WASHINGTON – For Ridge Alkonis, a US Navy lieutenant living in Japan, a spring trip to Mount Fuji with his wife and three children was intended as a fun and relaxing time with the family before an anticipated deployment.
What happened next and why is a matter of debate. But it resulted in a three-year prison sentence.
In the tale of Alkonis’ family and supporters, the naval officer in the car suddenly lost consciousness, causing him to collapse behind the wheel after suffering from acute altitude sickness. Japanese prosecutors and the judge who sentenced him claim he fell asleep drowsily and shied away from duty to stop immediately.
Regardless of the cause, Alkonis’ car crashed into parked cars and pedestrians in a parking lot, hitting an elderly woman and her son-in-law, both of whom later died. As a Japanese court is scheduled to appeal Wednesday against Alkonis’ prison sentence, his parents are asking leniency for what they believe was nothing more than a horrific accident, but prosecutors say was fatal negligence. He is at home in Japan until his appointment.
“The word that comes to mind is fairness. We want him to be treated fairly after an accident,” said Alkonis’ father, Derek Alkonis of Dana Point, California. “We don’t feel like it was like that. We know that wasn’t the case. And we are concerned that our son has been sentenced to three years in prison for an accident.”
The victims’ families could not be contacted by The Associated Press because their names have been redacted from court records reviewed by the AP.
The forthcoming hearing is the latest development in the case against Alkonis, 34, an underwater warfare and acoustic engineering specialist who has spent nearly seven years in Japan as a civilian volunteer and naval officer.
In spring 2021, after a period of land-based deployments, the Southern California native prepared to serve as a department head on the missile destroyer USS Benfold.
On May 29, 2021, as the assignment loomed, his family set out for Mt. Fuji, hiking and sightseeing.
They had climbed part of the mountain and were back in the car to head near the base of Mount Fuji for lunch and ice cream. Alkonis was speaking to his then 7-year-old daughter when his family say he suddenly passed out behind the wheel. It is said that he was so upset that neither his daughter’s screams nor the force of the impact shook him awake.
After the crash near Fujinomiya, he was arrested by Japanese authorities and held in solitary confinement at a police jail for 26 days, interrogated several times a day and not receiving any medical treatment or examination, a family spokesman said. This statement says that when American authorities arrived to take Alkonis into custody and bring him back to a US base, he was already being held by the Japanese.
He was charged with negligent driving resulting in death and sentenced to three years in prison last October. In Japan, the charge carries up to seven years in prison. He has appealed.
English-language court filings obtained by the AP show the judge expressed skepticism about mountain sickness, citing an initial statement from Alkonis to police, in which he said he felt drowsy after driving through mountainous turns.
He later testified that he suddenly felt altitude sickness – a finding supported by a neurologist’s June 2021 diagnosis – but the judge said such a feeling should have subsided as Alkonis drove down the mountain.
The judge said that while it’s conceivable that Alkonis was suffering from mild mountain sickness, it’s hard to imagine him going from not being tired at all to being suddenly incapacitated.
A Navy spokesman said Alkonis remains on active duty and that the Navy has provided him and his family “with the holistic care and support they need.” A lawyer for Alkonis declined to comment.
The case comes amid long-standing Japan concerns about bad behavior, albeit sporadic, among tens of thousands of US soldiers in the country and a sense that they are being accorded preferential treatment. An AP investigation from 2014 found that at US military bases in Japan, most military personnel convicted of sex crimes in recent years did not go to jail, but were instead routinely punished with demotion, fines, or removal from the military.
However, this case is different as Alkonis is not accused of acting with nefarious intent and he and his family say they have taken repeated steps to express remorse and accept responsibility.
The family say they were encouraged by Alkonis’ attorney to cooperate, plead guilty and pay compensation to the victims’ families – which they did by signing a $1.65 million settlement, from about half of which was raised from savings and friends and family.
“Ridge has said from day one, ‘All he wants to do is help this family. He feels the burden of what happened that day,” said his mother Suzi Alkonis. “We all do that.”
Eric Feldman, a professor of Japanese law at the University of Pennsylvania, said instinct is particularly understandable in Japan, where the criminal justice system values remorse and where payments to victims can sometimes avert prosecution. It is a system particularly focused on serving the victims’ interests.
“There’s a general perception that in Japan they don’t want to continue to plead innocence,” Feldman said.
However, the criminal case is ongoing in this case, and Suzi Alkonis said it was frustrating that remorse actually seems to work against her son in the courtroom. She feels concern for her son, unsure of the lasting impact the case will have on his military career, but also feels pain for the victims.
“There are people who make really bad decisions, and there is grace for people who make bad decisions,” she said. “We feel like we’d love a little grace because Ridge has spent his entire life making good decisions. And then an accident comes out of the blue that has already hurt a family so badly – and it hurts that one.”
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
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https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/05/us-naval-officer-in-japan-faces-prison-over-deadly-crash/ US Navy officer in Japan faces jail time over fatal crash