Family members of an American naval officer now in a Japanese prison after a car crash are doing all they can think of in hopes of getting President Joe Biden involved in lobbying for Lt. Ridge Alkonis’s release.
On Wednesday, Sept. 14, Dana Point resident Suzi Alkonis stood outside the U.S. Capitol with Rep. Mike Levin (D- San Juan Capistrano) and her son’s wife, Brittany, and the couple’s children. For six weeks, the women and children have posted themselves outside the White House gates. On Friday, Derek Alkonis will do the same at the Japanese Consulate in Los Angeles asking for his son’s release.
Alkonis has been in a Japanese detention center since July 25 after a Tokyo High Court judge denied his appeal seeking to suspend a three-year prison sentence he received for negligent driving following a car crash that led to the death of an 85-year-old Japanese woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law. The elderly woman’s daughter was also injured.
Alkonis says he passed out driving because of acute mountain 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 saying he had not traveled high enough up the mountain to be impacted by altitude sickness, according to Japanese news reports. The family thought he would be given a suspended sentence, and all, including his children, Lilliana, 8; Kalani, 7; Ridge Jr., 4, had packed their bags to leave Japan.
After being released on bail pending his appeal, Alkonis, on the advice of his Japanese attorney, performed an act of Gomenasai, which is the custom of making overtures of courtesy and apology and provided the family of the victims $1.65 million in extrajudicial restitution, his family said. Half of the money was raised from insurance and the other half scraped together with help from friends and supporters. Typically, families will accept the letters and gifts and offer forgiveness, the Alkonis family was told, but the victims’ family has not.
In July, Alkonis’ appeal was denied and he began his prison sentence.
The family had been told the investigation into the crash was not being treated as a criminal act, said Suzi Alkonis. “He was embroiled in the Japanese legal system, but didn’t commit a criminal act. They thought he’d go through the system and get a suspended sentence. That’s how it generally works.”
“We followed the counsel of the attorney, people who understood the justice system, and it still ended him in prison,” Derek Alkonis, a retired Los Angles County assistant fire chief, added. “We don’t know what, but something went terribly wrong.”
Alkonis’s family said among their concerns is they feel Japanese investigators misled their son into signing Japanese-language documents during his pretrial confinement that they said inaccurately described Alkonis, a Claremont native, as having felt sleepy before driving that day. Alkonis was also denied access to an attorney during his initial four weeks of detention after the accident, Derek Alkonis said.
The Japanese embassy in Washington D.C did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.
Meanwhile Navy officials, because he is still on active duty, said when reached for comment that they continue to provide support to the Alkonis family’s efforts.
“This was a tragic event that resulted in the loss of two precious lives, and caused tremendous pain for everyone involved,” said Cmdr. Katie Cerezo, a spokeswoman with Naval Forces Japan. “At every stage, we have provided the Alkonis family with all support consistent with U.S. law and regulations.”
His family worries if Alkonis remains in jail beyond his leave time, he is at risk of losing his pay and benefits. They said he has been spending his time shredding hundreds of pieces of paper each day to make confetti – a prison job to earn some extra money for his family.
“We know our son is a very honorable, devoted servant to his country, family and society,” Derek Alkonis said. “His record shows that. He would do nothing to hurt somebody intentionally, but he’s being treated like a criminal.”
As Alkonis readied for his fourth deployment with the Navy’s 7th Fleet, the family decided to do a hike on Mount Fuji. They started at sea level, drove to Fujinomiya at 7,800 feet and hiked to about 8,000-foot elevation, Suzi Alkonis said.
After a bit more than an hour, they were done and drove for 40 minutes to a favorite ice cream spot. They were at about 528 feet of elevation when the crash occurred, she said.
“He had just asked his daughter a question when she answered him only to see he was slumped over,” Derek Alkonis said his daughter-in-law told him. “She screamed and kicked his seat.”
The Japanese police investigation said the car was driving 28 mph when it began drifting to the side, Derek Alkonis said, and before Brittany Alkonis could intervene, they struck a parked car, which hit another parked car and “then pinched the male victim as he tried to get into his car.”
Brittany Alkonis said she got out to determine what happened and shook her husband, who appeared still unconscious. As he slowly came around, witnesses at the scene described him as pale and speaking poor Japanese — he is somewhat fluent, his father said. “He tried to get to the people and help free them.”
A Navy doctor who examined Alkonis after he was released from jail – he spent 27 days during the investigation following the crash – said his symptoms are evidence of acute mountain sickness, his parents said.
When the ambulance arrived, first responders told Brittany Alkonis that the Japanese woman and man were “speaking and lucid,” and the ambulance attendant said, “everything would be fine,” Derek Alkonis said.
Three hours later, Alkonis and his family learned the elderly woman had died from an apparent collapsed lung. Eleven days later, her son-in-law died from cerebral edema caused by a fat embolism due to a pelvic fracture. A third person, the daughter of the elderly woman, was injured, and Brittany Alkonis had an ankle injury.
“The fact people were hurt was traumatic to him,” Derek Alkonis said about his son. “When he learned they had died, it was a crushing blow.”
Since the accident, Alkonis has repeatedly expressed sorrow over the tragedy, his parents said.
“It’s such a tough situation,” Derek Alkonis said. “Both families are suffering and the justice system stands between us.”
Suzi and Brittany Alkonis have stayed in Washington D.C., contacting elected leaders daily, they said. They set up home school in front of the White House for the two girls, hoping to draw the attention of the Biden administration.
They’ve worked with Levin and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to get other members of Congress to write letters on Alkonis’s behalf to the Japanese prime minister, the Japanese ambassador and to the American ambassador to Japan.
“We have a quarter of the Senate who has now officially written letters in support of Ridge,” Suzi Alkonis said. “The U.S. Ambassador Rahm Emanuel spoke 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.”
Ned Price, a spokesman for the Department of State, said efforts are being made by Emanuel to work with the Japanese government and the Department of Defense “for finding a successful resolution that is consistent with U.S. law, with Japanese law, as well as with existing treaties.”
The Alkonis family is holding out hope and said the Wednesday protest in D.C. had a lot of support.
“He’s a man who has dedicated his life to serving our country and defending an ally over the course of three tours of duty in Japan,” Levin said Wednesday, adding that his office has been working with the Navy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Ambassador Emanuel. “Nobody deserves the treatment Lt. Alkonis has endured in Japan, especially not a man of his character and history of service to our country.”