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A mysterious death in Pāʻia: What happened to Mana Foods baker John Palicki?

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  • John Palicki was captured on a Mana Foods’ surveillance camera at 7 a.m. on May 29, the day he was supposed to be working. Screen shot courtesy: Mana Foods
  • John Palicki and his father, also named John Palicki, were reunited on Maui in 2019. Photo Courtesy: Erin Palicki
  • John Palicki was described by friends and family as having a good sense of humor and being a bit of a jokester. Photo Courtesy: Erin Palicki
  • John Palicki (right) is with his uncle-in-law, Jerry Kenney, and Kenney’s grandson, Ethan Kenney, in 2017 on Maui. Photo Courtesy: Patricia Kenney
  • John Palicki and his Aunt Patricia Kenney in photos decades apart. Photos courtesy: Patricia Kenney
  • Mana Foods’ cook Brian Borgman looks at an area along the Pāʻia bypass where his friend John Palicki was found dead on Memorial Day. Photo Credit: Cammy Clark

On Memorial Day, as the sun was rising over Pāʻia, a nude man was found unresponsive in a cane field alongside the town’s bypass and near a homeless encampment.

A crew from the Maui Fire Department arrived first, determining the man was dead at 6:47 a.m.

At the scene, Maui police did not find any personal effects near the unclothed body to immediately make an identification. But locals quickly figured out who the man was: beloved 51-year-old John Palicki.

The “sweet” and “big-hearted” Palicki was well-known in the small town of Pāʻia. For nine years, he worked as a baker at the nearby community grocery store Mana Foods. And for eight years, he lived in a house with four roommates on Baldwin Avenue, just a 5-minute walk from his workplace.

His body was found about one to two football fields away from his home.

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“The person who found the body [the boyfriend of a Mana Foods’ cook] said he saw a red heart tattoo on the right arm, with a small ribbon on the bottom and the word Fuggit,” said Misty Gonzalez, Palicki’s motherly boss at Mana Foods. “We knew it had to be John.”

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Speculation that Palicki had been murdered circulated in Pāʻia, but Maui Police Department spokesperson Alana K. Pico said in an email that the preliminary investigation showed no signs of foul play. So far, no evidence has come to light in the ongoing investigation to change that assessment, police say.

Rumors about multiple murders around Pāʻia, which have caused fear in the town, also are false, according to MPD. In an email, Pico stated only one homicide has occurred in Maui County this year — the June case of Angela Johnson, who was dropped off dead at Kula Hospital. Brian Sherrell was arrested for Johnson’s murder.

But what happened to Palicki remains a mystery.

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The May 30 case summary of the Palicki case, provided by MPD, redacted all names: the reporting party, the victim and 10 “involved, other” people. The one-paragraph “public narrative” said the cause of death “is unknown at this time.”

Maui police declined to provide further information or provide an interview with the detective assigned to the case, Jeremy Pallone-De La Torre.

Palicki’s family members, who live on the U.S. mainland, are frustrated the police have kept them in the dark.

“They’re not telling us anything,” said Erin Palicki, John’s stepmother who lives in Missouri. “Getting information out of them is like trying to pull a hen’s tooth.”

Palicki’s aunt, Patricia Kenney, said a detective named Jeremy could only tell her they were waiting for toxicology results that would take six to eight weeks. Palicki’s sister, Patty Palicki, said all she was told was that an autopsy was conducted.

“We can be patient and wait, but we just want the truth,” Kenney said. “If it was suicide, OK. We just want to know.”

The not-knowing has been difficult for the family. They have been getting most of their information — and not knowing how reliable it is — from Palicki’s coworkers, friends and housemates. During a phone conversation, the elder John said: “Basically he was murdered.”

His wife, Erin, chimed in: “I’ll be honest, we still don’t know what the cause of death is. But we definitely think there was some kind of foul play or something. We just don’t think it was natural causes or he did this to himself.”

The elder John’s belief that something nefarious had happened to his son was reaffirmed after looking at black and white autopsy photos provided by the Maui County medical examiner, who needed a family member to make the official identification.

“He looked like he had been in a fight,” the elder John said. “It definitely looked like he had bruises on his face.”

Palicki’s Pāʻia ʻohana first became worried about Palicki on May 29. That morning, he did not show up for his 6:30 a.m. shift at Mana Foods. While Palicki has been late to work before, it was not like him to not show up at all, said Mana Foods general manager Tara Sellars.

Mana Foods’ surveillance camera caught footage of Palicki casually walking on the sidewalk in front of the store on May 29 at 7 a.m., wearing a black T-shirt, tan shorts and brown slippers. He seemed to be mumbling to himself. Why he did not go to work is unknown.

He had been a chef at places on the U.S. mainland, including a Morton’s Steakhouse, before moving to Pāʻia, family and friends said. His Mana Foods supervisor, Gonzalez, said he was a good baker, making sourdough, ciabatta, focaccia and other bread, as well as a daily pizza special. She said he didn’t want to work on the sweets side because it was too much of a headache: “He was my bread guy.”

