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Visiting Tongan Prince, Princess Killed in Bay Area Crash

The nephew of the nation's king and his wife die in a collision on the 101 Freeway.

July 07, 2006|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In a tragedy that has left the Bay Area's Tongan community reeling, two visiting members of the tiny nation's royal family were killed late Wednesday after their SUV was struck by a speeding Mustang.

Prince Tu'ipelehake, 56, and his wife, Princess Kaimana, 45, had arrived in the Bay Area on Tuesday and were scheduled to attend a large community forum Thursday night at a San Bruno church to discuss the needs of Tongans abroad, said the Rev. Heilala Ahio of First Tongan United Methodist Church of Palo Alto.

The San Bruno church, led by the Rev. Kalatini Ahio, Heilala Ahio's husband, instead became the site of a vigil for stunned community members.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are 4,549 people in San Mateo County who identified themselves as Tongan, or Tongan and another race or ethnicity

"It's very, very sad," said Ahio, who learned of the deaths in an early morning phone call from San Francisco's Tongan consul general. "It cuts to the heart of the Tongan community."

The prince is the nephew of ailing King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, who has been honored at Ahio's church in the past during regular visits to Stanford Medical Center.

The prince was also a leading proponent of political reform in Tonga, a group of small islands about 3,000 miles southwest of Hawaii. He had been chairing a Parliamentary National Committee for Political Reform, with support from Tonga's regent princess, who is ruling as the ailing king seeks treatment for heart problems.

The couple and their driver, Vinisia Hefa, 36, were killed about 9 p.m. Wednesday as they traveled north on Highway 101 through the peninsula city of Menlo Park.

California Highway Patrol spokesman Ricky Franklin said their Ford Explorer was struck by a 1988 white Ford Mustang driven by 18-year-old Edith Delgado, who was allegedly racing another car at speeds up to 100 mph.

Delgado, who was not injured, was jailed on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter and engaging in a speed contest. Authorities say a black Cadillac Escalade with spinner type rims may have also been involved.

While word of the royals' death spread through the local community and the news made its way onto Tongan websites, authorities withheld the names of the prince and princess.

San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said the consul general had asked for the restraint, as he sought to notify the Royal Palace and allow any official announcement to come from there.

"It's a cultural thing," Foucrault said. "Since they are royalty, they have to go through their protocols."

Consul General Tevita 'Otulau-'o-Lakepa Kolokihakaufisi could not be reached for comment.

Ahio said the prince and princess were making their second visit. They had attended a similar community forum last year, attended by more than a thousand people.

The community has been troubled by issues of youth delinquency and low educational achievement. So vexing are the problems that police from Burlingame and San Bruno recently traveled to Tonga in order to better understand the culture and help youths adjust.

Ironically, it was American-style delinquency that appears to have brought the lives of the Tongan royals to an unceremonious end, compounding the community's grief.

"We accept death," Ahio said, "but at the same time the way death came to the royal family, it is very sad to us."

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