Against The Odds

Nicholas Iwamoto leaves The Queen’s Medical Center after a month recovering from a near-fatal attack in 2009. With him are his father, Sonny Iwamoto, his brother Randy Iwamoto, and his friend, Shane Kim. PHOTO COURTESY Dennis Oda

Nicholas Iwamoto survived a brutal attempted murder. He doesn’t want the community to forget his story — or those of other victims of violent crime.

When Nicholas Iwamoto (no relation to the author) graduated with honors from University of Hawai‘i at Hilo in 2020, he proved, once again, that nothing would stop him from living a full and meaningful life.

By the time he’d completed his bachelor’s degree in European history, he had not only survived one of the most vicious attacks in the state’s history, but he’d also become a victim rights advocate.

“I was able to fight for others,” he says. “And by fighting for others, I found that I was also fighting for myself.”

On Feb. 1, 2009, Iwamoto was 22 years old and on the brink of joining the Hawai‘i National Guard. Although it was Super Bowl Sunday, he decided to hit Koko Crater Trail to prove to himself that he was physically ready for military service.

He completed the approximately 1.5-mile hike — an arduous uphill trek that culminates 1,208 feet above sea level — and was at the crater’s summit, catching his breath as his heart pounded from exertion, when it happened.

Iwamoto cries as he delivers his victim impact statement in 2010. With him is his mother, Kitty Iwamoto. PHOTO COURTESY CRAIG T. KOJIMA

A man approached, shouting about a government setup and Japanese people sent to harm him. By the time Iwamoto, who is Japanese-Scandinavian American, saw the knife, the man was stabbing him in the head, throat, torso and hands.

He tried to get away but tripped over a rock. His assailant pinned him down. When he made a last-ditch effort to fight back, the guy shoved him over the edge of the crater. He plunged 30 feet, hit his head, then tumbled another 70 feet.

As he lay there — his neck, ribs and right ankle broken, a fracture causing bleeding between his skull and brain, both lungs collapsed, one lung punctured, his liver and diaphragm lacerated, the artery on his temple severed — he thought he was going to die.

Iwamoto (pictured with his mother, Kitty) took up knitting as a form of therapy after his attack. He still sells his hand-knit goods via his business NickKnits. The proceeds help cover his medical expenses. PHOTO COURTESY FL MORRIS

At The Queen’s Medical Center, his airway collapsed. Doctors performed a tracheotomy and put him on a ventilator for two weeks. He underwent several surgeries, including one to fuse the bones in his neck. He contracted pneumonia.

Given the severity of his injuries, his recovery after a month at the hospital seemed like a miracle.

He learned to knit as a form of therapy and started his own business, NickKnits, to help cover his medical expenses. He reunited with the good Samaritans who called for help the day of his attack, with the paramedics who got him to the hospital and with the medical staff at Queen’s. He thanked them from the bottom of his heart with hand-knit goods and boxes of malasadas. He returned to Koko Head lookout to reclaim the area as a survivor.

All this despite being rear-ended twice while still healing from a broken neck.

It was his mom — his hero and biggest supporter — who urged him to deliver a victim impact statement in 2010.

“The prosecutor was ambivalent about me speaking,” he recalls. “It was my mom who said not speaking was not an option: ‘This is your chance to tell him and the world what he did to you. You will regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t take this opportunity.’

“She was right, as usual.”

His statement was riveting and emotional. Although his attacker apologized, a visibly upset Iwamoto, still wearing his neck brace, managed to tell him, “You ruined my life.”

The man who’d nearly killed him had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was transferred from O‘ahu Community Correctional Facility to the Hawai‘i State Hospital.

Iwamoto says he learned to accept the verdict. He tried to focus not on what had been taken from him — his youth, his innocence, his health, his chance to serve his country in uniform — but on what he had been able to rebuild.

He took up golfing and became better at it than he had been before his attack. He moved to the Big Island and got a job at a local art gallery. He spoke at church groups, community meetings and crime victim forums. He enrolled at UH-Hilo. He continued to knit.

He accepted the scars on his face and body as reminders of the odds he had overcome. He maintained the drollness that got him voted Best Sense of Humor at his high school.

