Suspect who bought a new face to evade justice is held

Man accused of Lindsay Hawker's murder is caught, despite plastic surgery
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The Independent Online

With his surgically altered features obscured by sunglasses and a face mask, Tatsuya Ichihashi must have thought he would easily slip unnoticed on to the ferry docked in Osaka. For nearly three years, he had evaded capture in one of the most intensive manhunts in Japanese history to find the killer of the British teacher Lindsay Hawker.

But shortly after 6pm yesterday at the Nanko ferry terminal, Ichihashi's flight from justice came to an abrupt end. One report said that the 30-year-old, whose attempts to disappear from public view using plastic surgery were stymied last week when police released a picture of his changed appearance, was spotted by a member of the public.

As part of his elaborate strategy to avoid arrest, the jobless barman had adopted the identity of a dead man, Kosuke Inoue. When police arrived to arrest the suspect, who had been trying to board a ferry to the island of Okinawa, he simply told officers: "I am Ichihashi."

Some 6,000 miles away in the village of Brandon, near Coventry, Bill Hawker was telephoned with the news that the man for whose capture he and his family had campaigned since March 2007 – when his daughter's body was found buried in a bathtub filled with sand and soil on the balcony of Ichihashi's Tokyo flat – had finally been arrested.

Mr Hawker, 54, a driving instructor, said he felt numb after hearing the news: "It has just been such a long, long journey. I can visit my daughter's grave tomorrow morning and tell her that her killer has finally been caught."

Adding that he would travel to Japan as soon as he was needed, he said: "I have always said that I want to look Ichihashi in the eyes myself."

Ms Hawker, 22, who had a first class degree in biology and spoken of wanting to train as a doctor, had been in Japan for about five months teaching English at a Tokyo language school when Ichihashi approached her on a train and asked for a private lesson. After meeting at a Tokyo café a few days later on 25 March 2007, Ms Hawker agreed to share a taxi with Ichihashi back to his flat. She told the taxi driver to wait for her for a few minutes while she entered her pupil's apartment but, when she failed to reappear, the taxi drove off. It was not until the following day that police were alerted to her disappearance.

The case immediately drew comparisons with the 2000 murder of British hostess Lucie Blackman. Widely criticised for dragging their feet in Ms Blackman's death, the Japanese police again came under fire for their handling of the Hawker investigation.

With his flat surrounded by nine police officers, Ichihashi managed to slip through the cordon and vanish for the next 31 months. On the balcony outside the flat, they found the young teacher's body, bound and gagged. She had been beaten and strangled. Her killer then shaved her head and covered her with a chemical to decompose the body.

Mr Hawker and his wife, Julia, visited Japan, touring television studios to plead for information on Ichihashi's whereabouts and set up a hotline to report sightings of the fugitive. The failure to apprehend the suspect spawned bizarre stories about his fate, including claims that he was working as a male prostitute.

But the reality was more mundane. Ichihashi apparently hid out as a labourer at a construction site in Osaka for 14 months, living in a company dorm and saving his money for plastic surgery. Three operations widened his distinctive nose, thinned his lips and changed the shape of his eyes. Facial hair and glasses completed the disguise.

Arrested on a technical charge of abandoning a body, Ichihashi is almost certain to face a murder charge.