After a mini-investigation, Sellers said the last person she could find who saw Palicki alive was a housemate at about 9 a.m. on May 29.

On the same day, stepmom Erin Palicki said she got texts from one of Palicki’s roommates and his landlady saying he had come home acting strangely.

“One text said he had left the house without his shoes and without his ID, too,” she said. “He had not had a cellphone since September. They did not know where he went and wanted us to tell them what to do. I said, ‘Call 9-1-1’. And he became a missing person.”

Palicki’s friend and Mana Foods co-worker, Brian Borgman, said Palicki was “kind of depressed” on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, partially due to an incident with one of his male roommates that made a pass at him and because his rent was being raised.

“But suicidal, not really,” Borgman said, although he added that about a year and a half earlier Palicki had “delusions and hallucinations, a psychotic breakdown.”

Borgman pointed to the modest house on Baldwin Avenue where Palicki lived. He said they hung out together in the garage to drink beer, smoke pot and play music — sometimes talking about starting a band. Palicki loved to play guitar.

Palicki’s housemates could not be reached for comment, despite calls and repeated trips to the Baldwin Avenue house, where only a white cat was home.

Family and friends said Palicki had a big heart, often feeding the homeless with leftover food from his workplace or with food he bought himself. He also fed goats across the street from where he lived, sending his father and stepmom a picture of them.

He is described as having a great sense of humor and being a bit of a jokester. Sister Patty Palicki recalled the time during a road trip when he made a horn in a Volkswagen bus blast nonstop at a gas station. “Everyone turned to look at us,” she said. “He thought it was funny.”

Stepmom Erin Palicki remembered when her husband and stepson tried to pay for a meal with a Craftsman Tool Card. “The poor waitress tried to run the card,” she said. “They both laughed.”

But family members said Palicki would go years being estranged from the family who loved him.

Kenney said her nephew just wanted to go away and live his life: “He was one of those people.”

Patty Palicki said her brother blended well with most situations he came across in life: “I always thought if he was thrown out of an airplane wherever, he would land on his feet, like a cat.”

Every couple of years family members would Google his name to try to figure out where he was. One year they learned a John Palicki had won a costume contest on Maui. But they hit the jackpot when his name showed up in a news story about a murder trial.

Palicki testified in 2016 against Mana Foods co-worker Steven Capobianco, who was accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend Carly “Charli” Scott.

“The prosecutor said he was gainfully employed at Mana Foods,” Kenney said. “I called Mana Foods and John answered. … I said, ‘This is your Aunt Pat’.”

She told him she would be on Maui and would love to see him and buy him dinner, “No strings attached.” They reunited in October 2017 for a “wonderful” four-day visit.

“He jumped in the pool with his clothes on and it made my grandson laugh,” Kenney said. “He was just a lovely man. So handsome, like a movie star. And as sweet as can be and very sensitive. I just know something bad happened to him. He didn’t commit suicide naked in a sugar cane field.”

Aunt Pat reconnected Palicki with his only sister, who reconnected him with their dad. In December 2019, Erin and John Palicki flew to Maui to see the younger John. Although Palicki had to work a lot during their visit, the couple said they spent quality time with him, including going on a whale watch.

Erin said Palicki pointed out where celebrities lived, including the home of Willie Nelson.

Palicki also told them he once talked on the phone with the billionaire who owns most of Lānaʻi.

“He said Larry Ellison called about ordering pies. And John said, ‘Sorry we don’t take pie orders, but you can come in and buy them,'” Erin recalled.

Then there was the time Palicki told them some blond singer almost ran him over in a car.

“He said it was either Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera,” Erin said. “We said, ‘John, you live a weird life.’”

Palicki replied: “I’m poor, but I live in paradise.”

It was the last time they saw Palicki.

Now they are working with funeral homes to have his cremated remains returned to Missouri.

“We all are devastated,” Erin Palicki said.

Patty Palicki said it has been difficult for their elderly mother: “She is putting on a brave face, but how could you not go into pieces. He’s definitely her pride and joy.”

For now, all Palicki’s family and Pāʻia ʻohana can do is wait for the toxicology results, final autopsy report, and answers from the Maui Police Department.

“Weʻre trying to be realistic about it,” Erin Palicki said. “We know it is not like TV and happens fast. But we hope it does not drag on for months.”

Patty Palicki said: “We just want the police to know people care about him. He has a family. We know they need time to do their job. But all the scenarios are going through [our heads]. We just can’t hop in the car and show up. It’s hard.”

Cammy Clark
Cammy Clark works for Maui Now as a news reporter. She has more than 30 years of journalism experience, previously working for the Miami Herald as the Florida Keys Bureau chief and sport writer, the Washington Post, St. Petersburg Times, United Press International, the Orange County Register and WRC-TV/George Michael Sports Machine. She grew up in New Hampshire and studied print journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., where she was the sports editor for the college newspaper, The Eagle.
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