HONOLULU – In the 10 years that have passed since the Oregon
football team’s 1994 Rose Bowl season, the year that changed the
definition of success for UO football, a handful of Ducks from that team
have remained in the public eye.
Linebacker Rich Ruhl has an insurance office in town, while
starting quarterback Danny O’Neil is a prominent voice in the local
Christian community, and linebacker Reggie Jordan is the UO athletic
department’s academic coordinator.
On a national level, safety Chad Cota recently retired after a
career in the NFL, and ’94 backup quarterback Tony Graziani can
still be seen in Arena Football League telecasts, playing for the Los
Those stories stand in stark contrast to the case of Silila and
Tasi Malepeai, the brothers who started in the trenches for the Ducks
against Penn State in the Rose Bowl of New Year’s Day 1995.
Silila, then a senior nose tackle, and Tasi, a sophomore offensive
lineman on that team, are each in federal prison for their roles in a
drug conspiracy in Hawaii, where they attended high school after being
born in American Samoa, and where they returned after finishing school at Oregon.
The Malepeais were arrested in March 2002 along with more than 30
co-conspirators, including their older brother Amako. Both Silila and
Tasi eventually entered a guilty plea to the charge of conspiring to
distribute in excess of 50 grams of methamphetamine and in excess of 500
grams of cocaine, though prosecutors said the actual amount of drugs
involved was significantly more.
Tasi, who prosecutors say played a key role in the drug ring, is
still awaiting sentencing, while Silila was sentenced to 70 months in
prison last December.
The charges against the pair carried a mandatory term of 10 years,
but Silila had his sentence reduced due to the minor role he played in
the conspiracy, as well as his lack of prior criminal history, along
with other factors. Tasi, on the other hand, will likely face at least
the minimum 10 years when he is sentenced, probably early next year,
according to lawyers involved with the case.
Federal prosecutors said the conspiracy began no later than 2000,
and involved importing drugs from California through Oahu, to eventually
be distributed on the island of Maui. Hawaii is the nation’s
largest consumer of meth, particularly the smokable, crystallized form
that is known as “ice” on the islands, according to a Honolulu
Star-Bulletin series on the epidemic in September 2003.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Muehluck, who prosecuted
the case, Tasi and Amako Malepeai were “in the top 10 percent”
of the conspirators in terms of their involvement.
“Both Amako and Tasi are looking at much more than 120 months
because of the amount of dope,” Muehluck said, adding that they
were “selling a lot of dope on the other islands. Pounds of
Having been sentenced already, Silila Malepeai is imprisoned at
Federal Prison Camp Nellis, a minimum-security facility in Las Vegas,
and hopes to be released in December 2005.
Silila Malepeai, Muehluck said, was in “the bottom third”
of the conspiracy. Muehluck said prosecutors believed Silila might have
been involved in helping Amako plan a robbery they hoped would yield
cash to buy drugs, but Silila said in a letter from prison that his
involvement entailed only his knowledge of his brothers’ illegal
“I wouldn’t even call it a role, because I’m not
part of this conspiracy,” Silila Malepeai, 32, wrote in response to
a series of questions from The Register-Guard. “My involvement is
that I knew what my brothers were doing. …
“I’m close with my brothers, and I knew what their
situations were. … They never influenced me as far as what they were
involved in, it’s just that I felt whatever they were doing was
them. What I didn’t understand is that a drug conspiracy case means
that if I have knowledge of what they did, then I’m part of the
Tasi Malepeai, 30, who remains in a Honolulu prison while awaiting
his sentencing hearing, had not returned a letter from the newspaper as
of Saturday. His lawyer, Michael Jay Green, said in June that he would
urge Tasi to avoid contact with media while they attempt to have his
sentence reduced as much as possible from the minimum guidelines.
But, Green acknowledged, “This is alleged to be a substantial
drug conspiracy. … It’s reasonable to believe these defendants
are looking at at least 10 years.”
The glory days
Ten years ago, Silila Malepeai was the emotional leader of the Gang
Green defense. Undersized but a ferocious competitor, the 265-pound nose
tackle helped Oregon to an 8-3 record in the regular season and a top-10
national ranking, as well as a Pac-10 championship and the Ducks’
first Rose Bowl appearance since 1958.
Tasi Malepeai started eight games as a sophomore, seven at right
guard, including the Rose Bowl. He struggled with his weight and his
motivation at times during his career, but by 1996 he had developed into
a key cog of what UO offensive line coach Neal Zoumboukos once called
his most dominating line in more than 20 years coaching at Oregon.
