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Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007


U.S. man on quest to find cause of brother's death

Staff writer

OSAKA -- Charles Lacey's brother died mysteriously 2 1/2 years ago in Fukuoka and he's still trying to learn the cause.

News photo
Charles Lacey in Nagoya last week says he has not given up his search for answers 2 1/2 years after his brother's death. ERIC JOHNSTON PHOTO

He believes police bungled the investigation, wrongly concluded the death was due to an accident and are, like prosecutors, purposely withholding key information that could suggest foul play.

On Aug. 16, 2004, Lacey, who lives in Nagoya but was visiting family in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., received a fateful call. The director of the Fukuoka YMCA was calling to tell him that his brother, Matt, 42, a language student at the YMCA, had been found dead in his apartment.

A fellow student, worried because Matt didn't show up for class, dropped by his apartment. After voicing concern to the landlord, the two went up to Matt's sixth-floor unit to check on him.

What happened next is unclear. Lacey says he was told by the landlord in August 2004 the door was unlocked. The landlord told The Japan Times last September, however, that she only remembers putting the key in the door and turning it, and doesn't recall if it was locked or not.

But when the door was opened, the student and landlord were greeted by the sight of Matt's body, sprawled on a futon, soaked in blood around his head and shoulders. Police were called, and after initial attempts to track down Lacey in Nagoya failed, the YMCA finally reached him at his family home in Poughkeepsie.

By the time Lacey and his other brother, Denny, arrived in Fukuoka and met with police, it was nearly six days after Matt's body had been discovered. While still in New York, the Lacey family requested an autopsy over the phone, which Charles says police reluctantly granted.

At the time, the family was told by police the preliminary cause of death was thought to be severe diarrhea and dehydration. Feces stains had been found on the toilet seat and the carpet, and Matt, who suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, had recently received a prescription to treat diarrhea. Robbery did not appear to be a motive, as Japanese and U.S. currency worth nearly $1,000 was found in plain view.

But once the Lacey brothers arrived in Fukuoka, the cops changed their story. The autopsy had revealed a 20-cm crack in Matt's skull, and "cerebral hemorrhage" was now listed as the cause of death.

The English translation of the postmortem, which was prepared by Fukuoka police and not by the doctor who performed the exam, attributed the death to an "unknown external cause" and "it is suspected the subject was hit on the head."

To the family's surprise, foul play was ruled out.

"We were told by police that Matt must have fallen down in the kitchen, striking his head, and that the fall resulted in the skull fracture, despite the fact there were no signs in the kitchen of a fall," Lacey said. "Our family felt something was wrong and that the police weren't doing their job. There were too many unanswered questions to believe this was just an accident, as the police wanted us to believe."

Over the ensuing months, Lacey began playing detective, calling Matt's old friends and colleagues and traveling to Fukuoka to bang on doors and ask questions.

If foul play was involved, none of the evidence that has come to light so far offers a clear indication of who the culprit might be.

The fact that no neighbor reported anything strange prior to Matt's death suggests that someone who knew him may have been involved.

However, Lacey said Matt sounded normal and there was no indication he was being threatened by anybody in a phone conversation they had not long before he is believed to have died.

Lacey was astonished to learn police never apparently questioned anyone around his brother.

"When I asked the police if they had spoken to the tenants directly above and below Matt's apartment, they said they had. But later, when I questioned the tenants, they said the police had never contacted them," he said.

Lacey become further convinced that Matt's death was not an accident after speaking with a Fukuoka-based physician familiar with Matt's health record who told him the death was probably not accidental.

"Given the size of the crack on the victim's head, which resulted in an egg-size bump, and the way the body was found, it's unlikely the death was by natural causes or an accident," said the physician, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The family contacted Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent in the U.S. who is now a forensic investigator. "Matt's death was obviously suspicious, but that without the full autopsy report and photos, it was impossible to say what really happened," he e-mailed to The Japan Times.

The Fukuoka Public Prosecutor's Office refused to turn over a copy of either the full autopsy report or the autopsy photos, both of which the Laceys had arranged to show a prominent American forensic specialist for a second opinion. The office only allowed Lacey to take photos of a few pages of the autopsy report.

The Lacey family sent a letter to the U.S. Consulate in Fukuoka in August 2005 seeking the report and photos be referred to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

An embassy investigation found that the Fukuoka prosecutors had taken no further action. The embassy was told it was not the general policy of the prosecutor's office to release copies of autopsy reports, even to the next of kin.

"Both we and the American citizen relatives of a deceased person often feel the level of attention to an investigation and into the cause of death is not equal to that found in the United States," said Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs Edward McKeon in an Aug. 18, 2005, letter to the family. McKeon did not respond to a request for an interview on the case. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said it was standard policy not to publicly discuss such cases due to U.S. privacy laws.

Lacey contacted several Japanese lawyers about possible legal action to get the full autopsy report. But legal experts warned that police and prosecutors have broad discretionary authority over an autopsy report, and there is little legal recourse to force them to turn it over.

Fukuoka police refused to answer a list of questions submitted by The Japan Times. However, Yoichi Oyama, a Fukuoka police spokesman said: "We believe we had no reason to treat the case as a murder. We explained to the family why we ruled Matt's death an accident."

Michael Fox, a Hyogo Prefecture-based American activist who has a decade of experience working on cases involving wrongful arrests and faulty police probes, said Lacey now has three basic choices if he wants to keep pursuing what happened.

"Charles can continue to put pressure on (Fukuoka prosecutors) to have police redo the investigation, as the case is still officially open.

"However, if the prosecutor decides to officially close the case, he could then file a (local) request for what's known as a Committee for the Inquest for the Prosecution ("kensatsu shinsa iinkai"). This is the closest thing Japan has to a U.S.-style grand jury, and the only instance in the present criminal justice system which allows citizen participation," Fox said.

After filing a claim, 11 citizens would be chosen to hear Lacey's case and submit their recommendation to the prosecutor. The panel's decision is not legally binding, but its recommendation would be seriously considered.

"The third option is a suit against the state seeking redress. Charles can say he has suffered mental duress as a result of police bungling. But the chances of winning are slim and the redress is small," Fox said.

Lacey said he and his family are still weighing their options. "We never expected that this would happen to our family. All we ever wanted is for the police to have done their job properly. Our greatest fear now is that we will never know why our brother died," he said.

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