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Friday, May 18, 2007

RIDGWAY OPPORTUNITY MISSED

Trail to Obara said overlooked in '92 death


By ERIC PRIDEAUX and JUN HONGO
Staff writers

Second of two parts

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

The Australian family had just endured a nightmare: the premature death in 1992 of a loved one, Ginza hostess Carita Ridgway — one of the many victims of affluent property developer and serial rapist Joji Obara.

With the young woman's death from liver failure at a Tokyo hospital and cremation behind them, the family — mother Annette Foster, father Nigel Ridgway, sister Samantha and fiance Robert Finnigan — departed Tokyo on March 3 that year for Perth with Carita's ashes.

Had she not fallen victim to Obara's poisoning by chloroform and subsequent rape, as described in his guilty verdict by the Tokyo District Court last month, Carita would have been 22 that day.

Yet, as the family recalls the next phase of their lives, it was time to try moving on — to set aside thoughts of how police in Tokyo had shown what appeared to them to be a willful reluctance to investigate the mysterious figure who was with Carita when she fell ill, a man who called himself "Nishida."

It wasn't until eight years later that Nishida was found to be Obara. Until then, Carita's death was a nonissue.

Obara's October 2000 arrest following the disappearance of Roppongi bar hostess Lucie Blackman, 21, a former British Airways flight attendant, and his being charged with drugging and raping other women suddenly put Carita's death on the police radar.

At around that time, Finnigan, who went on to become a civil case litigation lawyer, found an article about Blackman's disappearance in an Australian newspaper. Concerned about its similarities with Carita's case, he urged the Australian Embassy in Tokyo to reinvestigate her death.

Finnigan said he was then "shocked" to learn that police had never questioned Nishida in 1992 and let his trail go cold after the Ridgway family left Japan that March.

"None of them did their job," he told The Japan Times over the telephone recently. After Obara's arrest, prosecutors started to suspect he and Nishida were in fact one and the same and included Carita's case among 10 charges of date rape between 1992 and 2000.

A search of one of Obara's many homes uncovered videotapes, apparently taken by the suspect, of him raping Carita while holding a towel up to her face that prosecutors later argued was soaked in chloroform — the powerful anesthetic linked to her death. The videotapes were taken on either Feb. 15 or 16, 1992, the court said in convicting Obara last month. Obara was charged on Feb. 16, 2001, for fatally drugging Carita.

Despite Finnigan's assertion that in early 2001 police told him that traces of chloroform had been found in Carita's liver sample, during the trial, prosecutors said they could not provide definite proof of what triggered Carita's acute hepatitis.

Several medical examiners testified during the trial that chances were high that Carita's hepatitis had been caused by a foreign chemical substance, but none would specify which. One went so far as to tell Obara's defense lawyer that it was impossible to rule out a virus as the culprit.

Still, citing the deep level of her unconsciousness as seen in the videotape as well as the bottle of chloroform found in Obara's apartment, the court judged that the accused caused her fatal condition. Obara, who pleaded innocent to the charges, has appealed to a higher court.

In the months and years after her death, the family struggled to overcome their grief, as did Finnigan, who also grappled with doubts. The family feels Obara's arrest and conviction for serial rape was long overdue.

"Carita's death affected me profoundly, and I believe it took about 10 years out of my life," Foster wrote of the loss of her daughter in a recent e-mail to The Japan Times. She has also described her disappointment that Obara could not be charged with her murder, which she noted would have made him a candidate for the death penalty. "We do not know why the police refused to investigate Carita's death."

At a Tokyo news conference following Obara's conviction, the father told reporters, "We were very disappointed that we were ignored (by police)."

"If the police had acted in 1992 as we had asked, Lucie Blackman would still be alive and many other girls, both Japanese and Western, would not have been drugged and raped by Obara," the family said in a statement provided to The Japan Times.

Blackman's dismembered corpse was found buried in a seaside cave just steps away from another Obara condo, in Miura, Kanagawa Prefecture. But despite what appeared to be overwhelming circumstantial evidence and his physical connection with the victim, he was acquitted in her slaying.

In Carita's case, the police's reticence appears to have continued, as it did at the hospital.

When Finnigan contacted Japanese police to ask for the names of the two detectives at the hospital in 1992, he was told they had retired and their whereabouts were unknown.

"I said, 'Well, that's incredible, because they're two of your former officers. You're the Tokyo Metropolitan Police and if you can't find them, who can?' Then they got very angry about that line of questioning," said Finnigan.

"And then I asked them whether Obara had been interviewed by the police in 1992, and they said no," he continued. "And that was the first time I realized that the police had not properly investigated Carita's death at all."

Despite the questions surrounding Carita's death and pleas by family for an investigation into Nishida, police did not order a full autopsy. The family had been promised the results of a postmortem liver biopsy by March 9, 1992, but none was ever received.

When contacted by The Japan Times, a hospital spokesman claimed they could not comment on specific cases of treatment or patients, citing privacy issues. Local and metropolitan police, as well as prosecutors also refused to comment on the case.

Former detective Akio Kuroki, who spent 23 years with the Metropolitan Police Department, said that though in hindsight it may seem that police and hospital inaction could be blamed for allowing Obara to persist in his string of crimes, there wasn't enough evidence at the time to justify interrogating him.

"It's understandable that the doctors did not conduct an autopsy, because they were certain that hepatitis caused Carita's death," he said. "And since the detectives lack medical expertise, nobody can blame them for suspecting that the death was induced by (recreational) drugs rather than chloroform."

Finnigan, however, suggested that lack of skill rather than simple human oversight was behind authorities' failure to nab Obara earlier on.

He said that because crime rates are relatively low in Japan and confession rates high, the country's criminal justice system lacks the experience of such countries as the United States or Australia in handling complex criminal cases in which a suspect puts up a spirited defense. Obara maintained his innocence throughout the trial and has appealed the District Court verdict.

But inexperience, in Finnigan's view, does not absolve the Japanese authorities from having failed to pursue Obara in 1992.

"I think that they were at least grossly negligent," he said.

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