Zoumboukos declined to comment for this story.
A third brother, Pulou, was a sophomore fullback on the Rose Bowl
team. He was not involved in the drug conspiracy, and he did not return
numerous messages left for him at Honolulu’s Saint Louis High
School, where he was recently hired as an assistant football coach.
Oregon defensive line coach Steve Greatwood worked with Tasi
Malepeai when Greatwood was an offensive line assistant in 1994. He said
he last spoke with Tasi in 2000, and he became aware of the drug case
while recruiting Samoan defensive end Matt Toeaina, currently a UO
sophomore, in 2002.
“Just really disappointed,” Greatwood said of his initial
reaction. “These are kids that had the whole world in front of
them. I was just disappointed they ended up making the choices they
“It surprised me, because they had worked so hard to overcome
where they had come from. If they both would have flunked out and left
here, that wouldn’t have surprised me at all. They both came out of
the projects there in Honolulu. I think a lot of people don’t
associate Honolulu as a rough place, but it is, just like any other
Greatwood, who currently recruits the Pacific islands for the
Ducks, noted that although the Malepeais came from a rough neighborhood,
they grew up in a loving home.
Greatwood left Oregon for the NFL after the Rose Bowl season, but
he took pride in Tasi Malepeai’s development into a valuable
contributor after his departure.
“He was a talented yet unmotivated athlete early on in his
career,” said Greatwood, who returned to Oregon in 2000. “To
watch him blossom, both on the football field and in the classroom, was
neat. As with any other kid, you watch that maturation from the time
they enter as a 17- or 18-year-old.
“Like if it was your own son or daughter that got into trouble
like this, you deal with this huge disappointment. You still love them
and you hope somehow they’ll get their lives together, but
you’re really hurt and disappointed by it.”
Greatwood said it was his understanding that Tasi Malepeai, a
sociology major at Oregon, had been trying to forge a career in social
services, possibly working with kids.
Life after college
Silila Malepeai stayed in Eugene to finish his master’s degree in education, in 1996, then moved back to Hawaii the following year. He
worked as a supervisor at the Bank of Hawaii for three years, then took
a position teaching special education at an intermediate school.
Concurrently, he started a music production company that featured
well-known artists from the islands.
“But he was always getting pulled back into the problems with
his brothers,” said Myles Breiner, Silila’s defense attorney.
“He was drawn between loyalty to family, culture and community, and
then his commitment to himself. … It was a real problem. It was an
inherent contradiction in his life.”
As Assistant U.S. Attorney Muehluck noted, “He’s not the
typical dope mope. He’d gone to college, got his master’s. He
just got caught up with his brothers.”
Last August, Silila Malepeai married Benjaline Maiava, with whom he
has a son. His wife visits him every two months, but he hasn’t seen
his son since January, when he left Hawaii after his sentencing.
At FPC Nellis, Malepeai works during the day, then reads and
exercises until lockdown. Once released, Malepeai said he looks forward
to returning to Hawaii and rebuilding his life with his new family.
“I take things one day at a time,” Silila Malepeai wrote,
“but one thing is for sure, is that I’m never coming to jail
again and putting my loved ones through this pain.”
`A Duck till I die’
This fall, when the Ducks reach the 10-year anniversary of the Rose
Bowl season, Silila Malepeai will be among those who look back fondly on
the year Oregon began its rise to national prominence.
“I always reflect back on my days in Eugene because it was an
amazing experience,” he wrote. “I learned a lot there. The
fondest memories are the friendships I made there with teammates and
“I get letters from (former teammates) Romeo Bandison and
Herman O’Berry. I still remember the Rose Bowl team, the Gang Green
defense. Oregon came out of nowhere and took over the Pac-10.
“After that year, Oregon football has been dominant in every
year, with a few downers here and there. But for the most part, the
Ducks have always been competitive. I’m a Duck till I die.”
Silila Malepeai, a senior nose tackle during the Rose Bowl season,
raises his arms to the Oregon faithful who traveled to Los Angeles to
see Oregon defeat Southern California 22-7 on Oct. 1, 1994.
“I’m a Duck till I die,” he recently wrote. Andy Nelson /
The Register-Guard, 1995 Tasi Malepeai, a sophomore offensive lineman,
kneels on the turf as time runs out in Oregon’s loss to Penn State
in the 1995 Rose Bowl. Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard, 1994 Silila
Malepeai is serving a 70-month sentence in federal prison, while his
younger brother Tasi awaits sentencing.