(Tribune News Service) – Relatives of a US naval officer now in a Japanese prison after a car accident are doing everything they can to involve President Joe Biden in lobbying for the release of Lieutenant Ridge Alkonis.
On Wednesday, September 14, Dana Point, California resident Suzi Alkonis stood outside the US Capitol with Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) and her son’s wife, Brittany, and the couple’s children. For six weeks, the women and children have been stationed outside the gates of the White House. On Friday, Derek Alkonis will do the same at the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles to request the release of his son.
Alkonis has been in a Japanese detention center since July 25 after a Tokyo Supreme Court judge dismissed his appeal to suspend a three-year prison sentence he received for negligent driving after a car accident that resulted in the death of an 85-year-old Japanese woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law. The elderly woman’s daughter was also injured.
Alkonis says he passed out due to acute altitude sickness after a family trip to visit Mount Fuji, but Japanese prosecutors say the May 29, 2021 crash was caused by Alkonis falling asleep at the wheel.
Alkonis, 34, was convicted in October; the judge said he had not traveled high enough up the mountain to be affected by altitude sickness, according to Japanese news reports. The family thought he would be given a suspended sentence, and all, including his children, Lilliana, 8; Kalani, 7; Ridge Jr., 4, had packed their bags to leave Japan.
After being released on bail pending his appeal, Alkonis, on the advice of his Japanese lawyer, apologized and offered the victims’ families $1.65 million in extrajudicial restitution, his family said. Half of the money was raised from insurance and the other half scraped together with help from friends and supporters. Typically, families will accept the letters and gifts and offer forgiveness, the Alkonis family was told, but the victims’ families will not.
In July, Alkonis’ appeal was rejected and he began serving his prison term.
The family had been told the investigation into the crash was not being treated as a criminal act, Suzi Alkonis said. “He was involved in the Japanese justice system, but did not commit a criminal offence. They thought he would go through the system and receive a suspended sentence. That’s how it generally works.”
“We followed the counsel of the attorney, people who understood the justice system, and it still ended him in jail,” added Derek Alkonis, a retired assistant fire chief from Los Angles County. “We don’t know what, but something went terribly wrong.”
Alkonis’ family said they feel that Japanese investigators tricked their son into signing documents in the Japanese language while in custody, which they say inaccurately described Alkonis, a resident of Claremont, California, having felt sleepy. before driving that day. Alkonis was also denied access to a lawyer during his first four weeks of detention after the accident, Derek Alkonis said.
The Japanese embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to calls or emails requesting comment.
Meanwhile, since he is still on active duty, naval officials said when asked for comment that they continue to support the Alkonis family’s efforts.
“This was a tragic event that resulted in the loss of two precious lives and caused immense pain for all involved,” said Cmdr. Katie Cerezo, a spokeswoman for Naval Forces Japan. “At every stage, we have provided the Alkonis family with all the support that is compliant with US laws and regulations.”
His family is concerned if Alkonis remains in prison after his leave, he risks losing his salary and benefits. They said he spent his time shredding hundreds of pieces of paper a day to make confetti – a prison job to earn some extra money for his family.
“We know that our son is a most honorable, devoted servant to his country, family and society,” said Derek Alkonis. “It shows from his record. He wouldn’t do anything to intentionally hurt someone, but he is treated like a criminal.”
While Alkonis was preparing for his fourth deployment with the Navy’s 7th Fleet, the family decided to take a hike up Mount Fuji. They started at sea level, drove to Fujinomiya at 7,800 feet and hiked to an elevation of about 8,000 feet, Suzi Alkonis said.
After just over an hour, they were done and drove 40 minutes to a favorite ice cream parlor. They were at about 528 feet when the crash happened, she said.
“He had just asked his daughter a question when she answered him, only to see that he had slumped,” Derek Alkonis told his daughter-in-law. “She yelled and kicked his chair.”
The Japanese police investigation said the car was traveling at 28 mph when it started drifting to the side, Derek Alkonis said, and before Brittany Alkonis could intervene, they collided with a parked car, which hit another parked car and “then squeezed the male victim when he tried to get into his car.”
Brittany Alkonis said she got out to determine what happened and shook her husband, who still appeared unconscious. As he slowly regained consciousness, witnesses at the scene described him as pale and spoke poor Japanese — he speaks somewhat fluently, his father said. “He was trying to reach the people and help them liberate.”
A Navy doctor who examined Alkonis after he was released from prison — he spent 27 days in the investigation after the crash — said his symptoms point to acute altitude sickness, his parents said.
When the ambulance arrived, first responders told Brittany Alkonis that the Japanese woman and man were “talking and clear,” and the paramedic said, “Everything will be fine,” Derek Alkonis said.
Three hours later, Alkonis and his family learned that the elderly woman had died of an apparently collapsed lung. Eleven days later, her son-in-law died of cerebral edema caused by a fat embolism resulting from a pelvic fracture. A third person, the elderly woman’s daughter, was injured and Brittany Alkonis suffered an ankle injury.
“The fact that people were injured was traumatic for him,” Derek Alkonis said of his son. “When he learned that they had died, it was a crushing blow.”
Since the accident, Alkonis has repeatedly expressed grief over the tragedy, his parents said.
“It’s such a difficult situation,” said Derek Alkonis. “Both families are suffering and the justice system stands between us.”
Suzi and Brittany Alkonis have remained in Washington DC and have been in daily contact with elected leaders, they said. They set up a White House home school for the two girls, hoping to attract the attention of the Biden administration.
They have worked with Levin and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) to get other members of Congress to write letters on behalf of Alkonis to the Japanese Prime Minister, the Japanese Ambassador and the US Ambassador to Japan.
“We have a quarter of the Senate who have now officially written letters in support of Ridge,” said Suzi Alkonis. “US Ambassador Rahm Emanuel spoke to Ridge and is trying to find a solution. It looks like the Japanese government is open, but honestly, the phone call that would do the most good is a phone call from Joe Biden.”
Ned Price, a spokesman for the State Department, said Emanuel is making an effort to work with the Japanese government and the Ministry of Defense “to find a successful solution that is consistent with US law, Japanese law and with existing treaties.”
The Alkonis family is hopeful and said Wednesday’s protest in DC had strong support.
“He is a man who has devoted his life to serving our country and defending an ally over the course of three missions in Japan,” Levin said on Wednesday, adding that his office has worked with the Navy, the office of the Minister of Defense and Ambassador Emanuel. “No one deserves the treatment that Lieutenant Alkonis received in Japan, especially a man of his character and history of service to our country.”
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