Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis was driving his car, filled with his wife and their three children, down from the heights of Mount Fuji on May 29, 2021. It's an iconic destination for both Japanese and foreign tourists alike, a peak that serves as a sentry over much of central Japan.
Alkonis and his family had taken the trip at the request of his second daughter, spending an hour near the summit before planning to go to a dairy farm in the foothills that sells pizza and ice cream.
As they descended the mountain, Alkonis felt something was wrong but chose to keep going because they were very close to the next town, he would later testify at his trial.
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He lost consciousness right as the vehicle approached a roadside noodle restaurant, swerving into the parking lot and hitting three parked cars, pushing one into a fourth vehicle, before crashing into a fifth and final car. Between the layers of metal, two Japanese nationals, an 85-year-old woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law, were crushed. They both died.
Two members of the Alkonis family were taken to a local hospital, but the sailor himself did not receive medical attention. All have made a full recovery. Today, Alkonis sits in a Japanese prison, serving a three-year sentence after being convicted of negligent driving.
That's the part of the story that no one disputes. It's the other parts -- why Alkonis lost consciousness, how he's been treated in Japanese custody -- that have drawn in lawmakers, led to accusations of a "false" conviction, and even put pressure on the legal agreement that governs U.S. service members' presence in Japan.
Details of the accident and the trial published here come from multiple Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Military.com, as well as court documents and local news accounts.
Alkonis is far from the only American military employee to face a Japanese legal system that places a high level of responsibility on drivers. In 2012, a court sentenced an Air Force civilian to 18 months in jail over an accident that killed another driver. In 2004, a sailor was sentenced to three years in jail along with hard labor after running a red light and killing another driver. He had been drinking, but his blood alcohol was below the legal limit.
But Alkonis' case is different, not necessarily in the nature of the accident but in the nature of the response.
Despite his family's calls for the military to order Alkonis back to the U.S., effectively allowing him to refuse to serve his sentence, the sailor reported to prison last summer.
The calls for intervention began around the same time. They came from newspaper editorials, Mormon outlets, former Navy officers and from Congress.
Although lawmakers in both parties have advocated for Alkonis, few have been as loud or as forceful as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. Lee, among others, has called for a renegotiation of the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Japan that covers legal standards for American service members when stationed in Japan.
The senator also led 20 Republican lawmakers in sending a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in August "respectfully and humbly" asking for Alkonis' return to the U.S. That same month, 10 House Democrats also sent their own letter to the Japanese ambassador to the U.S. saying they were "deeply troubled by the mistreatment of Lt. Alkonis through this case."
Congress also included a rider in a government spending bill passed in December that required the Navy to continue paying Alkonis despite a standard policy of classifying sailors in jail as absent without leave, cutting them off from pay and benefits. The provision was added to the spending bill in an uncontested voice vote in the Senate.
There has been an outsized showing of support from the state legislature in Utah -- a stronghold of Mormon political power. Alkonis and his parents are Mormon and have pointed to their faith as a key aspect of this story. The state's legislature recently passed a resolution calling for congressional action despite the fact that neither Alkonis nor his parents live in the state.
Much of that support hinges upon details from the case that are disputed, details that became part of a highly scrutinized trial.
Conflicting Accounts of a Crash
An accident report that was completed by military police officers who responded to the accident said that Alkonis' wife, Brittany, told the responding military officers that her husband "had fallen asleep at the wheel of the vehicle" and that they both "woke up when they felt the impact."
These military first responders also concluded that "after reviewing the evidence on scene and statements gathered … [Alkonis] fell asleep while driving."
That conclusion was the basis of the charges brought against Alkonis, ostensibly that he should have pulled over rather than taking the risk of driving while so tired.
But Alkonis and his supporters dispute that he fell asleep. In social media posts, the group advocating for the officer's release said that Alkonis "was not awakened by any of the crashes," and that this is proof that he suffered a medical issue instead of just nodding off at the wheel.
