Twenty-five years ago, on the evening of Sept. 4, 1995 — the day the fourth U.N. World Conference on Women began in Beijing — a 12-year-old girl was abducted, beaten and raped in the village of Kin, Okinawa Prefecture, by three U.S. servicemen — two marines and a naval medic.
The young girl was walking home in her sixth-grade school uniform from a stationery store with her schoolbag when she was grabbed and thrown into the back seat of a rented car by one of the assailants, Marine Pvt. 1st Class Kendrick Ledet, 20, of Waycross, Georgia. The victim was struck, and her mouth taped by the second of the assailants, Pfc. Rodrico Harp, 21, of Griffin, Georgia. He also reportedly taped her eyes closed when he realized she was staring at him with her terrified eyes. The third man, medic Marcus Gill, 22, of Woodville, Texas, then tied her hands and legs.
They drove to Kin Blue Beach Training Area, one of the most isolated parts of Kin on the peninsula nearly 20 minutes away, where she was raped by Gill, physically described as a “tank” at around 120 kilograms and 183 centimeters tall. He beat her and told her to let him do what he wanted to her as she struggled and tried to resist. A non-native English speaker, it is likely she did not know what he was saying, but she must certainly have sensed what he was about to do.
Gill, who had arrived in Okinawa in October the previous year, was believed to be the ringleader. Earlier that day, he had picked up the other men for lunch on Camp Hansen in Kin Town, and while driving around, began talking about committing a rape. Harp and Ledet, who had about $30 on them that Labor Day weekend, spoke instead about paying for sex. Gill reportedly said that was “no fun” and showed them the duct tape and condoms he had prepared. It was at that point the others knew he was serious. A fourth man in the car, who later helped identify them at the Provost Marshall’s Office, reportedly asked to be dropped off as he did not want any part of what they were planning.
Harp, who had arrived in Okinawa that July, and Ledet also went into the back seat, both later said they did not rape her when they saw how young she was. They did, however, admit to conspiring to abduct her.
Still bound, eyes and mouth taped, she was thrown out of the car and left for dead in the hot, end-of-summer weather. Miraculously she crawled to a road, found help and bravely reported the attack.
The suspects were separately apprehended on Sept. 6. Military police, after being contacted by the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, helped make the arrests, blocking all escape routes out of the barracks and preparing for the worst. The men were placed in the military brig on Camp Hansen. Okinawa Prefectural Police requested custody of them, but the U.S. side refused until an indictment was issued, as per the then-understanding of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. Eventually they were charged on Sept. 29 in the Naha District Court and turned over to Japanese custody.
The media began reporting the incident and general location on Sept. 9, and local, national and international opinion became inflamed. The crime was called “vicious” and “malicious,” with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale even describing the perpetrators as “animals.” The victim’s father told reporters he wanted to kill the accused himself.
Local anger was not only directed at the incident itself, but also over the weaknesses of the SOFA, such as it pertains to the holding on to custody of suspects until they were indicted, when viewed from the Japanese side. Also at issue were the differences in the two countries’ legal systems, such as defendants not being able to have a lawyer present during questioning, and the fact that charges don’t have to be filed for 23 days after the start of a suspect’s interrogation, during which time confessions are usually obtained even if they are not truthful or are coerced, a concern on the U.S. side.
Problems encountered in turning over the suspects in a timely manner led the two governments to agree in its twice-monthly U.S.-Japan Joint Committee meetings in October to improve the implementation of Paragraph Article 17.5 (c) of the SOFA in the following way: “1. The United States will give sympathetic consideration to any request for the transfer of custody prior to indictment of the accused which may be made by Japan in specific cases of heinous crimes of murder or rape. The United States will take full account of any special views Japan may put forward in the Joint Committee as to other specific cases it believes should be considered. 2. Japan will submit requests for the transfer of custody to the Joint Committee when it has a material interest in such case.”
The Joint Committee also agreed to allow the U.S. side, in certain situations, to have a “command representative” present at interrogations by Japanese authorities of accused U.S. personnel, a right not given to Japanese citizens in their own country.
Early on, however, the Japanese government was slow to respond to Okinawan requests about this and other matters, eventually leading to a bipartisan prefectural people’s rally on Oct. 21, a one-year standoff (which it lost) with the central government in the courts over land-leasing, and the first-ever prefectural referendum on the bases on Sept. 8, 1996.
This was not the first time for these requests to have been made — they had long been a part of postwar and post-reversion demands by Okinawans, long frustrated with the failure of the U.S. and Japanese governments to act in a timely manner.
Following the indictments and handing over of the suspects, the trial began on Nov. 7 and continued through March the following year. In November, the families of the suspects held a news conference in Atlanta, claiming the accused were innocent, that they were not getting a fair trial because they were black and that they were being denied due process, and that a venue change was desired. They later came to Okinawa, and their lawyer retracted their statements. Harp’s wife even apologized in the courtroom for her husband’s behavior when she spoke as a character witness.
While Ledet was eventually given the lighter sentence as he said he had faked raping the victim because he was afraid of Gill, Harp was given a longer sentence as DNA evidence — blood and semen — directly linked him to the crime.
Ledet, who had been a Boy Scout and church usher, was eventually released in 2001 after serving five years of his sentence at a prison in Yokosuka. In August 2006, having returned to the United States, he reportedly sexually assaulted and murdered a college student in Georgia, after which he took his own life.
Gill and Harp were released in 2003. Neither man seems to have been registered as a sex offender in their respective state, yet another limitation of the Japan-U.S. defense pact.
This is one thing the Japanese government should pursue relentlessly, not only because it might have prevented the death of Ledet’s last victim, but also in honor of all the survivors to date of sexual crimes by U.S. personnel, especially the female student who was attacked in 1995.
Now married with a child of her own, the woman lives in another part of Okinawa but has no doubt re-lived that terrifying experience time and time again.
The brutality of the 1995 rape incident rocked Okinawan society and U.S.-Japan security relations and continues to haunt Okinawa’s relations with the U.S. bases and the central government.
Unfortunately, not enough has been done over the past 25 years to truly address issues of incident response and due process that were highlighted as a result of the attack.
Robert D. Eldridge is author of “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem” (Routledge, 2001) and other works on Okinawa and U.S.-Japan relations. He served as the political adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa from 2009 to 2015.