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Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2000

BRIT AMONG EIGHT HOSTESSES WHO VANISHED

Serial killer may be after Western women


By JULIAN RYALL and CATHERINE MAKINO

A serial killer who preys on attractive Western women may be on the loose in Tokyo, according to a well-known Japanese criminologist and psychiatrist who has advised the family of Lucie Blackman.

Blackman, 21, who was working in Tokyo's Roppongi entertainment district, disappeared two months ago.

Sophie Blackman (center) and members of the Guardian Angels hand out fliers seeking information on her missing sister, Lucie, to passersby on a street in Tokyo's Roppongi district.

Shingo Takahashi, who has written extensively about Japanese cults and psychopaths, profiled the man who apparently kidnapped Lucie -- and he believes the same man may be responsible for the disappearance of as many as seven other Western women in the past five years.

Takahashi said the man probably acts alone, is obsessed with Western women and probably does not have a steady job, although he is well-dressed and has enough money to cruise the bars, strip joints and hostess bars of Roppongi.

"He would have been around Lucie before," Takahashi said. "He was possibly a customer or part of her surroundings -- a stalker."

Toshihiko Mii, deputy superintendent at Azabu Police Station, which is coordinating the investigation into Blackman's disappearance, said there are "no significant leads" in the case, but tacitly admitted his team is looking into the possibility that they are hunting a serial killer.

"We refuse to rule out anything in this investigation," he said.

Blackman, a blonde and blue-eyed former British Airways flight attendant from Sevenoaks in Kent, was working as a hostess in the Casablanca club before disappearing on July 1.

That evening, she called her roommate, Louise Phillips, and told her she was going to the beach with a customer. She later phoned Phillips to say she would be back soon. No one has heard from her since.

The next day, a man called Phillips and told her in broken English that she would never see her friend again. The man said he was keeping Lucie, adding: "This is the last time you are going to hear about Lucie. This is goodbye."

He also said she had joined a "newly risen religion" and "is doing fine."

The British media have pounced on the story, attracted by the irresistible combination of crime, cults and sex. The frenzy reached a peak when Phillips was able to sell her story to a British tabloid, reportedly for a five-figure sum.

"New fears for lost Brit" thundered The Sun, a tabloid famous for its lurid reporting, on July 11. "Fears were growing that former British Airways hostess Lucie Blackman is being held as a sex slave by an evil Japanese cult," the paper continued.

"Japanese cults have a record of using Western women as bait to lure men into their clutches. Recruits are offered unlimited sex -- but are then forbidden to leave," the paper claimed. "Anyone caught escaping is murdered."

And while the "details" presented by the tabloids might have leapt directly to the sensationalist, it seems this was inescapable in light of the fact that an apparently intelligent and street-wise Western woman had disappeared in a country that has always been considered among the safest in the world.

Takahashi, however, does not believe Blackman joined a cult.

"It takes a while for cults to initiate potential members," he said. "If Blackman joined of her own volition, people around her would have known. And the words the caller used to describe his religion were discriminatory -- members would never refer to themselves as a 'religious cult.' "

And since the revelations about Aum Shinrikyo and its plans to bring down Japanese society and replace it with one dreamed up by Shoko Asahara, cults here have kept a relatively low profile and do not aggressively seize potential new members.

Takahashi said the person who abducted Blackman probably has past convictions for offenses against women. And whoever abducted her "might have done it before," he said.

Hostesses working in Roppongi's clubs say that as many as seven other women have disappeared in the last five years. Tokyo police admit that figure is plausible, although they only have the case of Canadian Tiffany Fordham and the Blackman investigation still open.

Fordham vanished in 1997 after leaving a Roppongi club and has never been seen since.

A British hostess said that another woman, an Australian, disappeared last year.

"She was married to another Australian," the hostess said. "A week before they were both due to go home last year, she disappeared and has never been seen since. He asked around frantically but there were no clues, and he eventually had to return to Australia without her."

Many of these disappearances are not reported to police because the women are working in Japan illegally and bar owners have no desire to invite the police into their premises, which operate at best on the edges of the law.

Indeed, Blackman and Phillips had both been replaced at the Casablanca club within a week of Lucie's disappearance.

Most of the women working in Roppongi arrive in Japan on three-month tourist visas but find the attraction of the money they can earn in hostessing a good reason to stay.

Today, Roppongi attracts hostesses from the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, as well as an increasing number from Eastern Europe.

Whatever the outward facade of Roppongi, crime syndicates are the absolute power behind the scenes.

It has even been suggested that the yakuza may have abducted Blackman -- and her family have investigated that angle -- but that entire theory does not sit well with Takahashi.

"They have nothing to gain by snatching her," he said. "Besides, they usually drug their victims and then involve them in prostitution."

A high-ranking member of a Tokyo yakuza, who spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed.

"We wouldn't want all this police and media attention focused on us," he said. "If a fellow member was infatuated with a foreigner, we would know about it. They can't keep any secrets from us."

Deputy Superintendent Mii, part of a team of 40 officers conducting the investigation, said Roppongi is not what it used to be.

"It used to be very high class," he said. "Today, people from more than 30 different countries roam the streets. More and more people are being arrested for drug trafficking, violence, pick-pocketing and prostitution."

Some 120 foreigners were arrested in Roppongi last year alone, 66 more than the previous year.

Last year, an American woman started working in a hostess bar after being told how easy it was a make a lot of money quickly. She met a man through her club and agreed to go for a drink with him the following day. Two days later she woke up naked on a bed in a strange house.

She had apparently been slipped a dose of Rohypnol, better known as the date-rape drug. Fortunately the house was empty, so she got dressed and made her way back to Tokyo.

And because she had been working illegally, she had only one course of action open to her: she caught the first available flight out of Japan.

Blackman's family is still holding out hope that Lucie will come home, although that hope fades a little as each day passes with no breakthrough in the case.

"For me, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to maintain confidence in finding her," admitted Tim Blackman, her father.



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