Japanese leaders reacted with outrage after a U.S. Marine veteran was arrested Thursday in connection with the death of a Japanese woman near a U.S. air base on the island of Okinawa.
Kenneth Franklin Gadson, a 32-year-old civilian contractor at Kadena Air Base, admitted to strangling the woman, his defense attorney told Stars and Stripes — though the attorney questioned the condition under the which the admission was made.
Rina Shimabukuro had been missing since last month. The 20-year-old’s body was discovered in a wooded location Thursday after Gadson told investigators where to look, according to the Associated Press.
Japanese media identified Gadson, who also goes by his Japanese wife’s family name of Shinzato, as a U.S. Marine veteran, and the U.S. military confirmed that on Friday morning. His mother told The Washington Post that her son was in the Marines from 2007 until 2014.
“They say he’s locked up in jail, killed somebody,” said Shirley Gadson, 63, over the telephone from her home in New York City early Friday. She said she learned that Kenneth Gadson had been arrested when Japanese police called her on Thursday.
“I got scared. I got nervous. Oh my God,” she said. “I didn’t hear from him for two years.”
In a statement posted online, Kadena Air Base said a civilian employee was arrested in connection with a woman’s disappearance.
“A civilian employee of a company contracted to provide services to U.S. military installations was arrested by Okinawa Prefectural Police yesterday in connection with the disappearance and death of an Okinawan woman,” the statement said. “Our heartfelt prayers and condolences are with the victim’s family, friends, and loved ones. We also send our deepest sympathies to the people of Japan and express our gratitude for the trust that they place in our bilateral alliance and the people of the United States.”
The incident comes at a crucial juncture for the two countries. President Obama is scheduled to visit Japan next week for a Group of Seven summit, after which he is scheduled to visit Hiroshima to remember the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States during World War II. Obama is also expected to highlight his message of nuclear nonproliferation and to discuss future relations between the two nations.
Those relations have been tested, however, by crimes committed by U.S. military personnel on or near American bases, including Kadena. The base is home to more than half of the 47,000 American troops based in Japan.
One of the most infamous cases was the 1995 abduction and rape of a 12-year-old girl on Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen. That incident, and others, spurred widespread protests against the 33 U.S. military facilities on the island. Around that time, the United States and Japan agreed to move one base from the middle of town to a more remote part of the island, although the move has been fraught with delays and political wrangling.
Many Japanese, including Okinawa’s governor, Takeshi Onaga, want the American bases gone altogether, however.
Onaga said he was “outraged” by the latest incident involving the bases and that Shimabukuro’s death broke his heart.
“As I look back at all the developments to date, I’m simply speechless,” he said, according to the AP.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, has supported keeping U.S. bases on the island. But he, too, expressed anger over Shimabukuro’s death, which he said he would bring up during Obama’s visit.
“I have no words to express my feelings, given how her family must feel,” Abe said on Friday. “I am outraged. We will demand that the U.S. side take strict measures to prevent something like this from happening again.”
Gadson admitted to the crime but did so while still dazed from a suicide attempt, his defense attorney said.
“[He] attempted suicide twice — on May 17 and May 18 — using sleeping pills,” Toshimitsu Takaesu told Stars and Stripes. “He gave the statement the very next day. He was still in a daze. I do not accept a statement taken under such conditions. Right now it is the statement alone with no supporting evidence.”
Gadson has not been charged but he was arrested “on suspicion of abandoning [Shimabukuro’s] body,” the AP reported.
Shimabukuro, an office worker, went missing on April 28 after messaging her boyfriend that she was going for a walk. Her boyfriend reported her missing the next morning.
When police reviewed security footage of the area in which Shimabukuro’s cellphone was last known to have been used, they spotted a car, which they then traced to Gadson, according to the Guardian.
Under questioning, Gadson allegedly admitted to killing Shimabukuro and directed police to the location of her body. DNA, including blood, matching the woman was also found in his car, according to the Tokyo Reporter.
Despite Gadson’s apparent confession, his mother said she believed he was innocent.
“He didn’t do nothing like that,” she said. “Maybe somebody set him up.”
She said her son had had a hard life, dropping out of school and living in a group home before joining the Marines. She said he and his wife have a baby together.
Japanese media identified Gadson as a Marine veteran. A LinkedIn profile for a “Kenneth (gadson) shinzato” living in Okinawa says he worked in the “3rd Battalion, 12th Marines mail room” and later spent seven years working for the Department of Defense. The profile also says he attended University of Maryland University College.
Gadson’s arrest has had an immediate impact in Japan.
“We will never forgive you,” protesters chanted outside Kadena’s barbed wire fence on Friday, according to the Asahi Shimbun. “U.S. bases should get out.”
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also summoned U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy to express his “regret” over the crime.
“Nothing that I can do or say will make up the loss or to bring her back, but I want to express to you my determination and that of my military colleagues to cooperate fully with Okinawan police and the Japanese government, and we will double our efforts to make sure this will never happen again,” Kennedy told Kishida, according to the AP.
Shirley Gadson expressed concern for her son’s situation.
“I don’t want him to be in [jail] forever,” she said. “I want him to come out and straighten this stuff out and come home to me.”
“Can he come home to me?”