Tragic chain of events devastate Tongan community after deadly Oakland police chase
OAKLAND, Calif. - It was supposed to be a celebratory weekend.
Lolomanaia "Lolo" Soakai and his mother had attended the graduation of a fellow church member in Concord after she earned her bachelor's degree.
Meanwhile, cousin Ian Finau and members of Toko Harley Rydaz – a Tongan biker club – had finished escorting a reggae artist to her show in Oakland on their motorcycles.
As many do in Oakland - especially in this tight-knit Tongan community - both groups and their extended families ended up converging by chance at the popular 54 Burrito Truck on 54th Avenue for a late-night snack.
But unbeknownst to the group of friends and family, they were also sharing a meal at the same spot where Oakland police were pursuing a 19-year-old driver, who was allegedly at an illegal sideshow was speeding down International Boulevard at 100 mph on Sunday about 2 a.m.
The chase ended badly.
The driver in a Nissan 350Z crashed into a row of parked cars and motorcycles belonging to the biker club.
One of those bikes fell on top of the 28-year-old Soakai, killing him, moments after he hugged a cousin goodbye.
His mother broke her back. His two cousins were sent to the hospital with minor injuries and have since been discharged.
"Everybody was there at the wrong time," said Finau, one of Soakai's many cousins and member of the biker club.
Finau stayed at the scene until sunrise, watching as investigators interviewed witnesses. He borrowed a broom from a store owner and swept the street from debris with other bike club members. They created a sidewalk memorial where family and friends have gathered every day since to mourn the tragic loss of Soakai.
Friends and family described him as a humble, quiet man who sang gospel at church and who took care of his single mother ever since his father died in 2016 of heart disease.
"I don’t know how to explain my emotions," Finau said. "I just sit there and cry. That’s the same with everyone. I go to the memorial every day. We don’t talk about it. We don’t say much. But I see the tears."
As for the owner of the bike?
"He's not taking it too well," Finau said. "But we told him, ‘Hey man, you didn’t cause the wreck.'"
MORE: Oakland police chase suspect, flee scene after deadly crash, sources say
Tight-knit Tongan family left with questions
Finau and his circle are also confused and have many questions about what happened that morning.
KTVU first reported that two rookie Oakland police officers initiated an unauthorized chase of 19-year-old Arnold Linaldi in his Nissan 350Z down International Boulevard.
After the officers saw Linaldi crash in the street, two sources told KTVU that they took off and did not render medical aid.
One source said that the officers never came back to the scene. Another source said the pair showed up later to help, acting as if they didn't know about the crash.
Linaldi has since bailed out of custody and has not yet been charged with any crime.
KTVU has tried to reach Linaldi through his Facebook page, which shows him at what appears to be sideshow events in the past. He and his friends have posted several videos showing them speeding down streets, including down International Boulevard. He has not responded and has since made some of his page private.
A screen shot of an Instagram video shows Oakland police chasing a Nissan down International Boulevard. June 26, 2022
It's unclear exactly what happened at the scene.
At a news conference held Wednesday about two hours after KTVU published its account, Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong would not elaborate on the details of the officers' involvement.
And his department has remained mum on just what linked Linaldi to a sideshow that morning.
MORE: 2 Oakland cops involved in deadly chase stripped of badge and gun, placed on administrative leave
Police officers stripped of powers
However, Armstrong confirmed that he was seeking to terminate the officers and had stripped them of their police powers.
But he also said he was barred by law and policy to give out any more details.
Armstrong did acknowledge, however, that he has "identified potential misconduct, very serious potential misconduct."
For now, Soakai's family is left to grapple with their fate and their future.
And they wonder how his mother will be cared for.
Lolo and Henry Soakai dressed in a traditional Tongan tauvala at their father's funeral in 2016. Courtesy: Henry Soakai
A humble, quiet son
Soakai was born and raised in Oakland, but moved with his younger brother, Henry, and parents to Euless, Texas, a hub for Tongans, many of whom work in the airline industry, according to great-aunt Cynthia Huahulu.
"It's a good job with free air fare," Huahulu.
As a teen, he played football and went to church. He also has three older sisters.
"He took care of his mother," his aunt said. "He was very Christian. God, family and rugby are the three things in Tongan culture."
When he got older, Soakai also ended up taking a job in the airline industry.
He worked for American Airlines as a supervisor. His paychecks supported his family.
"He thought about others above himself," said Henry Soakai, who flew in from Texas to help. "He was the sole provider for my mom."
A few years back, Soakai returned to the Bay Area. His mother followed. And the two lived together in Hayward.
He spent a lot of time singing gospel at the Laurel United Methodist Church on 35th Avenue in Oakland.
"If he wasn't at work, he was hanging out with friends or at church," Finau said.
The family has yet to bury Soakai.
His body is still with the coroner, where there is a long backup of autopsies to conduct, family said.
With Soakai gone, Huahulu started a GoFundMe page to help with expenses.
Soakai's mother might need surgery for the injuries she suffered when the motorcycles flew following the chase.
For the time being, the family feels numb, spending every day on the sidewalk by the taco truck where Soakai was killed.
They light candles. They reminisce. And they cry.
"I just want my mom to be OK and justice for my brother, whatever happened that night," Henry Soakai said. "I still can't believe it. I'm speechless. But for now, we just got to wait."
Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez