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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Approach to Blackman slaying hit, likened to Keystone Cops

Faulty police procedures seen foiling quick action, prevention

Staff writers

After years of litigation closely watched around the world, the Tokyo District Court sentenced property developer Joji Obara to life in prison Tuesday for raping and drugging nine women, including Australian Carita Ridgway who subsequently died, but acquitted him of all the charges related to the death of Briton Lucie Blackman.

News photo
Tim and Sophie Blackman, the father and sister of murdered Briton Lucie Blackman, visit the cave Monday where her dismembered body was found on Miura Beach, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 2001. AP PHOTO

In the Blackman investigation, the highest profile of the 10 cases, despite pressure from the British government and frequent visits to Japan by Blackman's family since her disappearance in July 2000, authorities were never able to assemble enough evidence to charge Obara, 54, with murdering the former stewardess-turned-Roppongi bar hostess. He denies the charge.

Blackman's dismembered body was discovered in a cave on Kanagawa Prefecture's Miura Peninsula in February 2001, about 200 meters from one of Obara's many summer getaway homes.

Yet Obara has said prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to hold him responsible for Blackman's death, the dismemberment of her body or any of the other charges.

"The court should give me the benefit of the doubt," Obara, a once affluent property developer who fell down on his luck, said in a statement released after his counsel's closing arguments in December.

But many informed observers disagree. One is former police officer Akio Kuroki, a 23-year Metropolitan Police Department detective who said that in the Blackman case, at least, the defendant stands firmly implicated.

"Everything points to Obara," he said.

On July 1, 2000, Blackman, a 21-year-old hostess at the now-defunct Roppongi club Casablanca, went on an outing with a client from the club, telling her Tokyo roommates by cell phone that she would visit the beach with him and would not be late in returning.

She promised to call again within two hours, according to prosecutors.

That was the last time she was ever heard from. On July 3, the girlfriends received a phone call from a man identifying himself as Akira Takagi, saying that Blackman was in Chiba Prefecture and had joined a cult and was not planning to return, according to trial records.

The following day, the women alerted police that Blackman was missing, describing the phone call to the authorities. Prosecutors say the call was traced to a prepaid cell phone bought by Obara and that he placed the call.

Newspapers started publicizing Blackman's disappearance on July 13. Prosecutors say that on July 20, the Azabu Police Station received a letter purporting to be written by Blackman, saying she had vanished on her own accord.

Similar letters would arrive in the following months, they said.

It was reportedly after the first letter arrived that police began a rigorous search of Roppongi.

That turned their suspicions toward a certain wealthy man who frequented the local hostess bars. But it would be months before Obara was arrested.

Several brushes with the law might have put Obara on investigators' radar screens early on, but didn't.

According to a May 2001 article in Time Magazine, in early October 1997, a young British hostess had shown up at her Roppongi job drugged and gravely ill after spending time with a man the article said was "now believed to be Obara." Medical exams, the magazine said, indicated she had sustained liver damage.

Her boss, Kazuo Iizuka, took the woman to police on several occasions, urging her to file rape charges against the then-unknown assailant, but police refused to open a case because the woman was a hostess, according to the magazine.

Asked by telephone about the report, a Tokyo Metropolitan Police spokesman refused to comment, because, he said, "Those events occurred in the past."

A police spokeswoman was also reluctant to provide details in a subsequent query.

In 1998, Obara, using a fake name, was arrested on a Wakayama Prefecture beach after slipping into a women's restroom dressed in drag in an attempt to surreptitiously videotape a woman using the toilet. He was released after paying a 9,000 yen fine.

And five days after Blackman was last heard from, on July 6, 2000, police received a call from the manager of Obara's condominium on the shores of the Miura Peninsula and were told of a tenant who had been making lots of noise in his unit the day before.

Prosecutors say police visited the apartment that evening and found Obara naked from the waist up, covered in sweat. Officers asked permission to look around his apartment and were allowed in. Chunks of cement were strewn near the entrance and around the apartment. Asked about this, Obara said he had been "removing tiles," according to a trial transcript.

When officers requested access to the bathroom, Obara said, "You've already seen enough." Upon further questioning, he grew agitated and the officers eventually left.

