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Victim’s mother heartbroken after Orem karate instructor ruled incompetent

September 19, 2018

Kenneth Higa

Devastated and heartbroken after learning a karate instructor had molested her daughter, the girl’s mother carefully kept track of every court document and attended a court hearing.

But she never expected the man accused of sexually abusing her daughter would go free after being found incompetent to face charges.

“It’s constantly been what’s best for him, not what’s best for her,” the girl’s mother said, holding back tears.

The Daily Herald does not name victims of sexual assault cases. The mother agreed to speak to the Daily Herald on the condition that she also was not identified.

Orem karate instructor Kenneth Higa, 82, was arrested and charged in June 2017 for reportedly sexually abusing one of his students under the guise of giving her a massage, court documents stated.

Higa told police investigators he “gave into temptation” and molested a 14-year-old student several times in the basement of a martial arts school in Orem.

The abuse happened while he was alone with the girl at the school, Higa said in interviews with police. He had reportedly taken the girl into the basement to give her personal karate instruction to help her make up classes she missed during the week.

After classes, Higa told police he compelled the girl to let him give her massages since “her legs would possibly hurt,” according to police reports. Instead, he inappropriately touched her and continued to do so after every remedial class.

The girl told investigators she had taken karate classes from Higa for nearly seven years, and the abuse started in December 2016. She was “extremely uncomfortable” about getting a massage but did not object as Higa was in a position of trust, police documents state.

“The child was scared and stated she did not know what to do” when Higa started touching her inappropriately, according to a probable cause statement from police.

Higa was charged in 4th District Court with two counts of object rape, both first-degree felonies, and two counts of sexual abuse of a minor student, both third-degree felonies.

If convicted, he would have faced five years to life in prison.

But on Sept. 6, the court determined Higa was not competent to face the charges. Glen Thomas, defense attorney for Higa, filed for the competence review after weekly meetings and multiple conversations with Higa, according to court documents.

As the court case could not proceed, the case was stayed and the bail was exonerated.

Higa had already been released from jail after paying a $50,000 cash-only bail a month after his arrest.

Throughout the abuse and the continuing court case, the 14-year-old girl maintained high grades in her schoolwork, her mother said. The reason her daughter needed to take remedial karate lessons in the first place was because she was studying hard and completing homework.

“I just wish you could know this amazing child. She’s so sweet,” her mother said. “She’s just an amazing kid.”

When the girl told family members she had been sexually abused, her mother quickly secured mental health counseling through state services.

But the state only pays for a certain number of visits, and her daughter’s last state-endorsed visit was the week Higa’s case was stayed indefinitely.

Her daughter also developed amplified musculoskeletal pain syndrome, or AMPS, which causes intense physical pain from psychological stress that kept her from continuing her piano lessons.

“My poor child is suffering from the greatest depression you can imagine,” her mother said through tears. “I need resources, we need to be able to help her.”

The case left her with many unanswered questions about where Higa will be staying, why he was allowed out of jail, if Higa will be around other children and if anyone will follow up on his competency status to see if he could face charges again.

“He was physically fit enough to teach karate,” she said. “They are going to cater to him. Why does he get to be home?”

Thomas said Higa is at a care facility after he was diagnosed with various health problems, including total kidney failure and dementia.

“He is at a facility right now where he is being treated and will likely stay there until he dies,” Thomas explained.

Throughout the court case, Higa faced three competency evaluations from three separate doctors appointed by the Department of Human Services, court records show.

The court typically orders two doctors to submit competency evaluations for every person under review, Thomas said. When the two doctors came back with contradictory results, the judge ordered a third doctor to interview and examine Higa.

The doctor determined Higa was not competent to face charges and was not likely to be restored to competency, Thomas said.

Prosecutors did not ask for a civil commitment as Higa would not qualify as a substantial danger to the community, said Christine Scott, the prosecuting Utah County deputy attorney.

She refused to dismiss the case, but without competency, Higa joined with many others who are released back into the community after being found incompetent to face charges in court.

“A big hole in the criminal justice system is what do we do with these people who commit crimes that are not competent to proceed with prosecution,” Scott said. “There’s nothing the judge can do, there’s nothing I can do, there’s nothing to be done. Because the law says you have to be able to participate in your defense and understand what’s going on in order to be tried fairly.”

Higa taught karate for more than 40 years. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he had often used gospel principles in his karate lessons, the mother explained.

Her daughter had already earned her black belt, she added.

“We trusted him,” the mother said. “I just want this man to pay. But more importantly, not to do it to another kid.”

When Higa was first arrested, investigators worried there were more victims.

“Kenneth has been in a position where he has been around children for the past 30 years,” the post read. “If they are any more victims, we are asking them to come forward.”

The girl’s mother said she’s extremely proud of her daughter for reporting the abuse. More than anything, she hopes her daughter will go to college, live a happy, productive life and be unafraid to do anything.

“We’re not going to get her justice at least in this life. I know in the next, we will,” the mother said.

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