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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Obara gets life, but beats rap for Blackman

Developer convicted of '92 slaying of Australian woman, serial rapes

Staff writer

Real estate developer Joji Obara was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday for raping and drugging nine women and causing the 1992 death of one of his victims, Australian hostess Carita Ridgway, but he was acquitted in the killing of Briton Lucie Blackman.

News photo
Yasuo Shionoya, attorney for property developer Joji Obara, speaks to reporters Tuesday outside the Tokyo District Court after Obara was sentenced to life in prison on multiple counts of rape and the death of one of his victims. ERIC PRIDEAUX PHOTO

The Tokyo District Court said Obara, 54, was "unmistakably" involved in some way in dismembering and burying Blackman's corpse, which was unearthed in a seaside cave near one of his condominiums in February 2001, but it concluded the evidence was too weak to prove he was directly responsible for her death, the cause of which was never established.

Presiding Judge Tsutomu Tochigi said it cannot be ruled out that a third person was involved in the mutilation and burial of Blackman's corpse.

Circumstantial evidence suggests Blackman, 21, was with Obara at the time of her 2000 disappearance, but the court could not determine the extent to which the accused was involved in her death, Tochigi said.

Obara's acquittal in Blackman's killing is expected to spark outrage in Britain, where the case has been widely reported, as well as cast a harsh light on a police investigation that apparently failed to gather sufficient evidence against the serial rapist.

The high-profile case caused an international media frenzy when Blackman, a stewardess-turned-hostess who worked at a now-defunct bar in Roppongi, disappeared in summer 2000 and past victims came forward to implicate Obara.

When Blackman's dismembered corpse was found buried in the cave 200 meters away from Obara's condo on Kanagawa Prefecture's Miura Peninsula, Obara had already been arrested the previous October on the other rape charges.

He emerged as the prime suspect in Blackman's death after several bar hostesses came forward to say they too had been drugged by him. He was indicted in April 2001 for kidnapping, raping and fatally drugging Blackman, as well as dismembering and burying her body.

Prosecutors claimed Obara used chloroform and other powerful drugs on nine other women between February 1992 and June 2000 before raping them while they were unconscious. The investigation turned up some 200 videotapes containing images of Obara, masked, conducting lewd acts on the victims.

Judge Tochigi found Obara guilty of drugging and raping the nine women, of which two were injured and Ridgway, 21, who suffered acute hepatitis caused by inhaling chloroform, died in 1992 at a hospital. The victims included five foreigners and four Japanese women.

"The accused endangered the lives of others to fulfill his sexual desire," the court said, calling Obara's crimes "contemptible."

Although forensic experts could not find any evidence that Ridgway's acute hepatitis was caused by chloroform, the court determined video footage of her found in another Obara-owned condo in Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, that showed she was unconscious and convulsing, was enough to suggest the victim was heavily drugged and raped.

But the court acquitted Obara in the Blackman killing, on grounds that neither the place nor cause of death had been confirmed.

The focus of the trial was on whether the court would view the circumstantial evidence as sufficient to convict Obara of causing Blackman's death.

The court noted that unlike the other victims, no testimony or videotapes substantiating that Blackman had been raped were found, and that forensic experts could not determine the cause or time of death. Judge Tochigi said the court thus could not determine beyond a shadow of a doubt that Obara killed Blackman.

Tochigi also cast doubt on the chances of Obara being able to solely move, dismember and bury Blackman's corpse and leave no trace at his condo or not have any witnesses.

Obara had continued to deny being involved in the death of Blackman or Ridgway. He also claimed all the other rape victims had consented to having sex with him.

He released a statement last December claiming Ridgway died from shellfish poisoning and he denied any role in Blackman's disappearance.

Dressed in dark clothing Tuesday, he sat impassively as the verdict was read out.

During the three-hour session, he avoided facing the gallery seats where relatives of the victims, including Blackman's father, Tim, were sitting. He was motionless except for when he occasionally wiped away his perspiration with a towel.

Obara immediately filed an appeal. Yasuo Shionoya, one of his lawyers, said the defense was dissatisfied with the ruling for convicting their client in Ridgway's death, but said Obara seemed "content" that the court acquitted him on the Blackman charges.

Obara's alleged crimes began to surface in July 2000 when Blackman disappeared after telling friends she was headed to the beach with one of her male patrons.

After a missing person report was filed, police conducted a search of Roppongi and arrested Obara in connection with the assaults on the other women.

They subsequently built their case against him, with a raft of circumstantial evidence, over Blackman's death, but prosecutors were never able to assemble enough direct evidence to charge Obara with murder.

Calling Obara a "a beast with a human face" last October, they demanded life imprisonment, the heaviest penalty for rape resulting in death.

During closing arguments in December, however, Obara again claimed he was not guilty of any of the charges and said prosecutors had no solid evidence.

Ridgway's mother, Annette Foster, 58, who was in court when the verdict was read, told a news conference she was angry with police for not re-examining her daughter's case after Carita's death in 1992, even though her family raised concerns about Obara.

"The police did not even interview Obara," she said. "The fact that Obara went on to continue committing crimes for the next eight years causes Carita's family great distress, particularly in respect of Lucie Blackman."

Ridgway's family asked that the government set up an independent inquiry into the police handling of the investigation into Carita's death.

Foster said she was disappointed Obara was not charged with murder, which would have allowed the court to sentence him to death.

She said she hopes he will never be released on parole.

"We are trusting that the Japanese legal system will do the right thing," Foster said.

See related stories:
Oddly, raft of circumstantial evidence not enough
Blackman family claims prosecution did not present key evidence in trial

For more stories related to the Lucie Blackman case

Read related stories.

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