Besides the concrete debris, officers also glimpsed a bulky sack in the room and what appeared to be a gardening hoe.

As peculiar as that scene may seem in retrospect, Kuroki, the former detective, stressed that because the Miura police at that point were not even aware of Blackman's disappearance, they had no reason to be more suspicious of Obara.

Article 35 of the Constitution protects citizens against police searches without "adequate cause." Still, the Police Execution of Duties Law permits searches of "land, buildings and vehicles" when police "have sufficient reason to believe that a crime has been or is about to be committed" based on "suspicious circumstances."

Kuroki is disappointed that prosecutors, who claim the sack may have contained Blackman's dismembered corpse, failed to present any proof.

"Had the officers gone further into the apartment, they would have found solid evidence, and prosecutors could have charged Obara with murder," Kuroki said.

That September, other victims came forward upon hearing of Blackman's disappearance and identified Obara, a patron of hers at her hostess club, as someone who had date-raped them. Obara was arrested in October.

Although Blackman's hair was found at Obara's apartment in Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, none of her blood was, and he stayed mum while in detention.

It wasn't until the following February that Blackman's body was discovered buried at the seaside cave, each part encased in concrete and so badly decomposed that the cause of death could not be determined.

Questions also surround the investigation into the death of Ridgway, a 21-year-old Ginza hostess who, having taken ill, was dropped off by a man at a Tokyo hospital. The Australian woman was diagnosed with acute hepatitis and died two weeks later.

Although the man accompanying Ridgway had identified himself as Akira Nishida, prosecutors say a hospital receipt found in Obara's home after his arrest identifies him as the man in question.

After Obara's arrest, tests were conducted on Ridgway's liver, a part of which had been preserved. Prosecutors and news reports say that toxic levels of chloroform were behind the death, but according to medical expert testimony during the trial, it was impossible to prove what triggered the onset of acute hepatitis.

Obara is reported to have kept extensive records of sexual encounters with women. According to respected Australian newspaper The Age, an entry found in a confiscated Obara diary contains the name Carita Ridgway, and beside that, "Too much chloroform."

Obara disputes any suggestion that he poisoned the woman, and said in his December statement, "It is believable that Ridgway died from shellfish poisoning."

Details have gradually emerged about Obara, including allegations that he had a penchant for filming the rape of drugged women. Police say the person in the video committing those acts appears to be him in a mask. Yet evidence to substantiate murder charges appears to be lacking.

A tabloid, however, alleged some of the videos show the arm of another male who may have been involved. This man was missing a pinkie and had a tattoo, but no other suspect has been named in the case.

Although professing his innocence, Obara paid Blackman's father, Timothy, a large sum of money allegedly so he would be less vocal about the case, and also offered money to Lucie's divorced mother, but she refused.

The way police handled the Blackman and Ridgway deaths appear remarkably similar to that of Lindsay Ann Hawker, a 22-year-old Briton found slain last month.

The suspect in that murder, Tatsuya Ichihashi, 28, gave several officers the slip at his Chiba Prefecture apartment, where Hawker's strangled corpse was found in a disconnected tub full of sand on his balcony.

He had allegedly been stalking Hawker, an English teacher at a Nova school, and she had agreed to go to his apartment to give him a private lesson.

Although police claim their team was properly positioned when they went to question Ichihashi on Hawker's disappearance on March 26, he managed to bolt down a fire escape and remains at large.

As in the Blackman case, human limitations appear to play a part in the failure by police to convincingly pin the crime on a suspect.

But Tomomi Ando, a lawyer of 24 years, said that as in the Blackman case, limitations on how far police can carry out their initial search may have been a factor in their failure to nab Ichihashi.

"Since both (Obara and Ichihashi) were not (formal) suspects at that point, it would have been a misuse of authority and an illegal investigation if they probed further," Ando said.

Either way, he said, in both cases, police could have been more suspicious and modified their tactics while still remaining within the scope of the law.

"It's no simple matter," Ando said. "Police might not have not been able to ransack the apartments, but it was possible for them to place officers appropriately (in the Ichihashi search) to avoid a getaway or strengthen their surveillance of Obara."

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