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Tuesday, Sep. 6, 2011

THE ZEIT GIST

Kang family takes fight for justice to Tokyo

Father of young Korean-American who died in murky circumstances in Kabuki-cho feels let down by both the police and U.S. Embassy


By SIMON SCOTT

Sung Won, the father of Hoon "Scott" Kang, the Korean-American tourist who died in mysterious circumstances in Shinjuku last year, arrived in Tokyo this week to continue his fight to seek justice for his son.

News photo
Joined by injustice: Americans Sung Won Kang and Charles Lacey, both of whom have lost close family members in mysterious circumstances in Japan, discuss their experiences at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo on Sunday. Kang and Lacey are both deeply unhappy with the way the Japanese police have dealt with their cases. SIMON SCOTT PHOTO

Family spokesman Ray Wozniak, who accompanied Mr. Kang to Tokyo, says the purpose of their visit is first and foremost to seek legal representation, but also to raise awareness about the case.

"We want to follow whatever limited options the Japanese legal system offers us to obtain the information we need," explains Wozniak. "We want the evidence — we want to know how it was that Scott died."

In addition, they are meeting with representatives from the U.S. Embassy and the public prosecutor's office to discuss the case.

After their visit to Japan they plan to travel to the Kangs' ancestral home in South Korea, where Scott's ashes were laid, to honor his memory.

A Korean film crew from TV station MBC are following Kang and Wozniak on their journey for a one-hour program they are making about the case that will be aired later this month as part of the channel's documentary series "The Day."

The Kang family is upset by the news that the official investigation into their son's death has now been closed after the police concluded his death was accidental.

"I feel very angry and heartbroken," says Scott's father.

The Kangs and their supporters strongly reject the police finding of accidental death and want to see the case re-opened. They are also deeply unhappy with the way the Japanese police carried out the investigation and their failure to inform the family when they closed the case.

"Not only did they not tell my family, but we heard the news five months late. I was furious," Kang says.

Nineteen-year-old Scott Kang was found lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood in the early hours of Aug. 26, 2010, in the sixth-floor stairwell of Collins Building 15, an eight-story high-rise of small hostess bars and clubs located near Shinjuku City Hall in Kabuki-cho. He remained in a coma for five days before dying of his injuries, his mother by his side, at the Kokuritsu Kokusai Iryo Kenkyu Center in Shinjuku.

The police investigation into his death was officially closed on Feb. 22, but the family was not informed of the fact until July — five months later.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police say they notified the consular section of the American Embassy in Tokyo that the investigation had been closed on Feb. 22, and thought the information would be passed on to the Kang family.

But according to Mr. Kang, he received no communication from the U.S. authorities about the investigation's closure until early July when an officer from the U.S. State Department telephoned.

Kang says that the failure of the embassy to pass on such critical information in a timely fashion shows the embassy is not taking the case seriously. "I feel the U.S. Embassy acted as if Scott was not a U.S. citizen."

Wozniak, who has communicated with the embassy about the case on a number of occasions, echoes this sentiment.

"I have seen many movies where U.S. Embassy personnel come to the aid and defense of Americans in foreign countries. I see it now as Hollywood fiction, as our embassy in Tokyo seems to act as if Scott Kang were not even an American citizen, much less someone worthy of attention," he says.

The fact that the embassy took almost five months to inform the family the case had been closed is indicative of the kind of dismissive attitude they have taken toward the Kangs and their supporters from the outset, Wozniak adds.

The Japan Times contacted the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo on numerous occasions requesting comment on this issue, but to date the embassy has declined to respond.

Mr. Kang also believes the failure of the police to directly inform him about the outcome of their investigation is symptomatic of the way they have approached the case from the beginning.

"If it (the investigation) was adequate, the Japanese police would have notified me directly saying they could not work on this case any longer," he says. "They did not put their heart into their own job, and it felt like they were trying to hide something from my family."

The Kang family and their supporters recently formed the Scott Kang Justice Committee in Buford, the small town in Georgia where the family live. The group held a protest outside the Japanese Consulate in Atlanta on Aug. 15, timed to coincide with Korean Independence Day, to try and raise awareness about the case.

