In early 1982, 19-year-old Lisa Au lived in Kailua – a small town located on the windward side of Oahu, Hawaii. Lisa was taking big steps in her life, including graduating in 1980 and recently moving out of the family home. She was excited to be working as a hairdresser at the Susan Beers Salon. Those who knew Lisa considered her a “giving and happy young woman who always tried to help others.”
On Wednesday January 20, a couple days after getting her driver’s license, Lisa wrapped up her shift at the salon at around 9:00PM and drove to meet Doug Holmes, her boyfriend, at his sister Kristen’s apartment in Makiki. On the way over she made a quick detour to Emjays to buy some poke – diced raw fish – as her contribution to their late dinner.
After spending the evening with Doug, Lisa called her roommate and co-worker, Candy Maynes, at around 12:45AM to let her know she was heading home even though a torrential rainstorm was sweeping through the area. According to Doug, the couple went downstairs, said their goodnights, then got into their separate cars and headed to their respective homes.
Lisa’s parents, Chester and Patrice, were sick with worry when Candy called the next day to inform them Lisa did not make it home and had not showed up for work. Lisa’s parents called Doug at his dorm room at the University of Hawaii, and he went searching for his girlfriend. He was worried Lisa had gotten into an accident while navigating her way home through the storm.
Lisa’s disappearance was also reported to police at around this time.
Doug traced the route between his sister’s apartment and Lisa’s home. At around 2:30PM on Thursday he found Lisa’s 1976 Toyota pulled over to the side of Pali Highway. Her car was located a mere 300 feet from a payphone, a mile from her parents’ house, and around two miles from her apartment.
Two things struck the investigators as especially odd about the scene.
First, Lisa’s purse was on the driver’s seat and it was bone dry. This was strange because the driver’s seat itself was soaking wet and the car had several inches of water in it, likely because the driver’s side window was halfway rolled down and it had been raining heavily.
Second, the mechanical condition of the car was noteworthy. When it was located the car’s battery was dead. But its parking lights and windshield wipers had been left on, so a dead battery was to be expected. However, when the battery was charged the car started with no problem. Lisa apparently exited her vehicle abruptly, leaving it running on the side of the road. And even though she was close to a phone to call for help, or could have walked to her parents’ house or to her own apartment, she did not.
Later, a forensics team conducted tests on Lisa’s car and concluded it had been “wiped clean of any evidence.” Given this disturbing finding, the authorities leapt into action – widespread searches were conducted for Lisa almost immediately. Hundreds of volunteers participated in the search efforts, including many local soldiers. Over 150,000 flyers were distributed looking for any information on the 5’5”, 120-lb. young woman with long, wavy black hair. A number of psychics also came forward with leads that, unsurprisingly, did not pan out.
On January 31 the search ended abruptly. Lisa was found only three miles from her boyfriend’s sister’s apartment where she was last seen. A man out for a jog with his dog came across her body approximately 40 feet down a ravine next to Tantalus Drive.
Lisa’s naked body was face down in the long grass. Even though only ten days had passed since she had vanished, Hawaii’s warm, humid climate had badly decomposed her remains… so much so Lisa’s identity had to confirmed with dental records.
Lisa’s body being removed from the crime scene
Lisa’s cause of death was never determined, but this was not due to a lack of effort.
A first attempt was made by Honolulu’s medical examiner. But they said due to the lack of forensic evidence and the advanced state of decomposition it was impossible to conclude a clear cause of death.
A second attempt was made by the Los Angeles coroner over a year later. Lisa’s body was exhumed, and her skull and jawbone were sent for examination. Although the results were never made public, the coroner said the advanced decomposition made “any conclusions very difficult.”
Despite the failure to nail down cause of death, Lisa’s death was ruled a homicide. And her killer has never been found.
Case File Theories
Did a police officer murder Lisa?
From almost the very start of the investigation authorities thought a police officer, or someone imitating a police officer, killed Lisa. And there were several reasons why. A witness came forward early in the investigation and said they saw a car with blue flashing lights in its grill following Lisa’s car just before she disappeared. Plus, the only thing missing from Lisa’s purse was her temporary driver’s licence.
