Missing Lucie's father issues appeal to cult

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The Independent Online

If you found yourself sitting next to Tim Blackman on today's flight from Tokyo to London, you wouldn't readily suspect what he has been going through.

If you found yourself sitting next to Tim Blackman on today's flight from Tokyo to London, you wouldn't readily suspect what he has been going through.

You could work out his approximate age (47) and you might even guess his line of business (property development). He is an easy conversationalist and he would soon tell you about his home in the Isle of Wight. He looks tired, it is true, but so would anyone who has been making this flight as often as he. Since the middle of July, Mr Blackman has made this 13-hour journey six times, and for the grimmest and most heartbreaking of reasons.

Eleven weeks ago, his 22-year-old daughter Lucie, who was working in a bar in Tokyo, disappeared without a trace.

Now, what once seemed unthinkable has become the best Mr Blackman can hope for. At a press conference yesterday, he offered to pay any abductors for the "training" that Lucie may have undergone as a member of their "cult" - a possibility he previously dismissed as preposterous. "Perhaps it should be given more thought," he said.

Mr Blackman flew out a week and half after her disappearance and has spent a total of eight weeks here since. He has spent tens of thousands of pounds on hotels, taxis and eating out in the world's most expensive city. He has consulted policemen and bar girls, journalists and psychics, night- club owners and prime ministers. He has tried everything that someone in his position could conceivably try. But of Lucie, there is not a trace - not a single reliable piece of information to indicate whether she is dead or alive.

This morning he flies back to London close to despair. "This trip to look for Lucie has left me really quite heartbroken and desperate," he said. "You know how sometimes you have a nightmare, dreaming of some terrible thing happening to you? And you know the relief when you wake up and think, 'I'm glad that was just a dream'? My situation is reversed."

Lucie Blackman was working as a stewardess for British Airways until last spring, when she left her job to travel round the world with her best friend. They began their journey in Japan and quickly found jobs as hostesses in an expensive bar in the Roppongi district of Tokyo.

Hundreds of Western women work in such places, and their role is ambiguous. But the worst thing Lucie indulged in was a kind of commercialised flirtation.

On 3 July Lucie's friend, Louise Phillips, rang the Blackman family with alarming news. Two days before, Lucie had left her lodgings with a promise to meet friends later in the evening. Louise assumed she was meeting a customer; Lucie had phoned her that afternoon to say she was on her way home. She began to worry when Lucie didn't return.

Then the next day she received a disturbing phone call - a man, speaking in broken English, who identified himself by the name Akira Takagi. He told Louise Lucie had joined a religious cult, that she was undergoing "training" and that her friend would not see her again.

Lucie's 20-year-old sister, Sophie, flew out immediately to find out what was going on; Mr Blackman went a week later, followed by a gaggle of British journalists. A fortnight of furious activity ensued: talking to the police, assisting with the distribution of missing persons posters and dealing with themedia. The notion that Lucie had joined a cult was quickly dismissed as a red herring. But other avenues of inquiry have led nowhere.

The police have, according to Mr Blackman, thoroughly interviewed and eliminated from suspicion everyone connected to the club where Lucie worked plus her boyfriend, a sailor.

Mr Blackman has been directing a dual operation to publicise Lucie's disappearance and gather what information he can. He has given regular press conferences in Tokyo. He has met visiting British ministers - Robin Cook, Tony Blair and Lord Irvine of Lairg - and successfully lobbied them to press the case with the Japanese government. A British businessman has lent an office in Roppongi, where anyone with information is invited to visit in confidence. A telephone company has donated a 24-hour "Lucie Hotline".

The family put up a £9,500 reward, which was increased to £100,000 by an anonymous benefactor. An Australian diviner was flown out. "He told us that she wasn't here," said Mr Blackman. "Either not in Japan, or not alive." And with every week that passes, the latter possibilityincreases. But there has been a letter, written in Lucie's name and urging the Blackmans and the police to give up the search. The signature at the bottom was fake but the letter contained details which could only have come from Lucie and suggesting the possibility that she was still alive.

In Roppongi, the shutters are coming down. Mr Blackman believes many clubs have told employees not to have anything to do with him.