Court told of the missing British hostess, a serial rapist and the full horror inside apartment 401

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The Independent Online

A year ago tomorrow, before the world had heard the name of Lucie Blackman ­ the young British woman whose dismembered body was found last year in a cave in Japan ­ a policeman knocked on the door of a seaside apartment 45 miles from Tokyo.

There had been a complaint from the building's caretaker about the occupant of apartment number 401, a man in his late forties named Joji Obara.

Mr Obara had turned up the previous day, and since then had been acting strangely. He had turned up in a Mercedes filled with lumpy objects wrapped in sheets. It was years since he had shown his face at the apartment, and he had to call a locksmith to get in.

Late the night before, he had been seen skulking near the beach carrying a shovel. He refused to let the policeman in and, according to the prosecution indictment read out in court yesterday, "the policeman saw the accused half-naked, sweating all over, and breathing heavily".

The policeman glimpsed lumps of concrete and large plastic bags lying around; Mr Obara claimed he was tiling his bathroom.The policeman never got inside apartment 401, and from his own point of view that may have been just as well.

If he had, and if the prosecutors in the Tokyo District Court are correct, an appalling scene would have greeted him. Inside, along with a chainsaw, a handsaw, knives and hammers, was the body of 21-year-old Ms Blackman, who had died five days earlier. Her arms and legs had been cut off and placed in bags. Her severed head had been encased in a concrete block.

Mr Obara, according to the prosecutors, carried her remains to a beachside cave 200 metres away where he buried it under 45cms of earth. It would be seven months before the police even thought to search there.

In the year since she disappeared, the story of Ms Blackman has been endlessly picked over in Japan, but yesterday for the first time it was told in its entirety. It is a story based on circumstantial evidence, full of gaps and assumptions, which would leave room for doubt in courtrooms in many countries. But it is the official version and, in a country with a conviction rate of more than 99 per cent, it is almost certainly the story that the Tokyo judges will choose to believe.

Mr Obara has been charged with eight rapes, and five of those cases are already under way. He was further charged yesterday with drugging, raping and causing the deaths of Ms Blackman last year, and Carita Ridgway, an Australian woman, in 1992. He has denied all the charges.

Yesterday in court, he insisted that although he had previously had consensual sex with Ms Blackman, after meeting her in the Tokyo hostess bar where she worked, he did not sleep with her on the night of her alleged killing and was not responsible for her death.

Addressing the panel of three judges, speaking clearly and calmly, and dressed in a dark suit and open-necked shirt, he said: "We drank alcohol and watched videos at my mansion in Zushi. We did not 'play' even once that night. I did not make her consume drinks containing sleeping pills or other drugs."

According to the 10-page indictment, Mr Obara, a property owner, was a serial rapist. During the early 1980s he was regularly cruising the bars of Tokyo's Roppongi district, picking up hostesses ­ Japanese and foreign ­ taking them to one of his seaside apartments, drugging their drinks and video-taping himself raping them; a routine that he called "conquering play".

In February 1992, he had a lucky escape when Carita Ridgway, 21, suffered a fatal attack of hepatitis brought on by the chloroform he used to subdue her. He checked her into a hospital using a false name, and she died a few days later.

Eight years later, he encountered Ms Blackman. She had given up her job as a British Airways stewardess and arrived in Tokyo in May. Like thousands of young foreign women before her, she quickly found work in a Roppongi bar named Casablanca. One week before her death, according to the prosecutors, Mr Obara came in and spent the evening being entertained by her. Like numerous hostess bars in Roppongi, the Casablanca encouraged its employees to go out on dates with customers, and this is what Ms Blackman agreed to do the following Saturday, after Mr Obara offered her a mobile phone as a present.

That afternoon, 1 July, they drove together to his apartment in the town of Zushi. As they did so, she made several calls to her boyfriend and female flat-mate, telling them that she expected to be home that evening.

The court was told: "Between that time and 2 July, he gave her a drink containing sleeping drugs, and chloroform, to make her lose consciousness.

"She lost consciousness, he raped her, and around that time caused her death from the effects of the aforementioned drugs, either due to failure of her heart or respiration."

The next day Mr Obara drove to Tokyo and made a telephone call to Ms Blackman's flat-mate, Louise Phillips, identifying himself as the member of a religious cult and claiming that Ms Blackman had joined it. He visited a series of shops and bought camping equipment, two large bags of quick-drying concrete, mixing equipment, a cooler box, plastic bags, cutters, scissors, hammers, and saws ­ including a chainsaw.

It is assumed that the noisy, messy job of cutting the body up took place in a remote spot where Mr Obara pitched his tents. He later transported the separated body parts to another apartment at Miura, where he buried them and where he was visited by the policeman. The most bizarre part of the tale came after the policeman had gone back down the stairs. Mr Obara pursued him carrying the frozen body of his dead dog. This, he explained, was why he had not invited the policeman in ­ he was embarrassed by the presence of his dead pet.

Two days later, he went to a doctor for treatment for stings caused by giant hairy caterpillars ­ apparently he had suffered these during his camping expedition. He told another acquaintance, "I've done something really serious, but I can't tell anyone".

After a nationwide search was launched for Ms Blackman, he sent six letters to the police, two of them in English claiming to be from Ms Blackman. In one letter he enclosed 1.187 million yen (£6,800) in cash. Detectives discovered draft copies of the English letters in one of his apartments.

They also found a bag that once contained the kind of tent he purchased in Tokyo. They have found a large collection of sleeping drugs, and they appear to have traced some of the telephone calls made by the accused and his alleged victim to phones owned by Mr Obara.

Yet there seems to be no clinching evidence ­ no bloodied chainsaw, no home-made rape video, and ­ despite earlier reports ­ no DNA matches.

If the prosecutors are right about Mr Obara, then he is a criminal of exceptional cunning, will and resourcefulness. It remains to be seen whether he is also exceptionally lucky.

The trial continues.