• Kyodo

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A fugitive who eluded thousands of police officers on a tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea for more than three weeks was finally caught Monday 70 km away in the city of Hiroshima, police said.

Since 27-year-old Tatsuma Hirao escaped from a low-security prison in Ehime Prefecture on April 8, the police had been searching for him on Mukaishima, a forested 22-sq.-km island between Honshu and Shikoku with a population of around 20,000.

The convicted thief was widely believed to hiding among the more than 1,000 vacant houses on the island to elude the massive manhunt, which involved a total of 15,500 personnel, and its abundant citrus trees to survive.

In the end, the thief gave them the slip.

Hirao was quoted by the police as saying he swam across a narrow channel at some point to exit Mukaishima and reach the mainland. What was not immediately clear is how he made his way to Hiroshima, the biggest city in the Chugoku region, without being recognized.

According to the Hiroshima Prefectural Police, which has jurisdiction over Mukaishima, officers questioned Hirao on a street near Hiroshima Station after receiving a call from an internet cafe at around 11:30 a.m.

Hirao tried to escape by climbing the fence at an elementary school before being dragged down and overpowered by the officers.

After admitting he was the escapee, Hirao’s identity was confirmed shortly afterward through his fingerprints and other information, the police said.

After he was captured, Hirao reportedly said he was “tired of running.” The police said he was carrying around ¥20,000 in cash.

The authorities began looking for Hirao on Mukaishima after a stolen car linked to him was found there. Though security was tight at police checkpoints and a massive search was underway, the narrowest point between the island and Honshu is only about 200 meters wide, making it possible to swim across despite a strong current.

According to the police, several thefts were reported during the search on Mukaishima, where the forest cover and hilly topography hampered their efforts.

The search was also complicated by the fact that the numerous vacant houses on the island were off-limits to police searches without permission from the owners. In many cases, the owners could not be identified.

Hirao reportedly told the police he ate food taken from the vacant houses before swimming across to Honshu.

Hirao escaped from Matsuyama Prison’s Oi shipyard in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, last month. The shipyard is a rare, open-type prison facility without constant supervision. Prisoners sent there must have a clean record devoid of escapes and suicide attempts. Oi shipyard has seen 19 other people escape since it was established in 1961.

Hirao began serving his term in December. His sentence was to last until January 2020.

While insiders at the prison said Hirao was “a model of the model inmates,” he reportedly told the police that he escaped after “becoming disgusted with a relationship” at the prison.

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa apologized for troubling many people, including Mukaishima’s residents, for such a long time. She said the ministry will look into how the escape took place and swiftly take preventive measures.

Kamikawa is scheduled to visit the Oi shipyard and Mukaishima on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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