Man jailed in police chase is Fiji strongman's nephew
By Liz Zemba
Published: Thursday, May 1, 2014, 11:44 p.m. Updated 14 hours ago
The nephew of a feared South Pacific political strongman fled his island nation in search of a better life, eventually landing in the Marcellus shale-rich hills of Western Pennsylvania.
But his journey took an unexpected detour recently when he found himself behind bars in the Fayette County Prison, charged with attempting to kill two police officers.
Sevanaia Lauakilagi Bainimarama, 39, of Smithfield in Fayette County arrived in this country about 1998, long before his uncle, Josaia Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, 60, seized power in the Republic of Fiji during a violent military coup in 2006, a family member said.
Until recently, Bainimarama was working for natural gas drilling company Calfrac Well Services, earning a living far beyond what he could have ever imagined in his homeland, a family member said.
But on April 20, Bainimarama's American dream hit a snag.
A co-worker, Tom Chang, 48, another Fijian who lives in Smithfield with Bainimarama, loaned his Nissan Pathfinder to Bainimarama.
Police said he sailed through a stop sign in Uniontown, then led two officers on a wild, 19-minute chase that ended shortly after 2 a.m., not far from the West Virginia border in Smithfield.
During the pursuit, Bainimarama, a veteran of the Fijian military, fired a gun at the officers, hit a deer, then tried to run them over on a dead-end street, police said. The officers shot him in both arms, court records show.
As he was being loaded into an ambulance, Bainimarama, already smelling of alcohol, asked police for a beer, reports show.
Chang said he was shocked to hear about the encounter, because his countryman is “a good-hearted guy.”
“It's like something out of a movie,” Chang said on Thursday as he and another Fijian, who declined to comment, stood outside the Fayette County Prison in Uniontown, trying to determine how they could meet with Bainimarama.
“It's very unusual for him, because he's a very friendly guy,” Chang said. “He's always sharing stuff.”
Chang said the suspect, who is being held in the jail with bail set at $300,000, worked with him in the natural gas drilling industry as a fracking operator. Warden Brian Miller said the suspect goes by the name “Steve.”
Bainimarama's uncle has been condemned by watchdog groups for alleged human rights violations.
A family member who was contacted in Fiji confirmed the relationship but asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Human rights have been trampled since the prime minister took control in Fiji, according to the nonprofit groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. People who criticize the government are detained, and restrictions are placed on citizens' rights to free speech, association and assembly, they allege.
Fiji is scheduled to hold its first democratic elections since the coup on Sept. 17, with the prime minister as a candidate.
A spokesman with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement said it is keeping tabs on Sevanaia Bainimarama's case.
“ICE has not yet placed a detainer on Sevanaia L. Bainimarama,” said Vincent Picard. “The agency is monitoring Mr. Bainimarama's criminal case and will reassess as necessary. ICE is focused on effective, sensible immigration enforcement that focuses first on convicted criminals who pose a threat to public safety.”
Picard said he cannot comment on the status of Bainimarama's visa or the amount of time he has spent in this country without the suspect's authorization.
A woman who answered the phone at the offices of Calfrac Well Services in Smithfield declined to comment.
District Attorney Jack Heneks declined to comment on Bainimarama's case. He said a typical sentence on an attempted homicide charge for a person with no record is five to six years in prison.
Police said additional charges likely will be filed when Bainimarama appears June 10 before District Judge Michael Metros of Uniontown for a preliminary hearing.
Chang said he visited the Uniontown police station to try to retrieve his wrecked Pathfinder. For now, it remains in police custody.