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Prison to peace: Honolulu man learns balance after struggle

Thirty-two is a big number for Louie Clibourne. It’s the age he’ll turn this fall. It’s how many years ago his father was murdered. It’s how old his father was, when he was killed.

As he sits on the cusp of this birthday, he thinks a lot about his life, his dad’s life, and how different life might have been, were his father alive. Better, he likes to believe. “Even a crappy dad is better than no dad,” Clibourne pronounces, but all he’s ever had were fantasies and fiction.

Louie Clibourne. Courtesy: Louie Clibourne

The reality of Clibourne’s life was, for most of it, a sad one. His father, Glenn Clibourne, was a taxi driver killed in 1985. Apolosio Sua was convicted and served time for the crime.

A memorandum filed in 2003 with the State Supreme Court ( outlines the facts:

“On July 12, 1985, Defendant was charged with murder in the first degree, HRS § 707-701 (1976), (3) for the killing of Glenn Clibourne on or about June 22, 1985. Defendant was also charged with carrying a firearm on person without permit or license, HRS § 134-9 (Supp. 1984). Defendant was found guilty on both counts. On December 6, 1985, Plaintiff-Appellee State of Hawai`i (the prosecution) moved, pursuant to HRS § 706-660.1 (1976), that Defendant receive a mandatory term of imprisonment of ten years. Defendant was sentenced on January 6, 1986, to life with the possibility of parole for the murder conviction and five years, consecutive to the life sentence, for the firearm conviction. In addition, Defendant received the mandatory minimum term of ten years.”

The younger Clibourne was not yet born at the time– still seven months in utero – but knows a little bit about it from his older sister. “My dad picked up a fare at a bar, Two Jacks Funny, on Hotel Street. He drove Sua and another man to Waipahu, where they stiffed him on the bill. He argued with them, and Sua shot my dad six times. He died right there.”

Twenty-three dollars and 50 cents. Keith Clibourne died over less than 24 bucks. He left behind a wife and seven children. “My dad supposedly pleaded for his life and told them he had a child on the way,” Clibourne adds. This death set the tone for Louie’s life.

Three months later, Louie was born, and says life was not easy for them. His mother raised him, his five brothers, and one sister, but couldn’t make ends meet on Oahu. She moved the family to the West Coast, where Clibourne grew up.

His childhood in Oregon was marked by emptiness and strife. As long as he can remember, he wanted a father. “I’d ask my teachers to date her. I’d even ask gas station attendants if they wanted to take my mom out.”

His father’s absence was something he took hard, though he doesn’t reckon his siblings struggled with it as much. Or perhaps they did, and never indicated it. “We as a family never spoke much about anything. My mother never talked about his death – or his life,” he says.

He’d glimpse other peoples’ family stability and want so badly to be part of that. He recalls as early as the second grade, he would go to friends’ houses “and they’d want to go out to play. I would just want to stay inside and be part of the family. If we got into trouble, I’d want their dads to scold me, too.”

Trouble came easily to him. Though he says people liked him for being “sweet and cute,” he was always high energy. In the third grade, he says doctors diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.)

As Clibourne sees it, his mother was burnt out. His siblings were detached and bullying. He was emotionally alone, and by the fifth grade, discovered alcohol and drugs.

Not long after that, he began a decades-long petty criminal career. “In the seventh grade, I was caught shoplifting at Macy’s and put on probation. I just could not comply with the rules. When I started ninth grade, I was on house arrest. I could only go to school and straight back home,” he says.

Clibourne says when he was in the eighth grade, the judge told him he spent more time in juvenile detention than any other child that year. Each stay lasted between one to four weeks, and he “hated it.”

Early in his freshman year of high school, he was arrested for failing a drug test. He describes what happened when police went to cuff him: “I ran across a four lane freeway, nearly getting hit a couple of times, jumped a barbed wire fence, and was tackled by the cops. And this just seemed normal to me. Just another day.”

This was it. He says his mother was in despair; looking for a fresh start for her son and missing her home state of Hawaii, she relocated with Louie to Hilo. The rest of the children had already left the house.

He changed houses, but not habits. “I fell in with the wrong crowd. Gangs, drugs, alcohol, fights,” he details, with “weed and coke” as the substances of choice. More arrests, stints in juvenile detention, and rehabilitation programs followed; he estimates his secondary education transcript is marked with 18 such footnotes.

