It is one of the more ugly tasks in journalism: trying to extract a quote from a bereaved family after a violent death. By the time I called Nicola Furlong’s mother on May 25, she had learned that her 21-year-old daughter had been sexually assaulted and probably throttled by a stranger in a city 10,000 km away.
Her voice was weary but polite. “Let me give you another number,” she said. It was for the parish priest.
Small Irish communities like the seaside town of Curracloe are as homogenous as any Japanese village. Most people share the same schools, churches and pubs, watch the same television programs and speak in an accent that visitors from outside the country might struggle to comprehend. The priest is still a respected, though diminished, local presence. The Furlongs are especially well known because the family runs a pub in the center of the town.
“Nicola was a warm, generous, stunning person who always had time for her family and other people,” said the family’s statement from the priest. “She stood for everything that is good in life.”
When I apologized for the call, I was told, “Sure, everyone has a job to do.” But then came an unexpectedly barbed followup: “We respectfully request time and space to mourn Nicola with dignity. Rumors and innuendo circulating in the press are speculation and are without foundation.”
The Furlongs were upset by news stories in the first few days after Nicola’s death hinting that she may have been taking drugs. The first reports said that the room in the Shinjuku Keio Plaza Hotel where she died on the morning of May 24 had been booked in her name, implying that she invited her attacker back. It wasn’t possible, they said, that the young woman they watched growing up could have changed so sharply over the other side of the world.
A major part of the problem for reporters was the lack of information from the authorities. It was Friday evening, over 40 hours after Furlong’s death, before the main Japanese news channels broke the story, by which time it had already made the Irish newspapers. Foreign reporters who called the Tokyo Metropolitan Police on Friday were told they had not heard of the case. There was no police press conference. Even the Irish Embassy in Tokyo felt it was being kept in the dark. “They sure do things differently in Japan,” said a foreign editor for the Irish Daily Mail.
Such procedure has become well known from the earlier high-profile killings of foreign women in Tokyo: Lucie Blackman and Lindsay Hawker. The Japanese police diligently build their case, almost resentfully dealing with journalists and releasing information only in fitful, cryptic bursts. Eventually, a prepared statement emerged from police HQ saying that two American men had been charged with something called quasi-forcible indecency against the two women, a legal term that had reporters scratching their heads.
“It means plying someone with drink or drugs and groping or sexually assaulting them,” a police spokesman explained.
Furlong was studying Japanese and business at the Takasaki City University of Economics in Gunma Prefecture. On Wednesday she traveled the roughly one-hour train journey into Tokyo with a fellow Irish student who by coincidence had grown up in a village close to Curracloe.
They watched a concert by Nicki Minaj, an unusually chaste, God-fearing rapper with a message that may have appealed to two rural Irish girls: There are more important things in life than sex appeal.
Police believe that the two American men, James Blackston, 23, and an unidentified 19-year-old, approached the pair afterwards.
If the case goes to trial, much will be made of what took place next. Did the women voluntarily accompany the men and drink too much, or were they drugged and tricked or forced into going back to their hotel?
The discussion is likely to hinge on toxicology reports showing exactly what was in Furlong’s bloodstream. Her friend reportedly remembers little about the attack, but has given the police a statement.
Japanese TV networks say the four of them later took a taxi from near the Shibuya main intersection after midnight. Police believe the women were at this stage drunk or drugged.
Thereafter, the reports become garbled. According to Kyodo, quoting police sources, the two men raped Furlong’s Irish friend inside the taxi, which seems extraordinary. Even without considering the physical constraints of such an attack, surely the driver would have stopped the car or called the police afterwards? He dropped them off at the hotel, then apparently drove off.
The Keio Plaza is a mid-range hotel with rooms ranging from ¥23,000-¥32,000 a night. The two young American men had checked in on May 22 and were due to leave on the morning of the attack. Nobody seemed to notice the party of four cross the main lobby for the elevators at around 1 a.m.
“There are over 1,400 rooms and we normally have 80 percent capacity,” explained the hotel’s spokeswoman, Junko Saito. “A lot of people go back and forth, some in poor condition.”
At some stage around 3 a.m., the hotel front desk says it received a call, sending the night manager to the room of one of the men, probably the younger. The hotel will not comment on claims that the two men were moving between the rooms, or on reports that there were signs of a struggle. The manager found Furlong unconscious on the floor. An ambulance was called and she was declared dead in a Tokyo hospital about an hour later.
The Japanese media quickly lost interest in the case. In the cold calculus of crime reporting, Furlong’s death lacks the frisson of the murders of Blackman and Hawker, who were killed by Japanese men. Foreign-on-foreign crime is of less interest, and in any case the alleged perpetrators are in custody.
Without official information, journalists reporting from outside Japan have relied heavily on the Internet, with sometimes farcical results. Blackston was quickly outed as a professional hip-hop dancer but incorrectly identified as being with the entourage of Nicki Minaj, who was forced to take to Twitter to angrily deny the allegation. “My dancers had nothing to do w/this tragedy. … .We do NOT know the men in custody. Too much misleading information.”
Blackston’s accomplice was incorrectly identified as Larry Perry, then Larry Berry, his L.A.-based friend who also used Twitter to end the confusion — and defend the main suspect. “My friend is no murderer nor rapist. So all the childish dm can stop. We are all waiting on results so let’s wait.”
U.S. reports said that the charge was murder, though no such information was released by the police. Irish newspapers reported the death in a way that would almost certainly put them in contempt of court if the crime had taken place in Dublin.
Many outlets showed the heavily tattooed rapper side by side with a picture of the beautiful blond victim, an irresistible excuse for a toxic online stream of racist abuse.
Twelve years ago, during the investigation into the death of Lucie Blackman, the Internet was a relatively minor force. Today, for better or worse it is a player, helping to flesh out the details of high-profile crimes for a hungry media.
Japan’s police, still sending faxes to news bureaus and working out of offices piled high with paper files, have a long way to catch up. A spokesman for the metropolitan police declined to comment, other than to say that the investigation was “proceeding” and that the media would be duly informed “when developments occurred.”
Nicola Furlong’s body was flown back to Ireland last Thursday for the funeral in Curracloe, trailed by her friend and her mother, who came to Tokyo to escort her home. By the time her coffin made its way through the town’s single main street, thousands of words had been written about her death, yet her parents Andrew and Angie, her sister, Andrea, and boyfriend, Danny Furlong, knew little more than the information contained in this article.
“We all just want her back home,” said her uncle, Patrick Furlong, who runs the family pub.
The family is desperate to learn more about the last few hours of Nicola’s life, but they rely mostly on the Irish Embassy in Tokyo, which in turn relies on the police, who say little beyond what has appeared in their first fax.
“Can you tell us what’s going on?” the family spokesperson asked me on the phone. I wish I knew.
Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org