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The startling case of Ridge Alkonis

This respected family man, Navy officer and Latter-day Saint is now in a Japanese prison as his family and U.S. lawmakers seek his release

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Derek and Suzi Alkonis pose with a photo of their son Lt. Ridge Alkonis on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Dana Point, Calif.

Derek and Suzi Alkonis pose with a photo of their son, Lt. Ridge Alkonis, on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Dana Point, Calif. Their son, a U.S. Navy lieutenant who was stationed in Japan, is now serving a three-year prison sentence there for a car crash that killed two people last year. His family and the Navy say he suffered from acute mountain sickness and passed out unconscious behind the wheel. Japanese prosecutors and a judge say he was feeling drowsy and should have pulled over.

Denis Poroy, Associated Press

Brittany Alkonis, her three young children and two of their grandparents did the unimaginable Thursday, leaving Japan without their husband, father and son, Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis, after he began what they believe is an unjustifiable three-year sentence in a foreign prison.

His parents and wife soon will fly to Washington, D.C., to continue to petition President Joe Biden and Congress for help seeking his release, but leaving their imprisoned son behind was devastating, Derek and Suzi Alkonis told the Deseret News.

“It’s gut-wrenching,” his mother said.

Derek Alkonis carried his son’s bag for him as he reported to prison.

“Worst day in my life,” said Derek Alkonis, who used the term excruciating to describe the family’s last bedtime story together, last breakfast together, last family prayer together.

Ridge Alkonis took a Bible and Book of Mormon with him when he reported to prison on Monday, convicted of negligent driving in the deaths of an 85-year-old Japanese woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law on May 29, 2021, while the family was driving down Mount Fuji after a day trip.

A Japanese judge determined that Alkonis had fallen asleep at the wheel and lost control of his vehicle, which plowed into pedestrians and parked cars in a restaurant parking lot two hours from Yokosuka Naval Base, where he was serving as anti-submarine warfare officer.

But U.S. Navy investigators determined that Alkonis suffered from acute mountain sickness and lost consciousness. His wife and children said that he was not sleepy and appeared to black out. They said that once he passed out, he was unresponsive to their screams and one daughter’s kicks. He remained unconscious even during the crash itself.

After they briefly regroup back at home in Dana Point, California, Derek and Suzi Alkonis say they will go to Washington along with Brittany to ask Biden to intervene. They said the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, is working to help secure their son’s release, and they are “overwhelmingly encouraged” that Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, and their Democratic Congressman, Rep. Mike Levin, have spoken on the floors of the U.S. Senate and House on his behalf.

Lee called the incident the result of an unforeseeable medical emergency.

Derek Alkonis said it was difficult to leave Brittany and their three young grandchildren, ages 8, 7 and 4, who now are visiting Brittany’s family.

“The last thing we heard were Ridge Jr.’s cries for his father,” Derek Alkonis said in a tweet. “‘Where is he? Why can’t we see him?’”

Suzi Alkonis said her son told them he is confident about serving his sentence.

“He knows he’s a grown man with the stamina and the fortitude to make it through,” she told the Deseret News. “And his wife is a rock. So the people who are going to bear the brunt of this are those three children. ... Now our job is to shower them with love and protect them from as much of this as possible, so that they can get through the other side without too many scars.”

His parents said the family’s Latter-day Saint faith has been instrumental for all of them throughout the ordeal.

Family and friends say Ridge Alkonis is a good officer, remarkably kind man and loving young father who interrupted his education at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was a left-handed pitcher on the baseball team, to serve a two-year religious mission to Japan for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The last place that he should be is in a cell, and especially when it’s for something so out of his control,” his mother said. “We don’t put people in prison for heart attacks. We don’t put people in prison for strokes, yet he has this medical emergency and that’s where he is now.”

Ridge Alkonis testified last August that he lost consciousness due to acute mountain sickness, common at high altitude.

“I am so sorry for all the pain and suffering I caused because of this accident,” he said in court.

He paid a record $1.65 million in restitution to the Japanese family. Some of the money came from insurance. More than half a million came from family and friends, some of whom tapped into retirement funds or mortgaged their homes to help. This apology, or gomenasai, is customary in Japan and regularly leads to suspended sentences.

