UNITED STATES

A Navy officer with ties to Utah released from Japanese prison and transferred to US custody

Dec 14, 2023, 9:17 AM | Updated: Jan 12, 2024, 3:45 pm

FILE - Derek and Suzi Alkonis pose with a photo of their son Lt. Ridge Alkonis on Wednesday, June 1...

FILE - Derek and Suzi Alkonis pose with a photo of their son Lt. Ridge Alkonis on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Dana Point, Calif. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy, File)

(AP Photo/Denis Poroy, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Navy officer with ties to Utah, who has been jailed in Japan over a car crash that killed two Japanese citizens, has been transferred into U.S. custody and is being returned to the United States, his family said Thursday.

Lt. Ridge Alknois had been serving a three-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to the negligent driving deaths of a woman and her son-in-law in May 2021. His family has said the crash was an accident, caused when he lost consciousness while returning from a trip to Mount Fuji, but Japanese prosecutors maintained that he fell asleep while drowsy and shirked a duty to pull over.

Sen. Lee calls for immediate release of jailed Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis

“After 507 days, Lt. Ridge Alkonis is on his way home to the United States. We are encouraged by Ridge’s transfer back to the United States but cannot celebrate until Ridge has been reunited with his family,” the family, based in Dana Point, California, said in a statement to The Associated Press, adding that it appreciated the U.S. government’s efforts to effect the transfer.

The Alkonis case had generated substantial publicity over the last year and a half, with his family rallying outside the White House to call for his release and his wife, Brittany, meeting and embracing President Joe Biden, who raised the case during a May meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

It was unclear where in the U.S. Alkonis is heading or whether upon his arrival he might be required to spend additional time behind bars under the terms of his transfer from Japan.

“When the Biden Administration is presented with the complete set of facts and circumstances surrounding the case, we’re confident they will promptly recognize the absurdity of Ridge’s conviction,” the family said. “We trust that the (Department of Justice) will urgently wish to end this travesty of justice by immediately releasing Ridge, and we look forward to Ridge enjoying the holidays at home with his wife and children.”

A Justice Department spokesperson referred a request for comment to the Bureau of Prisons, which did not immediately respond to an email.

Alkonis is a specialist in underseas warfare and acoustic engineering who at the time of the crash had spent nearly seven years in Japan as a civilian volunteer and naval officer.

In the spring of 2021, after a period of land-based assignments, Alkonis, a Southern California native, was preparing for a deployment as a department head on the USS Benfold, a missile destroyer.

With the assignment looming, he set out for an excursion of Mount Fuji for hiking and sightseeing with his wife and children.

They had climbed a portion of the mountain and were back in the car, heading to lunch and ice cream near the base of Mount Fuji, when, his family says, he suddenly lost consciousness after suffering acute mountain sickness.

He was so out of it, they say, that neither his daughter’s screams to wake up nor the impact of the collision roused him. His car veered into parked cars and pedestrians in a parking lot, striking the woman and her son-in-law, who both later died.

After the crash near Fujinomiya, Alkonis was arrested by Japanese authorities and was held for 26 days in solitary confinement at a police detention facility, was interrogated multiple times a day and was not given medical treatment or an evaluation, according to a statement of facts provided by a family spokesman.

That statement says that when American authorities arrived to take Alkonis into custody and return him to a U.S. base, he already was held by the Japanese.

He was indicted on a charge of a negligent driving, resulting in death, and was sentenced that October to three years in prison.

“The word that comes to our mind is fairness. We want him to be treated fairly for an accident,” Alkonis’ father, Derek Alkonis, said in an interview last year with the AP. “We don’t feel like it’s been that way. We know it hasn’t been that way. And it concerns us that our son has been given a three-year prison sentence for an accident.”

After the sentencing, Alkonis’ family had sought to keep the case in the public spotlight, including by gathering outside the White House.

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A Navy officer with ties to Utah released from Japanese prison and transferred to US custody