• Kyodo

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A former taxi driver accused of committing murder by arson at the branch of a consumer finance company in Aomori Prefecture denied Thursday that he intended to kill the five victims.

As his trial opened at the Aomori District Court, Mitsuhiro Kobayashi, 44, admitted setting fire to the Hirosaki branch of Takefuji Corp. during a bungled robbery attempt on May 8, 2001, but denied he intended to kill anyone.

“I did not break into the Takefuji branch to kill people. I did not mean to kill (the victims) when I set the office on fire,” Kobayashi said.

He also offered an apology to relatives of the five employees who died in the blaze. Four other people were seriously burned.

According to the indictment, Kobayashi sprinkled gasoline inside the building and then demanded the branch manager give him money.

After the manager refused, Kobayashi set the office on fire and fled, the indictment said.

The branch, on the third floor of an office building, was gutted and later demolished.

Kobayashi’s lawyers argued that he should not have been charged with robbery and murder, but robbery resulting in death.

The prosecution disagreed, saying Kobayashi must have been fully aware that burning the office would put the employees in mortal danger.

Aomori police launched a massive manhunt but were unable to find their suspect for months.

With the help of a portrait and eyewitness accounts of a green car fleeing the scene, they eventually arrested Kobayashi, a resident of Nomioka, 15 km northeast of Hirosaki, on March 4.

The prosecution said in its opening statement that Kobayashi was burdened with huge debts and desperately needed money to pay off his loans, which included 23 million yen in mortgage loans and other debts owed to consumer finance firms.

Just six days before the incident, a consumer finance company demanded he pay 600,000 yen immediately, the police said.

He eventually decided to rob Takefuji to prevent the company from repossessing his car, which had been put up as collateral for a loan, the prosecutors said.

After torching the office, Kobayashi tried to cover his tracks by asking his wife to make it look like she had been using the car that day, they said.

He also made an anonymous phone call to a local TV station, saying that he only wanted money, according to the prosecutors.

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