“I have had to learn a lot of acceptance ever since I was 22,” says Iwamoto, who’s now 37. “Ever since the day I left the hospital, I knew I was going to be dealing with a lot of pain, but that’s just the price I paid for survival, and I’m glad because the other option was death.”

What he couldn’t accept was that a few years after the assault, the state granted his attacker unsupervised release.

“He was granted permission to go to Windward Community College unescorted,” Iwamoto says. “It is just shocking. I can’t believe they allowed that.

“And the worst part is the state didn’t tell me or my mom. We had to find out on the news. And my mom hasn’t been the same person since she saw that. She has PTSD, not because of my attack but because of seeing that on the news.”

If Hawai‘i had enshrined Marsy’s Law in its constitution, the state would have been obligated to contact Iwamoto before releasing his assailant.

The initiative, which is now law in about a dozen states, is named for Marsalee “Marsy” Ann Nicholas, a California woman who had been stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983.

A week after the murder, Marsy’s mother walked into a grocery store and ran into her daughter’s killer. He’d been released on bail, but no one had told her. Although the man was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, every few years Marsy’s family had to show up for his parole hearing and argue their case to keep him behind bars.

Iwamoto didn’t hold back when he addressed lawmakers in Hawai‘i on behalf of Marsy’s Law.

“I bared my soul, like every graphic detail of my attack in an effort to advance this,” he says.

His words, and the words of other violent crime survivors and their families, made an impact. Marsy’s Law for Hawai‘i passed the state House and Senate in 2016. However,

lawmakers weren’t able to reconcile the language in the two chambers’ bills and they missed the deadline to get legislation to the governor’s office in time to be considered for constitutional amendments.

Iwamoto was disappointed with the outcome but says addressing lawmakers was a watershed moment for him because it brought home the power of his voice and story.

He’s still committed to sharing his story and pushing for change, but lately his focus has shifted to his health.

He first noticed he was losing weight during the pandemic. He says no matter how much he ate he wasn’t putting the pounds back on. It hurt to open doors and stand up. Then it became painful to sit.

“When I started to lose the fat in my butt, that changed my life,” he says. “I still sit because you have to sit to be a human, but I have to use a wheelchair cushion.”

An endocrinologist on O‘ahu told him it was lipodystrophy, a rare, painful condition characterized by complete or partial loss of fat in the body.

Iwamoto says he sought out two national lipodystrophy specialists, but they told him his condition wasn’t severe enough to warrant an official diagnosis.

“Basically, I’m not sick enough,” he says. “They don’t recognize the disease until you have severe metabolic issues. But I do have metabolic issues, they’re just not severe enough yet.”

Still, if life has taught him anything it’s to not give up.

“I survived one of the most violent attempted murders ever committed and this thing that’s causing me to lose all my fat is what takes me down?” he says. “I can’t let that happen.

“I’m meant to be speaking and that’s something I was doing,” he adds. “But the health issues have obviously complicated that.”

What keeps him going are the other victims of violent crime and, in the case of murder victims, their surviving loved ones. He thinks about them often.

“Do you remember Asa Yamashita?” he says. “She was a beloved teacher, and she was eating lunch at a shopping center in ‘Ewa Beach and a man went into Longs Drugs and bought a kitchen knife and stabbed her to death.”

This happened on Feb. 29, 2009, the day before Iwamoto’s scheduled release from the hospital.

“I remember the nurses were like, ‘Aren’t you so excited? You get to go home,’” Iwamoto recalls. “And I was like, ‘No. I don’t want to go home. I want to stay here.’

“You know, that really shook me. And when I hear about murder victims, I say their names. I don’t want people to forget about them because I know how close I came to being one of the departed.”

Another name comes to his mind: Carly “Charli” Scott. The 27-year-old Maui woman was five months pregnant when she disappeared in 2014. Her ex-boyfriend was convicted of her murder in 2021, but all of her remains weren’t found until last year.

The list of names goes on. And as long as it does, Iwamoto wants to do his part to make sure they aren’t forgotten.

He says, “Because you’re not gone until the last person on Earth stops thinking about you.”

Keep up with Iwamoto at facebook.com/nicholas.iwamoto. To purchase a knitted item from him, email iwamoto86@gmail.com.