Was Shirlene VanGundy’s Death In Hawaii Murder?

The envelope was labeled “Baby Pictures.”

But what Shirlene VanGundy’s two daughters discovered inside was something far more ominous, one that would spark a more than two-decade quest to fulfill a promise to their mother.

The envelope contained notes said to have been written by Shirlene’s husband, Ken Wakisaka, for an anger management class.

“It was actually a journal of all the different ways he abused her,” Shirlene’s daughter Tammie Concord told Dateline: Secrets Uncovered, which aired Wednesdays at 8/7c on oxygen.

The notes, which are said to have been written by Ken’s hand, revealed past violent episodes.

“I spat on Shirlene… I pushed Shirlene,” he allegedly wrote, according to the documents obtained from “Dateline: Secrets revealed.

Shirlene’s other daughter, Tiffany Young, told Dateline correspondent Keith Morrison that her mother had told the girls to ask Wakisaka about the “baby photos” if anything happened to her.

“She said if anything ever happens to me I want you to ask Ken about your baby pictures, remember that ok? Keep that in mind,” Young recalled.

It wasn’t the only ominous message Shirlene VanGundy — also known as Shirlene Wakisaka — had given her daughters. The year before her death in April 2000, while visiting her in Hawaii, she asked them to make her a promise.

“She said, ‘Promise me, if anything happens to me, you’ll look into it,’ and we said, ‘Mom, what are you talking about if something happens to you?’ ‘Just promise me,’ she said,” Concord recalled.

The words came back to the sisters after Shirlene was rushed to the hospital just after 2:00 p.m. on April 5, 2000. She was placed on life support when the hospital treated her case as a possible overdose.

Earlier that morning, Concord had contacted her mother after receiving a series of calls from her the night before.

Wakisaka answered the phone and reportedly told Concord that he “didn’t know what was wrong with your mother” before putting Shirlene on the phone.

When Concord asked if she was okay, Shirlene replied, “I love you.”

“Her words were very drawn out and slurred in a way I had never heard before,” Concord said. “I panicked”

Concord called the Honolulu Police Department an ocean away at the time, who dispatched an ambulance to the apartment around 6 a.m

The EMS report obtained by Dateline: Secrets Uncovered indicated that Shirlene was “conscious but under emotional distress” and “would not acknowledge our presence.”

“Her spouse informed us that she may have taken Aleve aspirin with two beers,” respondents wrote in the report, noting “there were no empty beer containers and there was no smell of alcohol on the patient.”

wakisaka also told EMS that Shirlene said she was “dying,” but they didn’t take her to the hospital and decided to leave her at home instead. eight hours later wakisaka would call 911.

Shirlene’s daughters rushed to be by her side.

Upon arrival in Hawaii, they asked Wakisaka if they could lie down and rest at the apartment after the long flight. However, upon entering the home, they told Morrison they searched the home for signs of foul play and found hidden pill bottles outside under a bush.

They collected the bottles and immediately turned them over to the police.

Detective Wayne Cambra, who led the case, told Morrison that hospital staff reported that Wakisaka was allegedly acting strangely and suspiciously after his wife was admitted. As the investigation continued, he arranged for Concord to call Wakisaka and secretly record their conversation.

During the call, Wakiaka told Concord that he was very worried about his wife.

“I love her,” he said. “It’s not the same without her here.”

But he also expressed the suspicion that the sisters would “gang up” against him and might “sue me for manslaughter or something.”

He claimed in the recorded call that Shirlene was taking pills and was suicidal that day.

“I guess I don’t want to say it,” he said, according to the recording. “But she said… ‘Gag me so I can die.'”

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He insisted he never choked her and said there were no “choke marks around her neck.”

The comment struck Concord as odd and was even more troubling after Shirlene was taken off life support and died. The coroner performed an autopsy and ruled that Shirlene had died of brain damage as a result of ligature strangulation.

Authorities believed Wakisaka to be her husband and arrested him for murder. Despite continuing to plead his innocence throughout the ensuing trial and insisting that Shirlene had overdosed herself, Wakisaka was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

It seemed like the end of the story until defense attorney John Edmunds found out about Wakisaka’s case through another client he was representing and decided to look into it.

As he read through the transcript of the trial, he noticed a glaring problem. While delivering his final argument, District Attorney Dan Oyasato made a direct comment about Wakisaka’s failure to take the witness stand.

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“Who was alone with her? He was alone with her. He was there. He would know,” Oyasoto told the jury at the trial. “If he doesn’t tell us, all we can do is look at Shirlene and see what her body is telling us.”

Edmunds saw this as a violation of the Fifth Amendment, which protects against self-incrimination.

“The most serious offense is commenting on a failure to take the witness stand,” said Edmunds Morrison. “But we should be professionals and not make these mistakes.”

The Hawaii Supreme Court agreed, and in 2003 they overturned the verdict, leaving open the possibility of a new trial.

However, before the state would ever retry the case, Edmunds noticed another mistake. The grand jury in Wakisaka’s case had asked to hear from a specific witness, but the witness, who rented an upstairs room from the couple, was never called, in violation of the rules guiding grand jury proceedings.

The flatmate allegedly overheard Shirlene asking Wakisaka to be by her side on the anniversary of her death.

“She said she wanted to… die in peace,” the roommate told Det. Cambra, according to Edmunds court documents.

Edmunds took the matter to court and was able to get the charges against Wakisaka dismissed in 2005, making Wakisaka a free man.

In order to retry the case, prosecutors would have to bring another charge.

“Now we’re back to a point where the case hasn’t been brought up at all, and that’s frustrating,” Oyasato said.

A new witness for the defense also came forward. The landlord of the apartment where the couple lived claimed Shirlene was the aggressor in the altercations, not Wakisaka. The landlord was also on hand on the morning of April 5 when a paramedic reportedly told her it was Shirlene who refused to go to the hospital.

There were also questions about Shirlene’s mental health. Concord told Dateline: Secrets Uncovered that her mother had an “unstable” upbringing.

“She had a hard time taking care of herself, let alone anyone else,” she said. “She would have the highest highs and the deepest lows.”

Both sisters ended up living with their father as children.

Prosecutors also began to lose faith in their theory that VanGundy was strangled after forensic pathologists hired by the prosecution agreed that she did not die of strangulation.

Edmunds believed this indicated his client’s innocence.

Despite the new developments, Shirlene’s daughters were still determined to open a new case against Wakisaka.

“We had a guilty verdict,” Concord said. “We have to move forward. We have to charge. We must file charges. We have to go back to court.”

But prosecutors never reopened the case, and what happened to VanGundy on the last day of her life remains largely a mystery today.

In 2021, her daughters were still determined to keep the vow they made to their mother all those years ago — no matter the cost.

“We promised,” said Concord.

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