It would not be until Alkonis testified at trial, months later, that the defense that he was suffering from acute mountain sickness would become public.
Alkonis' wife also later claimed that he was denied access to medical treatment while he was being held by Japanese police following the accident and that the incident shows U.S. service members and families can't depend on having access to medical care while in Japan.
Yet both court testimony and the military's accident report show that the family was able to access care at the accident site and Alkonis didn't display signs of injury or distress.
Under the injury heading, the accident report says two of the occupants of the minivan Alkonis was driving were seen by local emergency medical services after reporting neck and back pain that arrived about 10 minutes after the accident. Their names were redacted, citing personal privacy exemptions.
"Local EMS determined it was necessary to transport [the two people] to the hospital where they received extensive care," the report reads.
The report makes no mention of Alkonis, whose name is unredacted, reporting any injuries.
Furthermore, according to a report produced by a U.S. government observer of the trial, Alkonis also testified that after the crash he tried to help move the car that had trapped one of the victims. He also told the court that he saw a rescue worker talking with his wife and "tried to help translate for their conversation," according to a Navy officer who served as the court observer.
While Alkonis was in the custody of Japanese officials, his family and supporters like Sen. Lee, have said that the sailor was held in solitary confinement for 26 days and denied access to his lawyer.
Disputing that description, a spokeswoman for U.S. Naval Forces Japan, Cmdr. Katie Cerezo, told Military.com in a phone conversation that Alkonis was actually visited 14 times by members of his chain of command, his wife and his Japanese attorney while in pretrial confinement. The Navy's court observer also documented claims from the trial that police and prosecutors spoke with the officer eight times over a two-week span of time.
How Alkonis Has Navigated the Japanese Legal System
Unlike the details of the crash, there is no dispute that the Japanese legal system differs from the one Americans enjoy in the States.
A 2006 article in the Navy Law Review journal noted that "admitting guilt and making restitution are essential factors" in this system and "payment is considered a primary way of demonstrating remorse and compensating the victim."
Sean Timmons, a managing partner at the law firm Tully Rinckey and a former Army judge advocate general officer, told Military.com in a phone interview last week that this tradition stems from long-held Japanese values.
"They have an honor culture there, so anytime you're accused of deficiency, you're supposed to just accept culpability and responsibility," explained Timmons, who has represented more than a dozen clients stationed in Japan.
Timmons also noted that "the law is pretty strict on operating a motor vehicle -- you're held to a very high standard of conduct." He said that "a recurring theme" he's seen is that the Japanese legal system is "much stricter on members of the armed forces than probably its own population."
Alkonis' supporters regularly cite reports from the United Nations and Human Rights Watch that have criticized this system as a flawed "hostage" justice system that detains criminal suspects for long periods to coerce confessions.
Alkonis, who was on his second tour in Japan, as well as having visited on a trip while at the Naval Academy and two years of Mormon missionary work, was familiar with the culture. Furthermore, the Navy conducts multi-day training sessions, with some parts led by base commanders, with sailors who are stationed in the country to make them aware of the customs and culture. One day is specifically set aside to discuss driving in the country.
At trial, Alkonis admitted that he should have stopped driving when he felt something was wrong but chose to keep going because they were very close to the next town.
Although the assertion by supporters is that the Navy officer was "falsely convicted," in the courtroom, Alkonis testified that "I was not scared of what would happen, but I should have been scared."
When the prosecutor asked whether he admitted that "the cause of the traffic accident in this case is through your negligence," Alkonis answered, "Yes."
The officer's case rested on the argument that he was actually suffering from acute mountain sickness -- a condition brought on by the reduced levels of oxygen found at higher altitudes that causes dizziness, fatigue and headaches.
The main evidence for this diagnosis appears to have come from a screening Alkonis underwent as part of a Navy evaluation done a full month after the accident.
In sentencing Alkonis, the judge in his case noted that, given where on Mount Fuji Alkonis and his family began their drive home, "it is difficult to assume that he might be suffering from serious altitude sickness," according to the court observer.
