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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 28, 2007

Life turns upside down on North Shore

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser North Shore O'ahu Writer

Masumi Watanabe

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PUPUKEA Residents of this North Shore community say their sense of safety and feeling of community have been shaken by the disappearance of a young Japanese woman and news that police consider her case a murder.

"My kids are not allowed outside unless there's an adult watching them," said Natasha Lowery, who grew up here and is now raising her children. "Nobody lets their kids out of their sight now. They can't go just anywhere anymore."

Beginning with the April 12 disappearance of 21-year-old Masumi Watanabe, through the searches by police and volunteers, and especially after Thursday's arrest of a homicide suspect, residents say they have been forced to change their everyday habits.

Antya Miller, a resident and executive director for the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, said now she tells her 17-year-old son that she doesn't want him walking down the hill on Pupukea Road, where police believe Watanabe may have been abducted.

"It just gives you an unsafe feeling," Miller said.

Lowery said the foot traffic on normally busy Pupukea Road has slowed to a trickle. Only three people were on the road in the afternoon when usually dozens of children and adults can be seen, she said.

"Now there's not many walking the hill to exercise," said Lowery, pointing to the deserted road while on a break from her job at Foodland. "It's different. It's changed."

Watanabe was staying with friends who live near the top of Pupukea Road and about half a mile into a side road. Police said that she walked the 2.5-mile trip from the home to Foodland almost every day.

Police on Thursday arrested Kirk Lankford, 22, on suspicion of second-degree murder. Police found blood and items possibly belonging to Watanabe in Lankford's Ford F-150. Police said they have not found a body.

Witnesses reported seeing the truck in the vicinity at the time of Watanabe's disappearance.

Prosecutors have until about 5 p.m. today to charge Lankford or release him from custody. He was arrested at his Kalihi home about 4:50 p.m. Thursday.

An official with the Japanese Consulate of Honolulu said Watanabe came to O'ahu to experience American life and was staying in the North Shore home of friends of her parents.

The parents have been in Honolulu since her disappearance and are planning to stay until she is found, said Makoto Hinei, senior consul at the Japanese Consulate of Honolulu.

She was not in school and was in Hawai'i for "the experience," Hinei said.

"It's a terrible tragedy," said Hinei, who said the consulate is in daily contact with Watanabe's parents. "They are terribly grieved by the news released (Thursday) by the chief of police. They took the news as only parents do."

Hinei said the consulate was complying with the parents' request not to release information about Watanabe, including where she comes from in Japan and details about her life here.

GRATITUDE FOR POLICE

Watanabe's parents have been meeting with a Honolulu police officer who speaks Japanese and are grateful for the courtesy provided by the department, Hinei said. Police notified the Watanabes of the arrest before telling the media, he said.

"They are much appreciative of the nice gestures of the police department," Hinei said.

The accused man was described by two neighbors yesterday as a churchgoing man who lives in a Kalihi home with his wife and baby boy. His wife is pregnant, they said.

"They're a churchgoing family," said one neighbor, who would not give her name.

Lankford's parents defended their son in telephone interviews with television station KITV.

"He's not a killer," Howard Lewis Lankford told KITV, speaking from Colorado Springs, Colo. "He's way, way on the other end of the spectrum. He'd give you everything he had before he'd do anything to you."

"The police lie. That's what I know. That's all I know at this point; the police lie. My son is innocent," Patricia Ann Sander, the suspect's mother, told KITV in a separate interview.

"I just hope that the police are doing their job right ... and don't try to pin something on him," Howard Lewis Lankford said.

Kirk Lankford's brother, Ryan, also spoke with the station, saying, "There's no prior behavior of him doing anything like this."

The suspect's neighbors, who did not want to be identified, said they were shocked to hear about his arrest and described Kirk Lankford as quiet and pleasant. They said Lankford and his family moved to their home on Hani Lane about a year and a half ago.

Lankford was known for hosting Bible studies at his home on Fridays and even took a neighbor's son to church with him, another neighbor said. Kirk Lankford attended The Potter's House church, at 2320 S. King St., one neighbor said.

"Pretty much overall, he was a nice guy," said the second neighbor.

No one was at the church yesterday afternoon and no one answered the phone.

No one answered the door at Lankford's home, which is at the end of a small, crowded lane, at about 3:30 p.m. yesterday.

'NOTHING LIKE HIM AT ALL'

Joshua Raum, 26, of Waipahu has known Kirk Lankford for about four years. They are both members of The Potter's House.

Though they attend different services Raum goes to the Waipahu branch, while Kirk Lankford belongs to the East Honolulu branch they would hang out a couple of times a month, usually at church functions or community service events.

Raum said Kirk Lankford attended services regularly.

"He's an upright man, very honest," Raum said. "He's very faithful."

Upon hearing about Kirk Lankford's arrest, Raum said he was shocked: "That doesn't sound anything like Kirk, nothing like him at all."

Hauoli Pest Control, which had employed Kirk Lankford as a technician since August 2003, has terminated his employment, according to a news release yesterday. The release did not say when the termination occurred.

"We join with the rest of the community in offering our thoughts and prayers to the friends and family of Masumi Watanabe," the company's release said. "We will continue to cooperate fully with authorities in this investigation." The company said it would not release further information.

Michelle Yu, Honolulu police spokeswoman said police were not issuing any statements yesterday. She said it's up to prosecutors to decide what charges to file.

Jim Fulton, executive assistant at the prosecutor's office, would not comment.

NO BODY NECESSARY

Though a body has not been recovered, city prosecutors can proceed with a murder prosecution under state law if they have enough evidence to establish that the victim died.

The latest case involved the murder conviction of Jenaro Torres, who was convicted last month of the 1992 slaying of Pearl Harbor base cashier Ruben Gallegos. Gallegos' body was never found, but he has not been seen or heard from by relatives and friends. State prosecutors convinced a jury that Torres murdered Gallegos.

The large ranch-style home where Watanabe was staying is part of an aging group of homes of varying size on lots that are about an acre. The yard is lush with plants and tropical flowers along with areas of open grassy space. The streets are without lights or sidewalks.

A woman who said she lives at the home said she didn't think Watanabe would accept a ride from a stranger, but she didn't elaborate nor did she want to give her name. The woman, who said she was a friend of Watanabe, said it is common for residents to offer rides to pedestrians.

And that made the apparent attack even more surprising to residents.

"I haven't ever really heard of any woman getting abducted in these parts," said Anthony Palazzolo, 20, who grew up in the area. "It's the first time I've ever heard of it."

Island visitor Irma Mauch said she wasn't happy to hear about the incident because she wants to feel safe when she's visiting a place. Mauch is visiting her son, Austin, a student at Brigham Young University-Hawai'i.

Austin Mauch, 20, said he didn't think the incident would leave a stigma on the community.

"It can happen in the safest place," he said.

But that safe feeling in the community has been shattered and people are looking out more for one another.

"We're just a little bit more cautious about watching how people behave," said Kristine Buttel, who works at Starbucks in Pupukea.

Staff writers Ken Kobayashi, Lynda Arakawa, Peter Boylan, Catherine E. Toth and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com.