By the time Hilo High graduated him in 2003, “I was just existing. There were fun moments, but I never felt like myself.” It was a tiresome existence.

Here’s another problem: Clibourne was struggling with his sexual identity. He says he always knew he was attracted to males, but there was “no way I could come out– not with my family, and not with the people in the small town of Hilo. I’d lose all my friends.”

In intermediate and high school, when all the other boys were living out their crushes on girls, he knew he liked boys. He hid it. There was a brief time when he toyed with coming out, but initial reaction was so severe, he decided against it. He felt trapped: “How could I be happy if I wasn’t myself?”

And he was handsome, even as a teenager – sporty when not stoned, tall (six foot two), with a chiseled face that today invites comparison to actor Daniel Craig (best known as James Bond.) “I could easily have had a girlfriend in high school. I just didn’t want one,” he admits.

He acted macho to fit in: Pidgin-speaking, pig hunting, beer drinking, gay-bashingly normal, by his account. He was lonely, but he felt he was less alone than if he revealed himself as gay. “I determined I was just going to make it work with women. It was depressing.”

The substance abuse, the self-denial, the shiftlessness went on for six years after graduation. “I was small and ignorant. I had no dreams. I never let myself get ahead,” he recognizes. He worked two jobs and spent his money on crystal methamphetamine.

The drugs messed with his brain. He tells me about one Christmas when he was 21 and burglarized a Walmart “for fun.” It wasn’t a criminally masterminded plan. He had gone in to purchase some items, and a clerk turned him away because the store was closing.

“I decided to return after hours and steal the stuff. When I was inside the store, I was just walking around calmly, in a daze. I wasn’t even scared. It’s so crazy how things were in my mind,” he remarks.

According to the media release (, “Detectives assigned to the Criminal Investigations Section charged 21-year-old Louie Clibourne of Pahoa and 18-year-old Bradley Young of Keaau with second-degree burglary on Tuesday evening (December 26). Clibourne was also charged with second-degree theft, possession of burglars’ tools and third-degree promotion of a detrimental drug.” He posted bail and was sent to more rehab.

In 2010, when he was 25, Clibourne moved to Honolulu for a job at an ice-making plant, as in frozen water. In addition, he picked up an illegitimate side job selling ice, as in the drug. Selling turned into dabbling which, by 2011, turned into using.

“Here is the evolution of drug use,” he pronounces. “In the beginning, I’d see people wasted and sitting around all day, and think, ‘How could they?’ Then I became that. When you’re high, the things you have to do become less important, so you don’t make time to do them. Eventually, you don’t have to do them, because you get fired.”

Selling drugs is a risky business, so one arrest set him back all the money he had. To make bail, he sold his car and spent his savings. Without a car, he couldn’t work. He started stealing.

Clibourne was in and out of the legal system so often, he bandies about court terms and procedures with a fluency I’ve only seen in law professionals and journalists. People usually don’t know this. He even clarifies, in case I don’t know it, the difference between a burglary and a robbery, and the charges each carries. He’s learned all this the hard way.

Just three years after moving to Oahu and becoming a drug distributor, it all came crashing down with a guilty verdict in three robberies and an 18-month prison term. States Clibourne, “This is how fast it deteriorated. On January 2, 2013, I started my sentence at the Federal Detention Center.”

This would be, he reflects, the beginning of the end. “That’s when things changed. Prison was a godsend. It was perfect. For the first time in my life, I was forced to be sober, I was myself, and I was liked. I had not felt this way since I was 11 years old.” He was in his late 20s at this point.

Clibourne, who says he can be very kind and social, recalls there were 132 men in his pod and “I knew every one of them. I was given the best job in prison, the staff respected me, and it was awesome.”

He even wrote a letter to his mother to tell her he was gay, and was relieved she said she still loved him. Emboldened, he chose not to hide his sexual preferences while in prison; an interesting time for a man to experiment with a new identity, but one that worked for him.

Different prisons have different reputations. He’s quick to point out he feels Honolulu’s federal prison is well run and a safe place for people to rehabilitate. “Most other prisons will make you worse. Men get raped and beaten,” he asserts.

In this time of self-reflection, Clibourne became a little more comfortable with himself, but 18 months stood no chance against a lifetime of learned behavior. “AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) says when you get out, you pick up right where you left off. It couldn’t be truer. I slipped and started using again.”

