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US Navy officer begins 3-year Japan prison sentence – lawmakers say he should go free

Then- Lt. j.g. Ridge Alkonis (right) gives Rear Adm. John Alexander, Battle Force 7th Fleet, a tour of USS Fitzgerald’s (DDG 62) Combat Information Center (CIC) on July 9, 2015. (Patrick Dionne/U.S. Navy)
July 27, 2022

U.S. Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis began a three-year term in a Japanese prison on Tuesday for crashing a car that killed a woman and her son-in-law. The officer and his legal defense have argued that the crash was the result of an unexpected medical episode and now U.S. lawmakers such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA) are calling for Alkonis’ release.

Alkonis, 34, was driving back to his duty station at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, Japan on May 29, 2021, Stars & Stripes reported. Alkonis was driving with his wife and three children after returning from a hike on Mt. Fuji when he crashed into pedestrians and parked cars outside a restaurant in Fujinomiya.

An 85-year-old woman was killed in the immediate aftermath of the crash, while her 54-year-old son-in-law died days later on June 11. The woman’s 53-year-old daughter was also injured in the accident.

Japanese prosecutors, and ultimately Japanese Judge Kumiko Maesawa, insisted the crash was the result of Alkonis falling asleep behind the wheel. In contrast, Alkonis testified on Aug. 24, 2021, that he suffered a syncopal episode (meaning he fainted) brought on by altitude sickness after his hike.

According to Lee, Alkonis was “well-rested and had no reason to be tired or drowsy.” Alkonis had reportedly been in the middle of a conversation with his wife as he drove and then passed out mid-sentence and did not wake up until some time after the accident.

In an Instagram post on Monday, The Pipe Hitter Foundation (PHF) shared photos of Alkonis’ last few hours with his family before beginning his prison term.

Following the crash, Alkonis made a customary “gomenasai” (the Japanese word for apology) with letters of condolences, gifts of honor, and a payment of $1.65 million to the family of the victims. PHF reported Alkonis’ payment to the family was the largest “gomenasai” payment made by a U.S. service member in Japan’s history.

“For the Japanese criminal justice system, which places high value on genuine acts of remorse and restitution, such settlements often avert criminal prosecution,” said PHF, which has been supporting Alkonis throughout the case. PHF said Alkonis was expecting a suspended sentence, as is “the norm for cases like this.”

Instead of a suspended sentence, the judge ordered Alkonis to serve a three-year prison term, claiming he was fatigued and acted irresponsibly by continuing to drive.

“It’s disingenuous that Judge Kumiko Maesawa would offer such a simplistic view by stating that he should have pulled over if he felt drowsy,” Lee said. “It flies in the face of the evidence and the experiences of everyone at the scene, including his family, who were present. The comments are even more egregious considering the Japanese government didn’t so much as bother to conduct an adequate investigation following the crash. He was even denied a medical evaluation before the Japanese police subjected him to 26 days of detention and interrogation before he was charged.

“The United States Navy did conduct an investigation and concluded that Lt. Alkonis lost consciousness from Acute Mountain Sickness,” Lee continued. “There were no drugs or alcohol involved in the crash. Yet, even after the Navy concluded that he was not at fault, Lt. Alkonis did everything within his power to remedy the situation.”

During a House floor speech Thursday, Levin said the Japanese court’s sentence violates the status of force agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and Japan. Levin said the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo has been monitoring Alkonis’ case and “I strongly urge them to do more to support a service member in need.”

“My office has been working with the Department of the Navy and the office of the Secretary of Defense to support Lt. Alkonis and his parents Suzanne and Derek throughout this case as I do.” Levin said. “The Navy believes that this is the wrong sentence for Lt. Alkonis. I won’t be giving up on Lt. Alkonis and the Department of Defense must not either.”

Fox News reported the Japanese Supreme Court may review Alkonis’ case. Alkonis’ mother Suzy Alkonis said it may take President Joe Biden to secure a deal with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to secure her son’s release.