(Tribune News Service) – Family members of a US naval officer currently being held in a Japanese prison after a car accident are doing everything they can in hopes of involving President Joe Biden in the lobbying for the release of Lieutenant Ridge Alkonis.
On Wednesday, Sept. 14, in Dana Point, Calif., resident Suzi Alkonis stood outside the U.S. Capitol with Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) and his son’s wife, Brittany, and the couple’s children. For six weeks, women and children posted themselves outside the gates of the White House. On Friday, Derek Alkonis will do the same at the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles to demand the release of his son.
Alkonis has been in a Japanese detention center since July 25 after a Tokyo High Court judge rejected his appeal to suspend a three-year prison sentence he received for negligent driving following a a car accident that resulted in the death of an 85-year-old man. Japanese woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law. The elderly woman’s daughter was also injured.
Alkonis says he passed out while driving due to acute altitude sickness after a family trip to visit Mount Fuji, but Japanese prosecutors say the May 29, 2021 crash was caused by Alkonis falling asleep at the wheel.
Alkonis, 34, was sentenced in October; the judge said he had not traveled high enough in the mountain to be affected by altitude sickness, according to Japanese reports. The family believed he would receive a suspended sentence, and all of them, including his children, Lilliana, 8; Kalani, 7 years old; Ridge Jr., 4, had packed his bags to leave Japan.
After being released on bail pending his appeal, Alkonis, on the advice of his Japanese lawyer, apologized and provided the victims’ family with $1.65 million in out-of-court restitution, his family said. . Half of the money was raised through insurance and the other half through the help of friends and supporters. Families typically accept letters and gifts and offer forgiveness, the Alkonis family was told, but the victims’ family did not.
In July, Alkonis’ appeal was dismissed and he began his prison sentence.
The family had been informed that the investigation into the accident was not considered a criminal act, Suzi Alkonis said. “He was involved in the Japanese justice system, but did not commit a criminal act. They thought he would go through the system and get a suspended sentence. This is how it generally works.
“We took the advice of the attorney, people who understood the justice system, and it still put him in jail,” added Derek Alkonis, retired Los Angles County Deputy Fire Chief. “We don’t know what, but something has gone terribly wrong.”
Alkonis’ family said one of their concerns is that they believe Japanese investigators misled their son into signing documents in Japanese while in pretrial detention which they say inaccurately described Alkonis. , from Claremont, Calif., as having felt drowsy before driving that day. Alkonis was also denied access to a lawyer during his first four weeks in custody after the crash, Derek Alkonis said.
The Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.
Meanwhile, Navy officials, because he is still on active duty, said when contacted for comment that they continue to support the efforts of the Alkonis family.
“It was a tragic event that resulted in the loss of two precious lives and caused tremendous pain to everyone involved,” said Cmdr. Katie Cerezo, spokesperson for Naval Forces Japan. “At every stage, we have provided the Alkonis family with full support consistent with US laws and regulations. »
His family is concerned if Alkonis stays in jail beyond his time off, he risks losing his pay and benefits. They said he spent his time shredding hundreds of pieces of paper each day to make confetti – a prison job to earn some extra cash for his family.
“We know that our son is a very honorable and dedicated servant to his country, his family and his society,” said Derek Alkonis. “His record shows it. He wouldn’t do anything to intentionally hurt anyone, but he’s being treated like a criminal.
As Alkonis prepared for his fourth deployment with the Navy’s 7th Fleet, the family decided to hike Mount Fuji. They started at sea level, traveled to Fujinomiya at 7,800ft and hiked up to around 8,000ft, Suzi Alkonis said.
After a little over an hour they were done and drove 40 minutes to their favorite ice cream spot. They were about 528 feet up when the crash happened, she said.
“He had just asked his daughter a question when she answered him only to see he was devastated,” Derek Alkonis told his daughter-in-law. “She screamed and kicked her seat.”
Japanese police investigation revealed the car was traveling at 28mph when it began to drift sideways, Derek Alkonis said, and before Brittany Alkonis could intervene, they hit a parked car, which crashed. hit another parked car and “then pinched the male victim as he tried to get into his car.
Brittany Alkonis said she went out to determine what happened and shook her husband, who still appeared to be unconscious. As he slowly returned, witnesses to the scene described him as pale and speaking poor Japanese – he is somewhat fluent, his father said. “He tried to reach people and help free them.”
A Navy doctor who examined Alkonis after he was released from prison – he spent 27 days while the crash was investigated – said his symptoms were evidence of acute mountain sickness, his colleagues said. parents.
When the ambulance arrived, first responders told Brittany Alkonis the Japanese woman and man were “talking and lucid,” and the paramedic said “everything would be fine,” Derek Alkonis said.
Three hours later, Alkonis and her family learned that the elderly woman had died of an apparently collapsed lung. Eleven days later, her son-in-law died of cerebral edema caused by a fatty embolism due to a fracture of the pelvis. A third person, the elderly woman’s daughter, was injured and Brittany Alkonis injured her ankle.
“Having people hurt was traumatic for him,” Derek Alkonis said of his son. “When he found out they were dead, it was a huge blow.”
Since the accident, Alkonis has repeatedly expressed his sadness over the tragedy, his parents said.
“It’s such a difficult situation,” Derek Alkonis said. “Both families are hurting and the justice system stands between us.”
Suzi and Brittany Alkonis remained in Washington, DC, contacting elected officials daily, they said. They set up a home school in front of the White House for the two girls, hoping to catch the attention of the Biden administration.
They worked with Levin and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to get other members of Congress to write letters on behalf of Alkonis to the Japanese Prime Minister, the Japanese Ambassador, and the U.S. Ambassador to Japan .
“We have a quarter of the Senate who have now officially written letters in favor of Ridge,” Suzi Alkonis said. “US Ambassador Rahm Emanuel has spoken with Ridge and is trying to find a solution. It seems the Japanese government is open, but frankly the phone call that would do the most good is a call from Joe Biden.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Emanuel was working with the Japanese government and the Department of Defense “to find a successful solution that is consistent with U.S. law, Japanese law , as well as to existing treaties.
The Alkonis family remains hopeful and said Wednesday’s protest in DC received a lot of support.
“He is a man who has dedicated his life to serving our country and defending an ally during three tours of duty in Japan,” Levin said Wednesday, adding that his office worked with the Navy, the office of the Secretary of Defense and Ambassador Emanuel. “No one deserves the treatment Lieutenant Alkonis endured in Japan, especially not a man of his character and history in the service of our country.”
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