Father of murdered Lucie Blackman sets up safety network for young travellers

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tim Blackman, whose 21-year-old daughter Lucie was murdered in Japan four years ago, will tomorrow launch a groundbreaking safety campaign for gap year students and other young people travelling abroad.

The former British Airways stewardess went missing in July 2000 while working as a nightclub hostess in Tokyo. Her body was found nine months later and a Japanese businessman is currently on trial over her death.

As a tribute to his daughter, Mr Blackman has set up a confidential text messaging service called Safetytext, which helps to track young people if they are abducted or find themselves in danger.

Childline, the Metropolitan Police and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust are all backing Mr Blackman's campaign, as well as Sara Payne, the mother of the murdered schoolgirl, Sarah.

In an interview with this newspaper, Mr Blackman said the idea for Safetytext came to him in the harrowing months after Lucie's disappearance and he believes it could have saved her life.

"If Lucie could have sent a Safetytext, she may have been found in nine hours not nine months," said the 50-year-old businessman who lives on the Isle of Wight.

The scheme is the first of its kind to use "delayed texting" - which allows users to send messages that are received only in the event that something has gone wrong.

It means, for example, a teenager at a party without their parents' consent can keep this secret, unless they are in danger. Using a four-digit PIN, subscribers text a central phone service saying where they are going or who they are with.

These details are logged on a central database with a time delay specified by the user, which means if they get home safely they can cancel the information.

However, an alert is sent out to their chosen "buddy" - a friend or a relative - if the text is not cancelled within a specified time which can be anything from 30 minutes to 24 hours.

Another feature of Safetytext is that subscribers to the service, which operates across all phone networks and costs between 33 pence and 50 pence a text, complete a personal profile which includes a photograph. These details are kept confidential unless the person disappears, at which point they are released to the police who circulate them overseas if the person is missing abroad.

The launch of Safetytext comes as thousands of teenagers head off on gap years or prepare to leave home for the first time when they start at university. Official figures show that as many as 50,000 young people take gap years and there are around 15 deaths each year which include murder, road accidents, contracting a fatal disease and freak accidents. Murders of British people abroad are on the increase - 95 were killed between 2001 and 2002 compared with 43 in 2000.

When Lucie went missing, Mr Blackman flew out to Japan and worked tirelessly to uncover the truth about what had happened to her. As he sat in a Tokyo café one day with a friend, he started to think about how Lucie's disappearance could have been prevented.

"I said: 'What could have made a difference?' Lucie was here one minute and then no one knew where she was," he said.

"She had not really told anyone where she was going or who with. The fact is, when you are a young adult it looks a bit uncool to be overly concerned about letting someone know where you are.

"One has to say Lucie acted irresponsibly. She was ignorant of living in a foreign country."

He learned Lucie was missing in a phone call on 2 July 2000 from his daughter Sophie, who said that Lucie had not returned after a trip to the coast. Mr Blackman said Lucie's death has been particularly hard on Sophie, who was only 20 months younger than her sister and who was with him throughout the nine-month ordeal of searching for Lucie.

"She hung on Lucie's every movement and word since she [Sophie] was a year old," Mr Blackman said.

"To have her killed when she was 21 and Sophie was 19 - it's irreplaceable. There is nothing that can fill that void."

During his ordeal, he drew strength from the hundreds of letters he received from parents offering him support.

"I found I was doing this for other people," said the property developer, "for everyone else who had been through a ghastly thing."

What he finds hard to bear is discovering that Lucie's real reason for working as a hostess was to clear a £7,000 debt.

"I could have paid off that money," he said.

Mr Blackman said that Safetytext was intended as a "memorial" to Lucie and to help prevent further tragedies.

Teenagers and young people can register for Safetytext through the website www.safetytext.com

'I'd like to think that if you're sensible, nothing can go wrong'

Duncan Hassall, 22, from Kirklevington, is a keen climber, so he decided on a year in Africa, Nepal and Peru before starting his career. He has just finished at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Today Duncan (pictured above with his parents) begins a journey to east Africa where he will have three months to plan an ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro, before travelling on to Nepal and the Himalayas.

"I like to believe that if you are sensible yourself, nothing can go wrong," he said. He did admit, however, that the political climate in Nepal is uncertain.

For Duncan's father, Malcolm Hassall, fears of attack or illness should not stop his son from taking a life-altering trip.

"Are the risks any bigger than crossing the main road in Newcastle? From that perspective we don't worry about it. But yes, it is at the back of your mind," he said.

Zach Mesenbourg