US Navy officer in Japan faces jail for fatal accident

WASHINGTON — For Ridge Alkonis, a U.S. Navy lieutenant living in Japan, a spring trip with his wife and three children to Mount Fuji was meant to be a time of family fun and relaxation before a scheduled deployment.

What happened next, and why, is a matter of dispute. But that resulted in a three-year prison sentence.

In the account of Alkonis’ family and supporters, the naval officer suddenly lost consciousness in the car, causing him to collapse behind the wheel after suffering from acute mountain sickness. Japanese prosecutors and the judge who sentenced him say he fell asleep while drowsy, evading his duty to stop immediately.

Regardless of the cause, Alkonis’ car veered into parked cars and pedestrians in a parking lot, hitting an elderly woman and her son-in-law, both of whom later died. As a Japanese court is set to hear an appeal of Alkonis’ jail sentence on Wednesday, his parents are asking for clemency for an act they say was nothing more than a terrible accident, but which prosecutors consider like fatal negligence. He is at home in Japan awaiting the call.

“The word that comes to mind is fairness. We want him to be treated fairly in the event of an accident,” said Alkonis’ father, Derek Alkonis, of Dana Point, Calif. “We don’t feel like it was like that. We know it wasn’t like that. And it worries us that our son was sentenced to three years in prison for an accident.”

The families of the victims could not be contacted by The Associated Press because their names are redacted in court records reviewed by the AP.

The upcoming hearing is the latest development in the case against Alkonis, 34, an underwater warfare and acoustic engineering specialist who spent nearly seven years in Japan as a civilian volunteer and military officer. Marine.

In the spring of 2021, after a period of land assignments, the Southern California native is preparing for a deployment as a duty chief on the USS Benfold, a guided-missile destroyer.

On May 29, 2021, as the mission loomed, his family left for a hiking and sightseeing trip to Mount Fuji.

They had climbed part of the mountain and were back in the car, heading for lunch and ice cream near the base of Mount Fuji. Alkonis was talking with his daughter, then 7, when his family say he suddenly fell unconscious while driving. He was so lost, they say, that neither his daughter’s screams to wake up nor the impact of the collision woke him.

After the accident near Fujinomiya, he was arrested by Japanese authorities and held for 26 days in solitary confinement in a police detention center, interrogated several times a day and received no treatment or medical evaluation. according to a statement of facts provided by a family spokesperson. This statement indicates that when US authorities arrived to arrest Alkonis and return him to a US base, he was already in Japanese custody.

He was charged with negligent driving causing death and sentenced last October to three years in prison. The charge is punishable by seven years in prison in Japan. He appealed.

English court records obtained by the AP show the judge expressed skepticism over the mountain sickness allegation, citing an early statement by Alkonis to police in which he said he felt drowsy after traversing mountainous bends.

He later testified to feeling altitude sickness – a finding supported by a neurologist’s June 2021 diagnosis – but the judge said such a feeling should have lessened as Alkonis descended the mountain.

The judge said that while it was conceivable that Alkonis suffered from mild mountain sickness, it was hard to imagine that he had gone from lack of drowsiness to sudden incapacitation.

A Navy spokesman said Alkonis remains on active duty and the Navy has provided him and his family with “the care and support they need for the whole person.” A lawyer for Alkonis declined to comment.

The case unfolds against the backdrop of Japan’s longstanding concerns about the misbehavior, even sporadic, of tens of thousands of US military personnel in the country and the perception that they are receiving preferential treatment. A 2014 AP survey found that at U.S. military bases in Japan, most servicemen found guilty of sex crimes in recent years did not go to jail, instead violators were routinely punished with demotions, fines, or dismissal from the military .

This case is different, however, in that Alkonis is not accused of acting with nefarious intent, and he and his family say they took repeated steps to express remorse and accept responsibility.

The family say they were encouraged by Alkonis’ lawyer to cooperate, plead guilty and make restitution to the victims’ families – which they did by signing a $1.65million settlement, about half of which came from their savings, friends and family.

“From day one, from minute one, Ridge said, All he wants is to help this family. He feels the burden of what happened that day,” his mother said. , Suzi Alkonis. “We all do.”

Eric Feldman, a professor of Japanese law at the University of Pennsylvania, said the instinct is especially understandable in Japan, where the criminal justice system values ​​expressions of remorse and where payment to victims can sometimes avoid criminal prosecution. It is a system that is particularly committed to serving the interests of victims.

“There’s a general opinion that what you don’t want to do in Japan is keep claiming your innocence,” Feldman said.

In this case, however, the criminal case has not gone away, and Suzi Alkonis said it was frustrating that the displays of remorse might seem to be working against her son in the courtroom. She experiences anxiety for her son, unsure of the lasting impact the case will have on his military career, but also pain for the victims.

“There are people who make really bad decisions and there is pity for those who make bad decisions,” she said. “We think we’d like a little pity because Ridge has spent his life trying to make good decisions. And then having an accident out of the blue has already hurt a family so much – and it hurts this one – this.”

Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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