National / Crime & Legal

Prison escapee eluded massive manhunt by hiding in vacation home attic

Kyodo

An escaped inmate managed to elude a massive manhunt, conducted by police for over three weeks on an island in Hiroshima Prefecture, by hiding in the attic of a vacation home, investigative sources said Tuesday.

Tatsuma Hirao, 27, fled last month from a low-security prison in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, and was caught in Hiroshima on Monday, ending a search that had involved a total of 15,500 personnel.

Hirao said he had hid in a vacant house on Mukaishima island, a part of the city of Onomichi, evading detection by officers of both the Hiroshima and Ehime police forces who had targeted the building in their search.

He went unnoticed when police failed to check the attic, the sources said. The mountainous island has over 1,000 empty houses.

The police found a note in the vacation home, believed to have been left by Hirao, which said he was bullied by a prison guard. Hirao reportedly told the police after his arrest that he escaped after becoming “disgusted with relationships” at the prison.

Hirao was sent to prosecutors on Tuesday in connection with his escape.

The sources said Hirao told the police he swam from Mukaishima to Honshu and stole a bike to head west. He later took a train bound for the city of Hiroshima.

While security was tight at police checkpoints on Mukaishima, some pointed out that it was possible to swim to the other shore as the narrowest point between the island and the mainland is only 200 meters across.

Hirao told investigators that he swam to Hiroshima Prefecture on the night of April 24. The current is usually strong in the area, but locals said it weakened from late April 24 to the early hours the following day.

“It becomes something like a pool. Children used to swim there when the current was weak,” said a local fisheries cooperative official. A simple plastic foam box could have served as a flotation device, the official added.

“It rained that night, meaning it wouldn’t have looked suspicious if he walked around wet from head to toe,” a prison official said.

Hirao escaped on April 8 from Matsuyama Prison’s Oi shipyard, a rare open-type prison facility in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, where he was serving time until January 2020 for crimes including theft.

He is suspected of staying at vacant homes and cottages in the northern area of Mukaishima and eating food left in the buildings. The area has many vacation homes with running water and electricity.

On Monday, Hirao entered an internet cafe in Minami Ward, Hiroshima, using another person’s identification that didn’t have a photo, and stayed for about three hours.

An employee tipped off the police after he paid and left. He fled and tried to escape by climbing over the wall of an elementary school along a street, but was wrestled to the ground by police officers.

At a news conference in Tokyo, Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa apologized for the sequence of events.

“We caused a great amount of worry and trouble to the local residents and the general public. I offer my profound apology,” Kamikawa said, adding that the ministry will come up with measures to prevent a recurrence.