Tatsuya Ichihashi went on the lam for more than 2½ years after strangling 22-year-old Lindsay Ann Hawker in March 2007. On the eve of a new film based on the convicted killer’s account of his time on the road, Jun Hongo looks into the factors that allowed the fugitive to stay one step ahead of the police as well as those that led to his ultimate capture.

As Tatsuya Ichihashi’s evasion of the police stretched from days to months to years, many people assumed he was either being helped by his parents or the yakuza. In fact, the truth was much more simple: He was just damn lucky.

But his luck finally ran out 31 months after the bare-footed 28-year-old outwitted a squad of policemen who were investigating the disappearance of 22-year-old Briton Lindsay Ann Hawker near Gyotoku Station, Chiba Prefecture, in March 2007.

Hiromasa Saikawa, a former lieutenant with the Metropolitan Police Department in Tokyo, told The Japan Times On Sunday that Ichihashi was ultimately responsible for his own downfall. Seeking to alter his facial features, the fugitive underwent multiple rounds of cosmetic surgery, leaving a trail of medical records behind that provided investigators with up-to-date photos of his appearance.

“It isn’t like Ichihashi had a special flair for escape,” said Saikawa, who served with the police force for 30 years in positions that included the security and intelligence division.

Ichihashi’s decision to hide on an uninhabited island in Okinawa also made him stand out rather than blend in, he said. “I believe luck had a lot to do with him avoiding capture for such a long period of time,” the 66-year-old former investigator said.

Ichihashi’s 31-month life on the lam began at around 9 p.m. on March 26, 2007. After raping, strangling and then burying the young English teacher in a bathtub on his balcony, he was approached by a group of policemen as he left his Chiba apartment. The policemen were following up a lead on Hawker’s disappearance, and so he fled, losing his rucksack in the process but managing to get away on foot.

According to accounts in Ichihashi’s 2011 book “Taiho Sareru Made,” the killer knew that Gyotoku Station would be under tight surveillance and so he hid in bushes to keep out of sight for a while before heading east.

He subsequently stole a bicycle and rode it until he felt safe enough to dump it and catch a train to Ueno Station.

“The police had obviously made some critical mistakes by this time,” Saikawa said.

Ichihashi may not have been a murder suspect when the police gathered in front of his apartment but he would never have been able to escape that night had they positioned themselves properly, he said.

“In addition, police dogs should have been brought in as soon as possible since Ichihashi appears to have hid nearby,” the former officer said. “A canine would have easily traced his scent.”

After purchasing a sewing needle at a convenience store that night and piercing his nose to alter his looks, Ichihashi walked from Ueno to Akihabara.

He vaguely remembers taking irregular trains and walking through Ibaraki, Gunma, Saitama and Shizuoka prefectures over the next few days but by April he decided “on instinct” to head north toward Niigata and Aomori.

As he was strapped for cash and had to sleep on the street, however, he only stayed in Aomori for about a week. Ichihashi initially decided to head for Osaka to find contract work, but changed his plan and left for Shikoku.

“I walked about 20 km a day” once there, Ichihashi recalled in his book, believing that a pious pilgrimage around Shikoku’s 88 temples might somehow bring Hawker back to life.

“I didn’t have the courage to commit suicide,” he wrote. “Turning myself in to the police also wasn’t something I planned to do.”

Ichihashi stumbled across a book describing an uninhabited island in Okinawa during a visit to a local library, and decided it would make a perfect hideaway. In the middle of May, he took a ferry from Kagoshima Prefecture and made his way slowly to Ohajima Island, which lies off the coast of Kume Island, 90 km west of Naha.

“Anyone would try to escape” if they were in his position, he kept telling himself according to his book.

On the island, Ichihashi spent time reading books such as “Catcher in the Rye” and listening to the radio for updates on the Hawker investigation. He attempted to fish for food but failed miserably, and decided to head back to Okinawa on a ferry. He was stopped by a guard after trying to stow away but avoided being detained by lying, telling the guard he had been disowned by his family and didn’t have any money. The guard let him go.

Ichihashi worked as a day laborer in Okinawa and in Osaka over the next few months, earning ¥300,000 per month at times. He kept the money he earned inside a small pouch around his waist. He would abandon all his belongings and flee to Ohajima whenever he felt uncertain that his identity was safe, changing his name and place of employment each time.

“At first, I thought it wouldn’t be possible for Ichihashi to evade capture for so long. I thought he had committed suicide,” Saikawa said.

Reports also surfaced that Ichihashi was being sheltered by the yakuza or that he was working as a male prostitute in Shinjuku. “All those reports are completely fake,” Ichihashi wrote in his book.

Living in Osaka may have helped extend his run, Saikawa said, adding that had the killer remained in town for good, the police might have not caught him at all.

Logic suggests that if one wants to avoid being noticed, one should stay as far away from others as possible, Saikawa said.

However, it’s far easier to blend into the surroundings in a crowded city, he said.

“Imagine a train that is nearly empty and one that is packed,” Saikawa said.

It is much more likely that one will make eye contact with another passenger on an empty carriage or at least remember someone else’s looks, he said.

In contrast, no one remembers anything about those around them when riding on a morning rush-hour train, he said.

While it may be customary in Western cultures to hold the door open for others or exchange greetings with a stranger on an elevator, that kind of behavior rarely happens in Japan and especially in large cities. “This is another unique feature of the metropolis,” Saikawa said, noting how residents of Tokyo or Osaka have the tendency to avoid unnecessary involvement with others.

When Aum Shinrikyo cult member Makoto Hirata turned himself in to the police in 2011 after 17 years on the run, the attending officer sent him to a different police station. “Even a police officer doesn’t want any involvement with an unknown person — that’s how deep the feeling runs,” he said.

While on the lam, Ichihashi attempted to alter his looks through cosmetic surgeries at hospitals in Fukuoka, Osaka and Nagoya. Ichihashi wrote in his book that the surgeries “were what ultimately led to my arrest,” as the stalled investigation gained momentum once one of the clinics became suspicious and contacted the police. “In reality, the looks of a person can change so much in a short span of time,” even without undergoing any surgical procedures, Saikawa said.

The police, now aware of Ichihashi’s new appearance, were able to narrow down their search considerably. They finally caught the killer on Nov. 10, 2009, as he was leaving the Osaka area for Ohajima.

Saikawa said the 31-month manhunt could have easily been avoided.

“Not letting Ichihashi slip away on the first day was crucial,” Saikawa said.

“Always prepare for the worst,” he said. “It’s one of the basics (of police work), but also one that is difficult to uphold.”

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