Lucie Blackman: Police follow-up phone call lead

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Detectives in Japan searching for the missing British woman Lucie Blackman began excavating the garden of a house in Tokyo yesterday after arresting its owner on suspicion of drugging and raping a number of foreign women.

Detectives in Japan searching for the missing British woman Lucie Blackman began excavating the garden of a house in Tokyo yesterday after arresting its owner on suspicion of drugging and raping a number of foreign women.

Forensic scientists and officers worked through the day, removing boxes and probing the garden of a large house in the wealthy Den-en-Chofu suburb of Tokyo.

It is owned by Joji Ohara, a 48-year-old businessman, who was arrested early yesterday in connection with an incident several years ago when a 23-year old Canadian woman was drugged and sexually assaulted. But police attention is focusing on his suspected involvement in the case of Ms Blackman, 22, who vanished on 1 July while working as a hostess in a Tokyo nightclub.

Her father, Tim Blackman, who has spent much of the past three months in Tokyo publicising the case, was still hoping yesterday that his daughter would be found alive. "Obviously we're glad that some kind of progress has been made," he said from his home on the Isle of Wight. "But it is not looking good." Searches will continue today at the house in Tokyo, and in as many as 20 properties Mr Ohara is said to own across Japan.

Information about the arrested man and the trail leading to him are still sketchy, but what is known gives reason to question the competence of the investigators.

According to police leaks reported in the media yesterday, he is believed to have sexually assaulted at least three foreign bar hostesses, drugging them after bringing them to one of his properties in the coastal town of Zushi. He let them go, although the women, who were working illegally on tourist visas, were too afraid to go to the police.

But during Mr Blackman's first visit to Japan, a few weeks after Lucie's disappearance, some of the women contacted him via a telephone hotline he had set up. He passed the information to the Japanese police, who eventually interviewed the women. Yet almost three months were to pass before Mr Ohara's arrest.

One of the women who was allegedly assaulted by Mr Ohara told The Independent yesterday that she had been told by police not to say anything about her experiences.

Questions have also arisen over a mysterious phone callLucie's best friend received the day after her disappearance. It came from a man, speaking foreign-accented English, who said Lucie had joined a religious cult, a claim that has always been regarded as a deliberate red herring. As soon as five days after her disappearance, Mr Blackman and officials at the British embassy in Tokyo urged police to trace the number from which this call was made. When they did, Japanese media say, it turned out to be a mobile owned by Mr Ohara. But they only did so after weeks of excuses and procrastination, several angry outbursts by British consular officials and the intervention of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who visited Japan last month.

Japanese television and newspapers yesterday were full of stories about Mr Ohara, who is said to be denying all the accusations against him. Heinherited lucrative rental properties and restaurants across Japan from his father. After a period living in America, he studied law at Keio, one of Japan's most prestigious private universities. As well as the Zushi and Den-en-Chofu homes, he has an apartment in the expensive central Tokyo district of Akasaka, from where police were also removing cardboard boxes yesterday.

The land in Den-en-Chofu alone is worth about £4m. The house itself is neglected, a three-storey jumble with a small greenhouse on the flat roof. The gate is made of heavy steel, with a security camera; the plaque outside carries Mr Ohara's name.

Four vehicles can be seen outside the house, two swathed in dusty-looking covers, the others standing in the garden - a cream 1950s-style car and a low-slung black one. Both are smeared with years of accumulated grime and dead leaves.

But remarkably, in a country where nosy neighbours are an institution, residents seem to know nothing of the house or its occupants. One woman said she had lived close by for 20 years and the only sign she had detectedwas a pair of barking sheepdogs. Another neighbour said she saw nobody in the house, but that lights came on at night and went off in the morning.

Miss Ishikawa, the maid to an elderly couple at the end of the road, said she saw a man coming out of the house a few times when she was collecting the refuse bins at about 10am. This was about three months ago - the time Lucie went missing. Other reports yesterday said Mr Ohara was a customer at the Casablanca club where Lucie worked, but that he always used a false name.