A kidnapping, cyanide sweets and a search for 'man with fox eyes'

March 26, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- The decade-long investigation into a bizarre series of crimes that rocked Japan may finally be coming to an end.

The spree began with a botched kidnapping of a cookie company president and then went on to widespread havoc with the cyanide lacing of sweets commonly eaten by schoolchildren. Claiming responsibility was an organization with the bizarre name, "The Man with 21 Faces."

On Thursday, a suspect was picked up in Osaka and reportedly admitted his involvement. "I would be killed if I confessed," he was said to have told the police, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest-circulation newspaper.

The police will say only that they continue to question suspects.

The possibility of a breakthrough comes just days after the statute of limitations expired on the kidnapping, which began a series of unsettling events similar in many respects to the Tylenol tampering in the United States a decade ago.

On March 18, 1984, Katsuhisa Ezaki, head of the Ezaki Glico Co., was kidnapped from his home in western Japan. With packages bearing his name in almost every vending machine and store in Japan, the impact was stunning.

Three days later, Mr. Ezaki walked away from a small warehouse outside of Osaka where he had been kept. The kidnappers had left him unguarded. They never appeared to collect a huge stash of cash and gold they had demanded in ransom. The fast, peaceful resolution, however, was merely a prelude to more jarring events.

Arsonists hit Glico's headquarters, and Glico products -- along with others of Morinaga and several major Japanese food producers -- were doctored with cyanide. Letters with information on the poisoning were sent to the companies as well as distributors. Threats were made and extortion demanded -- but not collected.

Goods produced by affected companies were removed from shelves. No one was hurt, but the companies were devastated. Annual sales declined more than 20 percent, profits disappeared, and employees were temporarily placed on leave. New packaging was quickly developed to prevent tampering.

Glico says it received more than 1,000 letters urging it to hold out against the attack. Police launched a large-scale investigation. There were more than 125,000 suspects, and 64,000 were actively questioned. In excess of 1 million police officers have taken in part in the investigation. A composite sketch of a "a man with fox eyes" was widely distributed.

The Japanese police have a remarkable track record in apprehending suspects, but this time they appeared to have been thwarted. A senior police officer committed suicide, it was said, to take responsibility for the failure. Soon thereafter, the terror ended when newspapers received a letter saying the "bullying" of food companies would cease.

There has always been suspicion that the companies finally buckled and paid off their tormentors -- a common enough event in corporate Japan, where many public companies annually pay blackmail to ensure peace with mobsters.

Every year on the anniversary, Mr. Ezaki spends a few minutes with the news media, constrained, a spokesman said, by orders from the police to refrain from answering any questions on the case. This year, he once again confronted queries about an under-the-table deal. "No way!" he replied.

In the 10-minute interview, he noted the expiring statute of limitations and remarked that "we can't stop time," but he emphasized that related crimes could still be prosecuted.

On Thursday, just three days after the expiration of the statute of limitations on the kidnapping, a man with fox-like eyes was picked up by police at an Osaka club. The Yomiuri reported there are eight other suspects, all customers or employees of a bar Mr. Ezaki once frequented. The investigation, the Osaka police say, continues.

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