Although supporters say the judge disregarded the evidence presented to her, the court observer noted that, even if she were to believe that Alkonis was suffering from the condition, "the symptoms of mountain sickness are alleviated gradually as the altitude is lowered."
The site of the accident is about 1,000 feet above sea level, as compared to the more than 7,000-foot elevation of the Mount Fuji station from which Alkonis and his family set off.
An appellate panel of judges also found this theory "difficult" to believe.
The judge gave heavy weight to the victims' family members, who were offended by what they saw as Alkonis' lack of effort in the moments after the accident, as well as slights such as reaching out only after his release from jail and not going back to the location site to pray.
The judge in his case called their request for a severe punishment "natural" and the loss of two family members "really grave."
However, the trial and the subsequent appeal also revealed the extent to which the Navy was supporting its officer. In addition to the already mentioned visits while in pre-trial detention, the court observer records say that the service paid for Alkonis' lawyer, provided a representative who acted as a go-between him and the victims' families, and offered testimony on his behalf.
Vice Adm. Karl Thomas and Rear Adm. Carl Lahti both wrote letters on Alkonis' behalf attesting to his value as an officer and requesting a suspended sentence, the released records show.
Alkonis' final sentence of three years in jail for an accident that claimed two lives does not appear disproportionate to other deadly car accidents caused by U.S. service members.
Timmons noted that the standard is similar in some U.S. states as well.
"In Texas, if you fall asleep behind the wheel ... and you run somebody over, you're looking at two to 20 years, even if you did it exclusively from fatigue," he explained, before adding that, even if there was "no intent whatsoever, it's still negligent."
Where the Campaign to Get Alkonis Home Stands
Since Alkonis reported to prison in the summer of 2022, calls by supporters and lawmakers have grown on several fronts. The loudest and most attainable demand is to transfer the Navy officer back to the States.
However, some of Alkonis' more vocal supporters like Lee have also called for the renegotiation of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) -- the agreement that governs rights and privileges of U.S. service members in the country -- as well as a halt to arms sales to Japan.
Those policy shifts are unlikely without the Biden administration agreeing to radically escalate the issue, creating a major international incident with Japan.
Like most such agreements the U.S. has with other countries, the SOFA is an executive agreement, rather than a treaty, meaning Congress does not formally have a role in approving or disapproving it.
And while there is support among lawmakers to pressure Japan into handing Alkonis over, that support doesn't universally extend to renegotiating long-standing agreements.
Utah's other senator and fellow Mormon, Mitt Romney, R-Utah, for example, has taken a less combative and less public stance.
His spokeswoman, Arielle Mueller, told Miltary.com in an email that while "Senator Romney supports the United States' efforts to secure Lt. Alkonis' transfer and bring him home … at the same time, he believes we must also affirm our unshakeable friendship with Japan and the importance of our defense agreements -- especially in light of the growing threat from China."
The American military presence has become a politically divisive issue in Japan, with tensions centered on crime. There have been many incidents of drunken driving, break-ins, assaults, rape and murder over the years by service members in the island nation.
In 2016, the situation got so bad that all U.S. sailors in Japan were not allowed to leave their base or drink alcohol in the country.
Some of these incidents have driven Japanese authorities to seek more power and ability to prosecute Americans stationed in their country. In Okinawa, the Japanese island where the largest number of troops are stationed, the local governor called as recently as last week for greater independence to prosecute service members.
Meanwhile, threats to withhold arms sales from the country are also unlikely to become reality. While senators have the power to force votes on arms sales after the administration formally notifies Congress of a deal, it would be highly unusual for a majority to support blocking a sale to a close ally. The president would also have to sign the resolution to block the sale, meaning at least two-thirds of lawmakers would need to support it to overcome a likely veto. Strong U.S. alliances in Asia are seen as a particularly important bulwark against one of America's primary competitors, China.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
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