It spiraled downhill right after his release. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser ( reported his 2014 arrest:

“Authorities charged two men with the robbery of a 26-year-old man in Waikiki Saturday. Louie Clibourne, 28; and Cyrus Croskery, 20, were charged Monday with second-degree robbery. Their bail was set at $50,000. Police said the two used force to take the personal items of 26-year-old man at 11:30 p.m. near the Princess Kaiulani Hotel.”

He relives the moment. “I was sitting in jail and thinking about a mandatory ten year prison sentence. I couldn’t breathe. I had a job, an apartment, I had improved my life, and now this. I thought, ‘I’m done.’” Luck was on his side, though, and after some ups and downs in the case, he was released.

The Hawaii State Judiciary’s archives show seven criminal cases for Clibourne, with charges of robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, possession of burglar’s tools, promoting a dangerous drug, promoting a detrimental drug, drug paraphernalia, and abuse of a family/household member. Clibourne intends not to add to that list.

He started turning his life around. In 2015, he fell in love for the first time. He says he still got high on weekends, but his boyfriend “kept me sober more.”

The same year, hair stylist and friend Ryan Sales hired him as an assistant at Salon 808. “I wanted to work there because Ryan, Dennis Guillermo (no longer at that salon), and all the people were so nice. It was such a free environment there. I just wanted to be around them,” he starts.

Sales knew of Clibourne’s criminal past, but hired him because “I believe in giving people second chances.”

Sales remarks that Clibourne exceeded his expectations as an employee. “He’s everything you need in a hairdresser: confident, personable, and fashionable. Although at the start I wondered how long he would last, I quickly came to realize I could trust him. By far, he is going to be the most successful hairdresser I’ve mentored.”

Clibourne didn’t intend for it to be long-term, but “the money was good, and I actually liked learning about hair.” He started taking night classes in haircutting and realized he had a talent for it.

“It’s good for me. I like people, and I like going from start to finish on one thing in an hour; it caters to my short attention span. I also like making people happy, so it fulfills my need to serve,” he assesses.

Sales adds, “I’m surprised by how much he was able to pick up, so quickly. He’s unafraid to learn.”

Old habits die hard. Clibourne’s boyfriend left him in early 2016 because of Clibourne’s drug use – a disappointment in an otherwise hallmark year. It was an epiphany that directed Clibourne to rejoin Alcoholics Anonymous.

For the most part, 2016 was cathartic. He succeeded at his goal of staying sober, and in January 2017, celebrated one year clean. He’s proud of himself. “When you’re using, you have no ambition. You don’t care about anything. It sucks every good thing out of you. You lose everything,” he warns.

He has much to look forward to this year. He’s off probation. He is proud to be who he is: gay. He’s no longer afraid of success, and excited about becoming a professional hair stylist – hopefully this summer. He’s interested in learning for the sake of learning, and takes classes at the community college.

Clibourne photographing his hair model, 2017. Courtesy: Louie Clibourne

“I grow every day. I’m a sponge. I’m like clay wanting to be molded,” enthuses Clibourne, a fire in his eyes as he conveys this newfound attitude. He credits the positive environment largely provided by the salon.

Sales, who considers himself Clibourne’s mentor, still worries about him and tries to provide consistent guidance. On this day, I see Sales advising Clibourne on how to be fiscally responsible.

Clibourne’s old life of crime and addiction is not far behind him, and he thinks about it a lot. “I have thousands of regrets. I could be in such a better place right now had I not done all that, but it all led me to here, so…” he fades off.

For those going through the struggle, his advice: “To see clearly, you have to step away. For me, it was prison or rehab. When you’re sober, you will intuitively know how to deal with things that used to baffle you.”

He also wants to use his trauma to benefit others. “I’d like to make a change in the world, like the person I admire – Martin Luther King, Jr. I need to find my balance first, then I can add volunteering.”

He circles back to reflections on turning 32, and the comparisons between his life and his father’s. The few inferences he’s gleaned about Keith Clibourne are underwhelming. “He was a loving dad, but probably a lazy worker and an abusive, cheating husband. I don’t think my parents would be together today if he were alive.”

He vacillates between probable truth and the more appealing Super Dad illusion he created over the decades, before conceding it’s a moot point. It’s clearly a well-worn thought pattern.

Then he returns to the present. “I’m so different from my father. It’s good. I’m more excited about my future than ever before,” he declares. “I feel amazing. I wasted so much time, and now I see every second is precious. I have so much life left.”

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