nests and eggs were left smashed.

The federally protected bird — with a wingspan of more than 6 feet (1.83 meters) — is also culturally significant because Native Hawaiians consider them aumakua, or “revered ancestors and guardian spirits,” prosecutors said in sentencing memorandum. “Albatross are peaceful and trusting birds who do not recognize predators. They generally mate for life and spend most of their lives on the wing, traveling the Pacific in search of food for themselves and their offspring.”
December — when the youths were camping — is nesting season.

The killings “reflect a savagery and lack of conscience on the part of the perpetrators that cannot be excused by their age, upbringing or peer pressure,” prosecutors wrote in the memo.

Because Gutierrez happened to be the only one charged who was 18 at the time, he’s had to bear the brunt of the public backlash calling for punishment of privileged teens, said his defense attorney Myles Breiner. Two other cases are being handled in confidential juvenile court proceedings, he said.

Gutierrez accepted responsibility, expressed remorse and sought mental health treatment, Breiner said, noting that his client cooperated with prosecutors.

In a sentencing memorandum, Breiner said Gutierrez was responsible for the deaths of two birds and said he didn’t participate in the cutting and tying of birds. He wasn’t the “architect” of the incident, didn’t drive or obtain the permit for the camping outing and didn’t bring any weapons, Breiner said.

It was another youth who kept stolen surveillance equipment and posted photos of tied up birds on social media, Breiner said.

Gutierrez recently completed his sophomore year studying film at NYU, Breiner said.

The public backlash is a mix of passionate environmentalists and attitudes toward Punahou in a state where the high school someone graduated from comes with preconceptions about their background, Breiner said.

“If this were a bunch of kids from Waianae or from Nanakuli High . you think anybody would care,” he said of public schools in poor communities. “But no, it’s students from Punahou … where all the leaders of our community graduated from. This is the only place I know of when you ask someone where you’d go to school they don’t say what university, they tell you what high school.”

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