Dr. Anthony Manoukian, Maui County coroner's physician who was known as much for his generosity and humility as his expertise in death investigations, is being mourned by friends, colleagues and family members.
Many remember the island's first forensic-trained pathologist for his expert testimony on autopsies he conducted in connection with murders and other criminal cases in 2nd Circuit Court.
Dr. Anthony Manoukian, Maui County coroner’s physician, testifies last year in 2nd Circuit Court. Well-known for his expert testimony in criminal cases, Manoukian was the island’s first forensic-trained pathologist. He died Sunday.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
After being diagnosed in November with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Manoukian died Sunday. He was 58.
Fellow pathologist and longtime friend Dr. Barry Shitamoto said Manoukian's loss will be felt keenly by Maui's medical community and beyond.
"Whoever Tony was friends with, they all felt like they were his best friend," Shitamoto said. "Tony had a knack for making people feel that way. He had many best friends."
In 1997, Manoukian served as chief of the medical staff at Maui Memorial Medical Center. He was a passionate supporter of the hospital, serving on various committees, Shitamoto said. And members of his family said Manoukian's favorite charity was the Maui Memorial Medical Center Foundation.
Shitamoto said Manoukian served as a teacher and mentor for high school students and police officers.
"Tony's influence on youth, students, new police officers (and) others was enormous," he said. "There are more than several students that are following their dreams in the forensic sciences due to Tony's mentorship. His professional legacy may live through these professionals and serve our Hawaii communities."
Another longtime friend, attorney Tony Takitani, said he met Manoukian more than a dozen years ago when, while he was working for a client, he had a conversation with him about an autopsy.
He said Manoukian was an "impressive guy," and he felt nervous talking with him.
But Takitani's uneasy feeling quickly evaporated when he found how personable Manoukian was.
"He was the nicest, easiest guy to talk to," he recalled. "He didn't talk down to anybody. He could explain things in a simple, clear way. ... You'd never guess he's one of the most capable professionals in America.
"So many people felt like he was their best friend," he said.
According to a biography provided by his family, Manoukian was born May 21, 1952, in Chicago, where he started a lifelong love affair with the Cubs. In 1960, the family moved to the San Francisco Bay area, and Manoukian eventually attended the University of California at Davis, earning a bachelor of science degree in zoology in 1974.
He received his graduate degree in public health from the University of Minnesota in 1983 and his medical degree in 1987 from St. George's University School of Medicine in Grenada, West Indies.
"Tony excelled in anatomy, becoming a teaching assistant and preparing tissue specimens that would be used to train future students," his family's website said.
His studies in Grenada were interrupted by the U.S. invasion of the island in October 1983. He was evacuated with other students but later returned to complete his medical degree.
Following a pathology residency at the Kaiser hospital in Honolulu and a one-year forensic pathology fellowship in Baltimore, Manoukian came to Maui in the early 1990s to work as one of the few forensic pathologists in the Pacific basin.
A doctor in general practice had been doing autopsies on Maui. But after the state Legislature passed a law requiring that autopsies be done by a pathologist, Manoukian became the first permanent resident forensic pathologist for Maui County. He also did autopsies on Kauai and the Big Island and in other parts of the Pacific.
As assistant to the medical examiner, Burt Freeland worked with Manoukian for 18 years, doing about 200 autopsies a year.
A few years ago, the two hiked to the top of a mountain in Waihee to perform an autopsy on a body that was too fragile to move, Freeland recalled. They had to make sure the man hadn't been shot or otherwise met with foul play. The man, a military deserter, had been camping in the area before running out of food and living off the land, Freeland said. He said an investigation determined that the man may have poisoned himself.
Manoukian worked with the Hawaii Disaster Medical Assistance Team and the Federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team to provide assistance after disasters, including a tsunami in Samoa, Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti.
Freeland, who is also part of the federal mortuary team, said volunteers in those situations sometimes must live in tents.
"You've got to be able to really rough it and get used to eating MREs when they don't have kitchen facilities," he said. "Even though you're not doing armed combat, it gets a little rough. But he and I both enjoyed serving our country that way."
Manoukian was deputy commander of Region 9 of the Federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team.
