Revisiting My Brother’s Murder, 36 Years Later

My little brother wanted to serve people, but his life was cut short in a Hawaiian park

By Joseph Padilla  |   Jan 18, 2017

The headlines of the Sept. 8, 1980, Honolulu Star-Bulletin read, “Two Marines found dead at Beach Park.” The article quoted local police as saying that two Kaneone Marines apparently were fatally beaten early the day prior when parked near the water’s edge at Manualua Beach Park in Hawaii Kai. One of those Marines was 21-year-old Lance Corporal Rodney “Rocky” Padilla, my brother.

The investigation conducted by the Honolulu Police Department determined that Rocky and 19-year-old Lance Corporal Larry Martens were both shot and killed outside of their vehicle while at the park. Although an intensive investigation was conducted, the crime has never been solved.

Rocky’s death was devastating to our family. He grew up in Colorado, was an outstanding athlete and had a strong desire to serve his country, so he joined the Marine Corps. Rocky graduated at the top of his class in basic training and had been promoted to Lance Corporal upon graduation. He was preparing to be promoted to sergeant when he died.

I was a police officer when Rocky was killed, but distance and lack of jurisdiction prevented me from assisting in the investigation. It was frustrating and extremely difficult to stand by and not be involved. I was able to assist in death investigations in my own city, but I couldn’t help my own brother.

Rocky 1979

My brother, full of pride, in uniform.

The anxiety and sadness of losing Rocky has never diminished through the years. My kids all know about Uncle Rocky. I was his big brother and he lived in my home with my family before he went into the Service. After he was killed, I never wanted to visit Hawaii. I knew I couldn’t enjoy the beauty of the state knowing my brother lost his life there.

The years passed and all we were left with was memories and a sense of loss. Losing someone is never easy, especially without a sense of closure. Then, on Nov. 29, 2016, I received a phone call. NCIS Special Agent Phil Camero called to tell me his agency and the Honolulu Police Department were reopening my brother’s homicide case. It was difficult to comprehend what he was telling me, but I realized it was the answer to my prayers. It had been 36 years since Rocky had been killed and I was always hoping the case would be reopened, and here it was actually happening.

Agent Camero asked if I was willing to travel to Honolulu to do a press conference. He said the NCIS, in conjunction with Honolulu Crime Stoppers, was going to offer a reward for any information leading to an arrest and indictment in Rocky and Larry’s homicide case. I agreed to go. My wife and kids were very supportive. My siblings and mother were very thankful to hear about the reopening of the case and my mother wanted to help so she donated additional money to the reward fund.

Dec. 14, 2016, arrived and I flew to Hawaii. I didn’t know what to expect. What I found when I arrived there was a large number of dedicated investigators from both NCIS and the Honolulu Police Department working on my brother’s case. I was shocked at the amount of effort they were putting into it. I had expected a single investigator out of some cold case unit working on it part time, but what I found was a whole team dedicated to getting to the bottom of it.

Since it’s an active investigation, they couldn’t discuss details of the case with me. However, they did discuss the efforts they are putting into it. I met with the NCIS Special Agent in Charge, Tony Cox, and his team and I learned of their dedication to solve the case.

We had the news conference on Monday, December 19, and there was a large turn-out of law enforcement officers, their family members, Marine Corps and all the local media. I had the opportunity to meet several of the people involved in the investigation. Honolulu PD Major Larry Lawson, Commander of their Major Crimes Division, told me he understood the significance of the case and reiterated HPD’s commitment to solve the case. I was also pleased to see the Marine presence of Lieutenant Colonel Curtis Hill. Seeing his military uniform made me remember Rocky.

It was emotionally difficult for me to travel to Hawaii and then to visit the site where Rocky and Larry were murdered. It was something I never thought I would do. Although I retired from law enforcement a little over a year ago, the reception I received from all the agents and officers was so sincere and accommodating that I developed a feeling of comradery with them. It made me feel like a cop again. The feelings of inability to help Rocky I had felt since 1980, disappeared. The opportunity to meet the investigators, the closeness I felt with them and the ability to participate in the case helped me deal with his death. I can’t thank Phil Camero enough for the support he provided to me while I was there. What’s sad is that Rocky told me those many years ago he wanted to be a police officer when he left the Marine Corps.

I pray they solve this case. The investigators are working on leads and it’s our hope that the news conference, reward money, and media attention this case is generating may motivate someone to call. The passage of time may be a benefit. Old loyalties from 36 years ago may no longer matter.

Rocky was an innocent victim and didn’t deserve to have his life taken. As I reflect back on 38 years as a police officer, I know Rocky’s unsolved death had an effect on me. I had empathy and compassion for victims that came from an insight into what they were experiencing. I hope it made me a better all-around officer. Finally, true closure on this case would be to bring those responsible to justice.

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Joseph Padilla

Joseph Padilla

Captain Joseph Padilla (ret.) has commanded the Gang, Juvenile and Traffic Operations and Civil Liability/Professional Standards Bureaus of the Denver Police Department. He has managed several large events including the traffic and transportation plan for the Democratic National Convention, the World Series, Presidential visits, large protests, parades and other high profile activities. He previously served as the manager of the Investigative Support Center for the Rocky Mountain H.I.D.T.A. (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) program. During his thirty-plus year career Joe has survived several critical incidents, including being involved in fatal police shootings. He has received his department's Medal of Honor (including being nominated for the Presidential Medal of Valor), three Medals of Valor, two Distinguished Service Crosses and numerous other commendations. He is a graduate of the 235th session of the FBI National Academy and retired from law enforcement in 2015.
Joseph Padilla

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