These things taken together led authorities to the following scenario: Lisa was pulled over by someone she believed was a police officer, left her car running, and rolled down the driver’s window. When asked to produce her licence, Lisa grabbed her purse, retrieved the temporary licence, and handed it to the officer. Then things escalated and the assailant took Lisa, including her purse, to his cruiser. After attacking her, they dumped Lisa’s body and returned her purse to her vehicle at some point after the rain stopped, minus her licence… which was either overlooked or kept as a souvenir.
Before long, the investigation moved away from a law enforcement impersonator and centered on Thomas Byrne, a veteran police officer. Not only did he live near Lisa’s apartment, but also he had a sexual harassment complaint previously filed against him by a young woman who claimed he acted inappropriately during a ride-along. In addition, when Byrne’s name was leaked to the press, another woman came forward and said he had pulled her over on Pali Highway on the same night Lisa disappeared and had acted “suspiciously.”
To investigators, the evidence against Byrne seemed solid. However, when they searched his vehicle and home no evidence of Lisa was discovered—not one single trace. And he was never proven to be by Lisa’s car or near where her body was located.
Several police officers drove by Lisa’s car on the side of the road that fateful night, but not one of them saw Byrne, or even bothered to stop to see if she required assistance. The officers explained they did not think Lisa’s car merited their attention as several vehicles had pulled over due to the storm. One officer did see Lisa outside of her vehicle with a man, but he was unable to identify him, even after undergoing hypnosis. The press reported that authorities asked one of the officers to lie and say they saw a police vehicle by Lisa’s car, but the officer apparently refused.
And what about Lisa’s missing temporary driver’s license? It was a key factor in thinking a police officer was involved in the murder. Lisa’s rolled down driver’s window and missing licence seemed to indicate she was pulled over by a police officer and had passed her license through the open window. Well, months later her licence was located at Emjays. When Lisa stopped to pick up the poke she brought to dinner she had to show ID to pay by cheque. During the transaction, Lisa accidentally left her licence behind, and it sat there for months before anyone realized it.
Three years after Lisa’s death, Nelson Lum, the lead detective on the case, said in a sworn statement that the “massive and extensive investigation” into Lisa’s death “had produced no evidence against a city employee acting within the course of their employment.” Byrne filed a $20 million lawsuit against “a TV station, the former Honolulu Police chief, and a detective for wrongfully identifying him as a suspect.” But, in the end, the case was dropped without Byrne ever receiving a penny.
Around the same time, Lisa’s parents launched a civil lawsuit against the police department. They argued the police officers who drove past Lisa the night she went missing were negligent for not stopping to assist their daughter. Their lawyer explained, “To us, the police officers have a duty to assist motorists. Do not drive by and ignore it.” The courts, however, disagreed and the Aus lost their case. There is little doubt this caused serious damage to their relationship with the people investigating their daughter’s murder.
Lisa’s parents: Patrice and Chester Au
If Lisa was not murdered by Byrne, or some other police officer or impersonator, then who committed the heinous crime? Lisa’s parents never gave up trying to find this answer, even hiring a private investigator to help with the case. And he was not your run-of-the-mill PI. Burke Corniel was ex police; he had been a Lieutenant in the Criminal Investigative Division. In fact, he was temporarily in charge of the homicide detail at the scene when Lisa’s body was found.
Corniel strongly believed the police had it all wrong. He thought they caved to community pressure and had a serious case of tunnel vision. In his opinion, Byrne should never have been the focus of the investigation. Nor did he think it was a crime of opportunity committed by some random passerby. Rather, Corniel thought Lisa was murdered by her boyfriend, Doug Holmes.
Arguably, there was as much circumstantial evidence against Holmes as there was against Byrne. Not only was Holmes the last person to see Lisa alive, but also he failed two lie detector tests. Additionally, a police officer reported seeing scratches on Holmes’ face the day after Lisa disappeared.