"We were pretty close friends," Freeland said. "We had good times. He was a lot of fun.
"Anybody can become a great pathologist, but Dr. Manoukian wasn't known to be just in the morgue. He got out in the community and did a lot of things.
"I just remember him as a really happy guy, and all of a sudden he's gone. He'll be missed."
Acting Maui County Prosecuting Attorney John D. Kim said attorneys in the office worked closely with Manoukian on many cases.
"He was just the best," Kim said. "He knew everything, and he explained it so we could explain it in layman's terms. He was always there. He'd give you his direct line when nobody else would.
"It's a very big loss for the county."
Manoukian testified about his autopsy findings at many murder trials, including those of convicted double-murderer Daniel Kosi in 1999 and Michael Arlo Pavich in 2005 for strangling to death an 82-year-old Kihei man.
"He was able to speak for the deceased or the victims and tell their story," said First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Robert Rivera, who handled many of the high-profile cases during Manoukian's tenure. "That's how we got a lot of the evidence.
"The thing that stood out about Dr. Manoukian was he explained it in a way that the layperson could understand."
Rivera said jurors he talked to after trials would mention how Manoukian's testimony was "extremely helpful and insightful."
"He captivated them," Rivera said. "It made it easier for them to come up with a decision.
"He had his quirkiness and his long hair. That just endeared him even more to the jury. He wasn't stuffy."
For a time, Manoukian was owner of Molina's bar in Wailuku. He purchased the business in 2000 before later selling it.
"He was a proud bar owner," said Rivera, who was a deputy corporation counsel when the liquor board reviewed the matter.
Rivera said he appreciated how Manoukian would make himself available to testify in cases, even when hearings were delayed and he would have to return to court more than once.
"Although he was the expert, he would come back," Rivera said. "He's one of the nicer persons."
When he headed the Maui police Traffic Section, retired Capt. Charles Hirata worked closely with Manoukian in the investigation of traffic deaths.
"I enjoyed his friendship both on and off the job," Hirata said. "He's one of the few that took the time to teach others as he went about his job. I pass on some of his lessons when I teach car seat safety. We actually learn a lot from the dead, which helps us to protect the living."
Manoukian was instrumental in planning a new forensic facility that will move the county morgue out of its cramped quarters, said police Assistant Chief Larry Hudson.
Manoukian was there for the blessing of the new facility Dec. 28.
"In dealing with him, he was humble," Hudson said. "He would talk to anybody. He didn't care about where you were in life. He treated everybody exactly the same.
"He was a super intelligent man who would listen, who was compassionate. He was just a likable guy.
"He was a good man. The community is much less because he's gone."
According to his family, beginning last autumn, Manoukian had difficulty speaking and needed to type his pathology reports by hand instead of dictating them. Later, he was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rapidly progressive and incurable neurological disorder.
Jerry Manoukian, an internal medicine physician in Mountain View, Calif., said family members don't know how his brother became infected with the illness, although it's possible he was exposed to it through his work.
The disease is rare, with about 300 cases reported in the United States each year, or about 1 in a million, he said.
In a day or two, family and friends plan to gather in California to have a barbecue and party in Manoukian's honor - no service, just friends and good food, his brother said.
"We'll mostly enjoy ourselves and remember him," he said. "It's very hard . . . It's very hard being without him."
Jerry Manoukian said he'd like to hold a similar event on Maui for family members to be with his brother's friends and colleagues here. But it was undecided when that might be.
Manoukian is survived by his wife, Downey, and brothers Pete, Jerry and Phil.
In a letter to the Maui County Council dated Thursday, Maui County Police Chief Gary Yabuta asked that Manoukian be recognized posthumously for commitment to his work in death investigations.
"What was further remarkable about the character of Dr. Manoukian was his ability to interact with every officer and employee of the Maui Police Department," Yabuta said. "He was a true friend to all of us.
"Through his professional findings, the families of the deceased were provided with personal closure. And, in the case of a criminal homicide, we were all given a sense of satisfaction that justice was served through the methodology and skills of Dr. Anthony Manoukian."
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com. City Editor Brian Perry contributed to this report.