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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Murder suspect says he's innocent

By Ken Kobayashi
Advertiser Courts Writer

Kirk Lankford

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A 22-year-old man charged with murdering a missing Japanese visitor maintains his innocence, his lawyer said yesterday after his client made his first public court appearance in the case.

Kirk Lankford, who appeared in an untucked shirt, shorts and slippers, did not say anything during his brief arraignment before Honolulu District Judge Leslie Hayashi. In leg shackles, he stood before the judge and often gazed downward with his hands behind his back.

He was ordered to return to court tomorrow for a hearing to determine whether he must stand trial on a charge of murdering Masumi Watanabe, a 21-year-old Japanese national who was last seen walking along Pupukea Road on April 12.

"The Lankford family sends their condolences to the Watanabe family," Lankford's attorney Don Wilkerson said after the hearing. "It's a matter of respect."

Wilkerson would not comment on what the defense might be or how his client was dealing with the charge.

Lankford was arrested Thursday and charged with second-degree murder on Saturday. He is charged with murdering Watanabe by either killing her or by "murder by omission" by disregarding a duty to get help for Watanabe, who suffered "serious physical harm."

If convicted, Lankford faces a mandatory life term with parole.

Lankford, who is being held on $1 million bail, was fired from his job as a pest control technician with Hauoli Termite and Pest Control after his arrest.

Although Watanabe's body has not been recovered, city prosecutors can still prosecute the murder case based on circumstantial evidence.

INSIGHT INTO EVIDENCE

At least some of that evidence was outlined Saturday in a police affidavit filed with the court to justify holding Lankford after his arrest, but before he was charged. The affidavit did not provide any motive for the slaying nor how, when or where Watanabe died.

According to the document, a witness saw Watanabe getting into a Hauoli Termite and Pest Control truck on the morning of April 12 near the Pupukea Foodland.

Four days later, a company official told police that on April 12, Lankford reported that an egret flew into the windshield on the front passenger side, the affidavit said. The windshield was replaced and the damaged one thrown out, the affidavit said.

Police also found blood on the right front seat and right front door panel, the document said. The DNA from the blood matched Watanabe's DNA, the affidavit said.

The document also said police recovered a pair of glasses from the truck that matched Wata-nabe's prescription glasses.

Watanabe is from Sado Island, about 35 miles off the coast of Honshu, according to Jim Fulton, executive assistant in the city prosecutor's office.

Her parents, Hideichi and Fumiko Watanabe, flew to Honolulu after their daughter disappeared, according to a statement they released over the weekend.

Their daughter visited Hawai'i for the first time last year, fell in love with the Islands and returned in February, they said.

MUCH INTEREST IN CASE

Lankford's parents last week defended their son in a KITV television report. Howard Lewis Lankford of Colorado Springs, Colo., said his son is not a killer, and his mother, Patricia Ann Sander, said her son is "innocent."

Neighbors described him as a churchgoing man with a pregnant wife and baby boy.

Wilkerson yesterday said his client's relatives were not making any statements and he advised them not to say anything more.

The case also has drawn interest from the Japanese news media, which sent three crews to join Honolulu television and newspaper reporters covering yesterday's arraignment in the courtroom on the seventh floor of Honolulu District Court on Alakea Street.

Wilkerson initially said he was not going to comment, but gave brief answers as the media swarmed around him as he was leaving the courthouse.

During the hearing, Wilkerson objected to coverage by television and newspaper cameras of the court proceedings.

He argued he wasn't notified early enough about the coverage and didn't have a chance to talk with his client about how to act whether to look at the cameras or "whether to make faces." He also said those watching the coverage may eventually end up as jurors.

Hayashi overruled his objections.

Hayashi scheduled a preliminary hearing for Lankford at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow. The hearing will be canceled if city prosecutors obtain a murder indictment from the O'ahu grand jury. The indictment also would send the case to trial.

BODY NOT YET FOUND

Meanwhile, Honolulu police continued to search for Watanabe's body in the Pupukea area of the North Shore, according to Michelle Yu, public information officer for the Honolulu Police Department. The search is based on information provided by witnesses, police said.

The narrow winding road where Masumi Watanabe was last seen forces drivers to slow down as they traverse the steep cliff with overhanging rocks on one side, and spectacular views of the pounding surf and North Shore shoreline below.

Just past the entrance to Pu'u O Mahuke Heiau, Pupukea Road straightens out, opening to large lots and homes varying in style from modest to grand, run-down to well-kept.

At the higher levels, the temperature drops noticeably and a crisp breeze spreads the scent of eucalyptus and flowers throughout the community.

Tall old trees, lush tropical plants and open green lawns greet residents returning from jobs all along the North Shore and Honolulu.

It's a spacious neighborhood with lot sizes of one, two, three acres and larger. In the middle of it is an orchard farm, reminiscent of its agriculture days, but there are still horses, cows and goats there, too.

A picture of the missing woman still hangs on a utility pole.

AREA CONSIDERED SAFE

Residents who live there say the area is safe and call it a paradise, an ideal area to raise children.

"On the side roads of Pupukea, a 4-year-old can hang out and sell lemonade on the side of the road and be safe," said Richard Sterman, who has a home in Pupukea Highlands and one on Pupukea Beach. Sterman said he raised his children in the highland until they got too big for his one-bedroom home.

Sterman, a real estate agent, said he felt Pupukea was safer than Kahala and many other upscale areas.

"Pupukea has one road in and out, so it's kind of hard to go up there and do anything and not be noticed," he said.

Police figures show the area where Watanabe disappeared has seen overall crime increase in each of the past three years. But violent crime, including murder, rape, robbery and assault, has remained relatively flat.

There were 896 crimes reported in 2005 in the two police beats that cover the area in which Watanabe lived and disappeared, the last year statistics are available. There were nine robberies and 12 assaults in the area that year.

In 2004, the area reported 843 crimes, including two murders, three rapes, eight robberies and 11 assaults.

The area reported 775 crimes in 2003, including three rapes, 11 robberies and 14 assaults.

Advertiser staff writers Eloise Aguiar and Peter Boylan contributed to this report.

Reach Ken Kobayashi at kkobayashi@honoluluadvertiser.com.