Moreover, Thomas Thornburg, a security guard at the Makiki apartments where Holmes’ sister lived, and where Lisa was last seen alive, told Corniel he saw the couple arguing in the parking lot around 11:00PM. And reportedly Holmes drove off shortly after Lisa left.
On top of all this, Charlotte Kamaka, a Hawaii Newspaper Agency delivery driver, said she was on her regular route on Tantalus Drive around 2:30AM when a man drove past her in a blue car with a female passenger who “appeared to be asleep or unconscious. What alerted me was her head fell,” Kamaka explained, “when the car made the turn, her head just fell.”
Kamaka said she got a good look at the driver when he turned the car around in a paved lookout. Ten days later, Lisa’s body was found in the area. Kamaka later identified Doug Holmes from a photo lineup as the man driving the vehicle. She claimed she reported the incident to the police numerous times, but they never returned her calls.
Police, however, argued Holmes had no motive for killing Lisa. They said the pair were happily in love, and added, “There was no third party involved. There was no money involved. There was no baby coming. There was no reason for him to do it.” In addition to a lack of motive, they believed Kamaka changed her story several times and was not a reliable witness.
When asked why he failed the lie detector tests, Holmes told reporters he was “riddled with guilt for not making sure Lisa made it home safely in the terrible weather” and so he “held himself accountable for her death and that impacted his results.”
An investigative grand jury spent almost a year hearing evidence put forth by Prosecutor Charles Marsland against Byrne, the police officer suspected of killing Lisa. But Byrne’s defence presented a compelling case against Holmes, and as a result the jury was stymied. So, even with two potential persons of interest, the case ground to halt.
Who do you think murdered Lisa?
Despite decades of seeking justice, Lisa’s parents, Patrice and Chester Au, both died without discovering who murdered their daughter. But Lisa’s sister, Mei Li McIntyre, has taken up the torch. She was only seven years old back in 1982 when Lisa disappeared. “I saw lots of flyers with my sister’s face, her graduation picture, black and white you know. And it said the word ‘missing’,” Mei Li said. After Lisa’s body was found, her parents told her that her big sister “had gone to heaven.”
In the years following Lisa’s death, Mei Li’s family did their best to shelter her from the news coverage, but she was well aware of the lasting impact the murder had on her family. “It was hard on my parents, I watched it,” she said. “Whenever it came up to Lisa’s birthday or the anniversary of her death or somewhere … you could tell.” The Aus divorced in 1990, and Mei Li thinks it was Lisa’s murder that drove them apart. “My parents are gone, and they know what happened now. Now just the living want to know. A lot of our family and our friends close to us want to know.”
The Honolulu Police Department also wants to know what happened to Lisa. Police Chief Susan Ballard shared that cold case detectives “are looking for anything that may have been overlooked at the time or whether new technology can provide new information.” The police also mentioned how “relationships shift over the years, and it’s not uncommon for people to want to clear their conscience. One individual and possibly more know what happened to Ms. Au.”
The Honolulu Police Department urges anyone who knows what may have happened to Lisa to come forward, noting, “It’s a heavy burden to live with the knowledge of someone’s murder all of these years.” If you have any information about Lisa Au’s murder, please contact the Honolulu Police Department Criminal Investigation Division at (808) 723-3609.
Interest in cold cases? Check out our article on the Top Ten Gold Coast Cold Cases and our audio file on the unsolved murder of Shirley Fawcett-Kivlin.
Sources and Related Reading
“Murdered Hawaii teen ‘had a bright future’.” Daily Beast, April 29, 2022.
“The unsolved: Lisa Au.” The Morbid Library, April 15, 2021.
“Lisa Au: Hawaii’s 39-year-old cold case that still haunts its residents.” Medium, March 18, 2021.
“Hawaii’s most mysterious death and unsolved mystery.” Mysterious Universe, May 15, 2019.
“37 years ago, her murder gripped Oahu. But from the start, the investigation went astray.” Hawaii News Now, April 17, 2019.
“Disputes marked investigation.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, October 7, 1991.
“Woman disappears on way home.” The Honolulu Advertiser, January 23, 1982.
“Lisa Uhiwaiomana Au.” Find A Grave, n.d.