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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Poor police work in '92 death let Obara off hook, victim's family claims


By ERIC PRIDEAUX and JUN HONGO
Staff writers

First of two parts

Carita Ridgway
Carita Ridgway is seen in her Sydney apartment about a year before she was fatally drugged by Joji Obara in February 1992. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROBERT FINNIGAN

Wealthy property developer Joji Obara's sensational acquittal last month in the 2000 slaying of Lucie Blackman stunned her native Britain, but his life sentence for the serial rapes of nine other women and the 1992 death of Australian Carita Ridgway came as no surprise to Carita's loved ones, who feel that had police "properly investigated" Obara, she would have been his last victim.

Ridgway, however, was only linked to Obara after his October 2000 arrest, when several female victims reportedly came forward with their own accounts of blacking out for hours or days at the home of a wealthy man using several aliases but generally fitting Obara's description — evidence that would help build a case against Obara.

Carita's family said they urged police 15 years ago to investigate the person who was with the young woman when she fell ill: an enigmatic, nervous man calling himself "Nishida," who, according to a family statement, dropped her off at a hospital and later resurfaced after her death, telling the parents, "I loved your daughter and wanted to spend much more time with her."

But despite repeated pleas for an inquiry into Nishida, the family said police ignored, and even harassed, them, meanwhile apparently never seeing fit to arrange an autopsy following 21-year-old Carita's death. Local and municipal police, prosecutors and hospital officials refused to speak to The Japan Times about the case, citing privacy concerns.

Years later it would become painfully clear that key opportunities were missed. "Nishida" would turn out to be none other than Obara. And, according to Carita's then-fiance, a sample of Carita's liver kept in Japan would be found to bear traces of chloroform.

Carita was unconscious, on life-support and near death in a Tokyo hospital when her mother, Annette Foster, and fiance, Robert Finnigan, touched down in Japan on Feb. 19, 1992, with father Nigel Ridgway arriving soon afterward. Her skin had turned a bright yellow from liver failure and doctors expected the worst. She died 10 days later from what was diagnosed as hepatitis E.

At the family's request, doctors took a sample of her liver to perform a biopsy. The results were promised by March 9 but were never received, according to a statement by the family. Hospital staff arranged a wake, and on March 2 she was cremated, as is the custom in Japan.

"On reflection, the family realize that (we) should have insisted on an autopsy, tests for sexual assault and the liver biopsy results — but (we were) too overcome with grief and tiredness to think straight," the statement said.

Ridgway, who was already somewhat worldly and who had never had any serious health problems, had arrived in Japan three months earlier to live with her older sister, Samantha, an English teacher who worked near Kichijoji Station in western Tokyo. Her mother noted that Carita started traveling at age 17, counting Nepal, Mexico and the United States among her many destinations.

Eager to start saving toward a life with her fiance, she tried to find work as an English teacher at a time when the economy was slumping. When that didn't pan out, she took a job at the Ayakoji hostess bar in Tokyo's neon-lit Ginza district.

She had hoped to work for a few months to cover her drama school tuition back in Sydney and to help put Finnigan through law school.

"She was a good student, she liked school and had many friends," her mother, Foster, wrote in a recent e-mail from Australia.

Then on Feb. 15, 1992, she agreed to take a drive with Nishida, a client of the club who liked to flaunt his wealth, taking in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, before proceeding to his condo in nearby Zushi, according to the ruling by the Tokyo District Court last month.

It was here, the court ruled, that Obara drugged her with chloroform, then videotaped raping her before dropping her off at the Tokyo hospital with a vague claim to staff that she fell sick after eating shellfish. He identified himself as Nishida before quickly departing.

According to family members who spoke with The Japan Times, Carita's parents had a brush with Obara a day after she died, when they were invited to meet him at a Tokyo hotel — a meeting that her father said police were aware of but did not attend. Identifying himself as Nishida, Obara had come forward as the last person to spend time with Carita.

No one in the family had ever heard of him, but Nishida claimed to be in love with her and said she had eaten bad shellfish during their date, ultimately causing her liver to fail.

Foster recalled that Nishida appeared "quite nervous" during his conversation with her and Nigel, her husband at the time. Sitting across a coffee table, he sweated profusely and frequently mopped his face with a handkerchief. He also handed the parents a diamond necklace and ring that he said he had planned to give Carita. The parents kept the jewelry "as keepsakes," Foster wrote.

By this time, Samantha's suspicions about the man were mounting.

On Feb. 17, before Carita's death, Nishida phoned Samantha to tell her he had taken Carita to a hospital and had her treated for food poisoning.

Samantha's doubts grew when she found out he had not more fully identified himself at the hospital or left a phone number. He even rebuffed her repeated requests on the phone to provide more information about himself.

Samantha and her mother asked police to investigate Nishida. Looking back on that time, the family and Finnigan feel police were strangely reluctant to do so, even though he was the only person who knew the circumstances under which Carita fell ill. Instead, police leveled accusations of malfeasance against Samantha and at one point even Carita herself, the family said.

"Here we were trying to get an investigation into our daughter's death, and we were faced with this sort of behavior from people whose job it is to protect us," Foster wrote in the e-mail. "It added to our grief."

On Feb. 24, during one of her visits to the hospital where her sister lay comatose, Samantha contacted police and told two Musashino Police Station detectives her misgivings about Nishida, having her Japanese boyfriend at the time interpret as they spoke.

"We asked them to find this man called Nishida and told them the name of the club Ayakoji where she had apparently met him," Samantha wrote in a recent e-mail. In her own discussions with police, Foster, too, asked them to question the man.

The next time Nishida phoned, Samantha insisted that he directly call police and speak with them. Her boyfriend then called police and told them to expect Nishida's call.

Rather than follow up on this lead, the two detectives instead began accusing Samantha's boyfriend of dealing drugs and Carita of overdosing on drugs he provided — claims the family denounced. For his part, Finnigan said, "She certainly would never take any drugs. . . . She was quite conservative in that respect." But the more Samantha pressed for an investigation, the more police became aggressive toward the family.

According to Samantha, after the death, Nishida also offered to deposit 1 million yen in her bank account — "he said toward funeral costs, airfares etc." At first ambivalent, she said she finally agreed in the hopes that a deposit equivalent to more than $1,000 would leave a paper trail.

(After his arrest, Obara would pay Lucie Blackman's father 100 million yen in "condolence money." The Ridgways received an offer of half that but have adamantly rejected it.)

The name "Nishida" did appear on Samantha's bank book, but it was of no use: Samantha said she later learned that the man had not been required to show identification when making the transfer.

The boyfriend told Samantha he was beginning to suspect some kind of yakuza involvement and urged her to go easy.

"The truth is, we felt more threatened and intimidated by the police than by the soft-spoken man who called himself Nishida and appeared to be concerned about us," Samantha wrote.

It would be years, however, until the family's hunch regarding Obara was tragically confirmed to be spot on.

Part II: Trail to Obara said overlooked in '92 death

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