Wozniak said he was gratified to see so many strangers come out and support the family's fight for a "fair and thorough" investigation into Scott's death.

"Although we are finally seeing some small signs of official Japanese recognition that there is a problem with this investigation, many thousands of Koreans are indignant at the insincerity of the Japanese police and the past silence on the part of the Japanese government," he says. "The Scott Kang Justice Committee felt compelled to act at what is nearly the first anniversary of Scott's death."

The protest was attended by more than 80 Korean-Americans, many of whom were members of the Salt and Light Presbyterian Church, where Scott's father is an ordained deacon, and was concluded with the presentation of a petition of 4,608 signatures and a letter of protest to the vice consul, Joji Miyamori.

Earlier in the year the Kang family also delivered a 2,500-signature petition to the Japanese Embassy in Washington and even sent letters to President Barack Obama.

The Kang family don't just believe the police's decision to close the investigation into Scott's death was premature; they also think the police are withholding critical evidence from them that could prove Scott's death was not accidental. One such piece of evidence is the autopsy report.

When Mr. Kang and Wozniak met with the Shinjuku police in October they requested a copy of the autopsy report into Scott's death, but the police refused.

Mr. Wozniak says that the police had a copy of the report in their possession at that time, but all they were willing to do was read excerpts of it aloud to them.

"We are upset that we cannot obtain copies of official documents relating to Hoon's death, and mystified that they would refuse us such information," Wozniak says. He adds that they also requested copies of crime scene photographs and video footage from a security camera in the building where the original incident occurred, but these requests were also refused.

The video footage, which was taken from the elevator of Collins Building 15, shows Scott shortly before his death and has become the center of the controversy surrounding Scott's case.

Wozniak says he and Scott's father viewed the video footage at least 20 times at Shinjuku Police Station and they are convinced the video indicates foul play.

According to Wozniak, the footage shows Scott entering the elevator from the first floor, followed by two men.

He says the Shinjuku police later informed them — after repeated requests — that the two were a large-framed, 44-year-old Filipino tout and entertainer for The Masquerade, a gay bar in the building's basement, and his shorter, 22-year-old Japanese assistant.

Wozniak says that after the Japanese man leaves the elevator, the Filipino proceeds to threaten Scott, holding both his fists in front of his face and then grabbing his wrist in what Wozniak calls a "control move." Both Scott and the Filipino exit the elevator on the eighth floor.

"Most damning of all, the suspect's right shoulder moves forward to deliver a rabbit punch to Scott's midsection," Wozniak says. "Scott doubles over, and in several images his face shows him to be in clear and severe pain."

The police, however, told Kang and Wozniak they believe the Filipino man's movements in the elevator weren't violent or threatening, but in fact indicators of a homosexual encounter.

A Shinjuku police officer apparently told Mr. Kang that what Scott's father and Wozniak interpreted as a pained facial expression in response to a body blow was in fact Scott attempting to kiss the man. The police also claim that rather than gripping Scott's hand in a "control move," the pair were simply holding hands.

The Kang family and Wozniak, a Sunday school teacher who has known Scott since he was young and counseled him on many occasions, are adamant that Scott was not gay. The two other young Korean American men who accompanied Scott on his trip to Japan told Wozniak the three went to Kabuki-cho in the hope of meeting pretty Japanese girls.

News photo
Ancestral home: On holiday from his job as an English teacher in South Korea, where this undated picture was taken, American citizen Hoon "Scott" Kang died days after sustaining a head wound in the stairwell of a building in Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho district under mysterious circumstances. COURTESY OF SUNG WON KANG

The refusal by police to give the next-of-kin of a deceased person a copy of the autopsy is common in Japan, but it is an approach that has attracted increasing criticism over the years. No one is more familiar with the difficulty of getting the police to release an autopsy than 50-year-old U.S. citizen and Japan resident Charles Lacey.

Lacey's younger brother, Matthew Lacey, tragically died in Fukuoka in 2004 in suspicious circumstances. On Aug. 17 of that year, while Charles was staying in New York, he got a call from the Fukuoka Police informing him that they had found his brother's body at the apartment where he lived and that he had died from dehydration and diarrhea.