“That money is meant to ease the pain of that family that lost family members,” Suzi Alkonis said. “Ridge was adamant that family had to be cared for. That was a bare minimum duty and he and we were glad to do it. But anyone we spoke to who had any awareness of how the legal system worked in Japan said, ‘This is more than enough. This is how they do it. They are not interested in putting you in prison if you’ve paid your settlement, and this should secure a suspended sentence.’ And when it didn’t happen, everyone was shocked.”

Brittany Alkonis doesn’t speak Japanese like her husband. She told CBS News that when she saw Ridge’s face as the appeals court announced its decision, she knew it was bad. Alkonis was ordered to serve his full sentence.

Ridge and Brittany Alkonis.

Ridge and Brittany Alkonis.

Alkonis Family

“When you’re experiencing tragedy like this, there’s a lot of people that are suffering,” Derek Alkonis said. “There’s the Japanese family that’s suffering the loss of their family members. We feel for them.”

Suzi Alkonis said the family now has firsthand experience with the idea that courts, whether American or Japanese, are not designed to help with healing.

Instead, they have relied on family, friends and faith.

Many people have made them aware that they are praying for Ridge, Brittany and their children.

“We know that a lot of people are praying and fasting and putting our name on the temple prayer rolls,” Derek Alkonis said. “Our ward members, past and present are checking up on us. They they care deeply for not only our spiritual welfare, but also our behavioral health. The ministering that our faith promotes is so needed in these cases.”

Latter-day Saints in their military congregation in Japan brought food and provided other service.

“I don’t even know how people can survive without an affiliation to a faith-based organization that really understands service and without a dependence upon our Savior to to rescue us from our feelings and our sadness,” Derek Alkonis said.

“We use the word sustain a lot in the church,” Suzi Alkonis said. “I just wrote to a friend who said she was praying for us that I don’t think that I could get up in the morning and put on my clothes and face my day without those prayers. It is very, very real, the amount of sustaining energy that we receive from those prayers. And Ridge has felt it. Brittany feels it. This family feels it. We wouldn’t be able to face a day without it.”

Ridge Alkonis’ supporters are frustrated by the way the case was handled and say that he is caught up in larger forces. Some have alleged that a member of the victims’ family employed by a prosecutor may have had undue influence. Others say there is tension in Japan over the tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel stationed there and a perception that some don’t face consequences when they commit crimes.

Alkonis didn’t commit a crime, they maintain, and was not provided basic rights like due process, they say.

After the crash, Japanese authorities took Alkonis into custody before Navy officials arrived. They did not provide medical treatment or a medical exam, the family said.

Suzi Alkonis said the next 26 days were scary, as the family worried about what had gone wrong.

“Drowsy people don’t sleep through an accident,” she said. “We knew he hadn’t dozed off, but we didn’t know what had happened and we feared for his health, for his life.”

Once Ridge Alkonis was released on bail, Navy neurologists examined him to determine whether he was fit to return to duty. The investigation found that Alkonis had suffered from acute mountain sickness and was fit for duty, but he was not allowed to return to the U.S.S. Benfold, a missile destroyer, while his case worked through the courts.

Lee, the senator from Utah, said Biden needs to send a signal to Japan that as an ally it needs to treat better the military members who protect it. He said the members of Navy also need to see their president defend them.

“I find it nothing short of inexcusable that an American who experienced a medical emergency should be treated so poorly by an allied nation that he’s protecting,” he said.

“Clearly the Japanese judicial system is trying to make an example of Lt. Alkonis — perhaps stemming from a history of disputes over our Status of Forces Agreement,” he said. “He is being targeted because he is an American — and because he was in the unfortunate position of having suffered a medical emergency that resulted in tragedy.”

Levin, the Congressman from California, expressed “deep concern over the Japanese government’s handling of Lt. Ridge Alkonis.”

He said the U.S. Navy opposes the sentence, too.

“I will not be giving up on Lt. Alkonis and the Department of Defense must not either,” Levin said.