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DID CULT SNATCH FAMILY IN 1989?

Her voice breaks, a tear trembles in her eye, then suddenly she is back from the brink and radiates a dazzling smile as she describes how she has just bought new school clothes for her grandson.

What makes Sachiyo Sakamoto different from a million other grandmothers is that she does not know whether her grandson is alive.Sakamoto's son, a brilliant young lawyer and longtime advocate for the handicapped, disappeared with his wife and their 14-month-old son in November 1989. That was just after he began representing a group of parents in lawsuits against the Aum Shinri Kyo religious sect.

Now, with Aum Shinri Kyo the main suspect in the recent nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, Sakamoto has been watching television images of the police raids on the sect's main commune. She hopes to catch a glimpse of a little boy, now 6, with the same unruly hair, long face, pudgy cheeks and big sparkling eyes as her grandson.

"I've heard that they have 100 kids under the age of 8, some with false names," Sakamoto said, her voice quiet but her hands trembling with emotion. "So my grandson may be there."

Sakamoto wonders what little Tatsuhiko is like today, if he is still alive. Is he being given the drugs that the cult is accused of using on believers? And, she wonders, does he call "Daddy" a man who killed his real daddy?

All of Japan has been mesmerized by the raids on Aum Shinri Kyo, and the 150 or more tons of chemicals - theoretically capable of producing enough nerve gas to kill millions of people - seized at the sect's training center and warehouse.

Mingled with the shock has been a sense of disbelief that Aum Shinri Kyo could thrive for years after it was implicated in the disappearance of the Sakamoto family.

The passions of the nation - bewilderment, pain, even anger - are magnified a thousandfold in Sakamoto's eyes as she talks of her only son and only grandson. It now appears that something went terribly wrong in the government's scrutiny of the sect and that warning signs like the Sa-ka-motos' disappearance were ignored.

Everywhere there are questions now.

The foremost may be: Did Aum Shinri Kyo have anything to do with the subway attack, for while that is widely believed, there is no known evidence linking the sect to it.

The second may be: What if no hard evidence ever turns up?

That was what happened when the Sakamoto family disappeared. An Aum Shinri Kyo badge was found in the family's home, but there was no proof that the group was responsible. The sect denied it, just as it denies involvement in the subway attack.

So what if the history of the Sakamoto case repeats itself: A crime is committed that people attribute to Aum Shinri Kyo, but there is insufficient evidence to bring anyone to trial?

There are many other questions, particularly in Sakamoto's mind.

There is the tragedy that befell her husband, Yoshio Sakamoto, nine months after their son's kidnapping. Her husband was working in his factory when his co-worker was called away. When the man came back 30 minutes later, he found Sakamoto unconscious on the ground, apparently hit on the head by a piece of machinery.

A victim of serious brain damage, he cannot speak or walk or do very much other than gaze at a picture of his son's family, and so he spends his days in a hillside hospital here in the picturesque town of Shuzenji on the Izu Peninsula, two hours by train from Tokyo.

It was probably just an industrial accident, Sachiyo Sakamoto thought at the time. But now, so many stories are coming out about Aum Shinri Kyo that nobody knows what to think.