"My brother was 41 and in good health," explains Lacey. "I think it goes without question: A 41-year-old dies suddenly, then the police relay to me the information that he died of dehydration and diarrhea?

"If this were an African or Asian country where deaths from diarrhea are prevalent, but . . . an educated individual in Japan, he would know enough to call the hospital if he felt dehydrated. So I thought, 'That is odd.' "

Despite the unusual circumstances of his brother's death, Lacey says the police initially had no plans to perform an autopsy, and it was only at his own behest that they reluctantly agreed to carry one out.

After Charles signed the necessary papers, an autopsy was performed on Aug. 19, two days after he was told of his brother's death, at Kyushu University Hospital. Later the police told Charles that the autopsy showed a 20-cm fracture on his brother's skull, and that based on this, their determination of cause of death had changed from death by sickness to an accident.

As time went on, Charles and his family back in the States became increasingly concerned about the way the police kept shifting their position on the case and asked to see the autopsy for themselves.

"The police explanation vacillated from death due to diarrhea and dehydration to a fall on a carpeted kitchen floor that resulted in a massive skull fracture. Who wouldn't be eager to see what the medical examiner found after such a nonsensical story?"

Lacey added that in his home country, it is standard procedure for a copy of the autopsy to be given to the next-of-kin of a deceased person when requested. In Japan, as Lacey discovered, things are not so simple, and it took him almost three years to get a copy of the report.

"I got it (the report) after constant pressure. I was calling on a regular basis — I was just a thorn in their side. Eventually they relented," he says.

The Lacey family then showed the autopsy results to three different, independent medical examiners, all of whom reached the same conclusion: that the police determination of accidental death was wrong. The central flaw in the police theory was the claim that Matthew had, after falling onto the kitchen floor and severely fracturing his skull, walked to his futon and lay down.

"All three medical examiners told me that somebody who suffered such a severe head trauma is not going to get up from such an injury," explains Lacey. "And he died on his futon. (It was) just one implausibility after the other."

The medical examiners identified a number of other weaknesses in the police explanation, including an absence of tissue or hair on the kitchen floor and issues relating to blood stains on the futon.

Lacey believes that the long delay in releasing the autopsy results meant these critical findings by independent medical examiners had little impact.

"People lose interest in cases. What would be the point in doing a followup investigation after two or three years?" he says. "I do want people to know, if a loved one or family member here dies abruptly or under unexplained circumstances, demand an autopsy and get a good lawyer, because the police are going to place a lot of limits on the amount of information they are going to release."

Maiko Tagusari, a lawyer and secretary general of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, says that in cases where an autopsy is conducted for "administrative reasons" — namely cases where the cause of death is unclear but foul play is not suspected — autopsy results are made available to family members. But in cases when it is suspected that the death was caused by a crime, the autopsy results become part of the records of a criminal investigation and are not available to any party outside the justice system.

In such cases, family members have to make a request to get access, and this is only possible after an indictment, she adds.

"For me, this seems like a failure of the system," says Tagusari. "At the very least autopsy reports should be disclosed to family members, because it is just objective evidence which does not harm the privacy of anyone other than the victim themselves."

Despite these kinds of barriers, the Kang family plans to push ahead and fight to get their son's autopsy results released. Wozniak says the family is currently in the process of retaining a Japanese lawyer and they intend to work through legal channels to obtain copies of the autopsy, crime scene photos and security camera footage of Scott taken shortly before he died. They believe getting these items released will prove false the theory that Scott died as the result of an accident and show he was murdered.

"A scientific approach to the extent of Hoon's wounds, I am speculating, will demonstrate that they may not have been caused by simply falling down, that great force was necessary to create a hole in Hoon's skull, and may demonstrate otherwise that Hoon made efforts to fight off his attackers," Wozniak says.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police were contacted on a number of occasions for comment on this story, and comprehensive written questions relating to the case were submitted to the police by The Japan Times.

In response they issued a very short written statement saying that the investigation into the case was closed on Feb. 22 and that they had passed this information on to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo on the same day. The police declined to answer any questions about their findings relating to the death of Hoon Kang or his autopsy.

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp



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