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Before Ghosn: Looking back at unsolved BOAC stewardess murder of 1959

Tomoko Takekawa

TOKYO (TR) – Last week, police in Massachusetts arrested Michael Taylor, a former special forces soldier, and his son, Peter Taylor.

The pair are wanted by law enforcement in Japan in connection with dramatic escape of Carlos Ghosn, the French-Lebanese former automotive magnate, from Tokyo to Lebanon late last December.

While the Taylors are expected to be extradited to Japan, Ghosn, who was under prosecution for a variety of financial crimes at the time he fled, remains in Lebanon, out of the reach of Japanese authorities.

The flight of Ghosn brings to mind another infamous case involving a foreigner undergoing legal difficulties in Japan. In 1959, police in Tokyo questioned Father Louis Charles Vermeersch, then a 38-year-old Catholic priest, over the murder of airline stewardess Tomoko Takekawa.

During the investigation, the Belgium-born priest was never arrested. But like the saga involving Ghosn, the case, which as never solved, captivated the nation and raised questions about what justice means in Japan.

“Probably strangled”

At around 7:40 a.m. on March 10 of that year, Masayoshi Kubo, a male office worker, spotted the body of Takekawa, a 27-year-old stewardess for British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), floating face-up near the Miyashita Bridge in the Zenpukuji River in Suginami Ward.

The body of Tomoko Takekawa was found in the Zenpukuji River on March 10, 1959

Police identified the body as being that of Takekawa after finding her high heels, scarf, handbag and parasol scattered nearby. Her body was clothed in a green two-piece suit, a silk blouse, white bra and corset, white underwear and nylons.

The body showed no signs of external wounds, which led investigators to initially think it was a suicide by drowning.

However, drowning was soon ruled out as the cause of death. Tokyo Metropolitan Police later said that the results of an autopsy, conducted at Keio University Hospital, showed only a small amount of water in her lungs. Wire service UPI reported that marks on her neck “indicated that she was probably strangled.”

The results of the autopsy also revealed that she had the semen of two men — possibly of blood types O and A  or AB — in her system and on her underwear, a development that caused police to begin seeking out her associates.

“It was for a consultation”

In 1948, Father Vermeersch came to Tokyo, where he was ordained. At the time of the incident, he worked as the head of accounting at Don Bosco Home, a publisher of religious titles. The publisher fell under the Salesians of Don Bosco order. The office was at the Shimoigusa Catholic Church in Suginami.

He became a person of interest after police learned that his name was written in a notebook belonging to Takekawa. They also learned that a special delivery parcel arrived from the publisher at the dormitory where Takekawa lived on March 7, three days before her body was found. Police believed at the time that a letter from Father Vermeersch inside the parcel asked Takekawa to meet with him, UPI reported, citing a Tokyo newspaper.

On Sunday March 8, Takekawa, a Catholic, attended Mass. Later that day, she visited her uncle’s residence near the church for lunch. At around 3:00 p.m., she left for “a birthday party” in Ushigome, Shinjuku. She was never seen again.

Tomoko Takekawa was one of 8 Japanese stewardess for airline BOAC in 1959

UPI reported that she was known to have taken the letter when she departed her dormitory earlier that day. That letter as not present upon the discovery of her body two days later.

Though there was speculation in the media that Father Vermeersch had gone missing in April — perhaps even had fled the country — that was not the case. In fact, he agreed to undergo questioning. In the company of a secretary from the Vatican and a lawyer, the priest was grilled by renowned detective Hachibe Hiratsuka, who presided over a number of high-profile investigations after the end of World War II. The questioning took place in two periods, one between May 11 and 13 another on May 20 and 22.

During the sessions, Father Vermeersch admitted to taking Takekawa to a hotel in the Harajuku area of Shibuya Ward. “It was for a consultation,” he reportedly said in denying that they were involved in a relationship. “That’s all that it was.”

The sessions wore on Father Vermeersch, who began suffering from anemia. At one point exhaustion caused him to enter a hospital, which wound up stalling the investigation.

First flight between Tokyo and Hong Kong

Takekawa, a native of Ashiya City, Hyogo Prefecture, became a Catholic at the urging of her parents. After graduating high school, she came to Tokyo to enroll in the Seibo Junior College of Nursing, which was run by missionaries.

She later returned to Ashiya to work as a nurse. However, after her plans for marriage were not met with approval by her parents, she went back to the capital to work at the St. Odilia Nursery in Nakano Ward.

BOAC: Jet your way to Tokyo

Takekawa’s aforementioned uncle worked in the sales division of BOAC, the airline that would later become British Airways. In December, 1958, she was among eight Japanese stewardesses selected from 300 applicants the airline.

On February 27, she returned from London after a training session. She was scheduled to make her first flight between Tokyo and Hong Kong on March 13.

Despite Father Vermeersch’s aforementioned denial, police leaned that they were in a relationship even before she was selected to become a stewardess.

Witness accounts

The police realized that formally accusing a foreign priest of murder would have international ramifications. However, they seemingly had no target other than Father Vermeersch. In spite of this, the evidence against him remained circumstantial at best. Though they attempted to obtain a saliva sample from him repeatedly during the investigation, it was to no avail. Witness accounts only served to provide intrigue.

A female employee at a hotel on Takeshita-dori in Harajuku said that she recalled seeing a foreigner — a rare occurrence in those days — enter the premises on March 5, three days before Takekawa disappeared. When shown a photograph of Father Vermeersch, she confirmed that he was the foreigner she had seen.

The priest drove a white Renault sedan. A woman living near where Takekawa’s corpse was found recalled seeing a white sedan nearby at around 5:00 a.m. on the day of the discovery. When the police presented her with a catalog of vehicles, she confirmed the one she had seen was same as that driven by the priest. (It was later speculated that he had the tires on the sedan changed after the incident.)

Maximilian de Furstenberg

Then there were the mushrooms. The results of the autopsy revealed that Takekawa had eaten a Chinese meal shortly before her death. Among the food items found in her stomach were matsutake mushrooms that had been sliced in a recognizable way. Such a product was sold at a shop in front of JR Ogikubo Station. An employee said that he had sold the canned product to a man resembling Father Vermeersch.

His character was also questioned. Detective Hiratsuka learned that the priest was seen embracing female staff members at the St. Odilia Nursery. He was also accused of sexually harassing them, including fondling their lower bodies, according to Japanese media reports.

Yet, most importantly, the priest had alibis for his whereabouts. However, the police did not find them all that credible since the persons claiming to have been with him were all from within the church.

“Overly familiar with her”

The public learned that Father Vermeersch was a target of the investigation after the NHK program “Japan Unmasked,” broadcast on April 12, showed portrait photographs of him tacked on a wall at what is known today as the Yokohama District Immigration Office. From there, other news outlets picked up on the story, whose spread was aided by the fame attached to detective Hiratsuka.

National sentiment shifted against the priest. One foreign outlet reported, “Some sensational Japanese papers intimated that the missionary murdered Miss Takekawa after being overly familiar with her.”

Father Vermeersch never issued a public comment on the matter. However, he had support from within the church. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper sought comment on the case from Maximillian de Furstenberg, the Apostolie Internuncio to Japan, who responded, “I believe I can speak on his behalf to declare my solemn conviction of his innocence both as regards this question of murder and the charges of sexual intemperance leveled against him.”

“A man’s career and reputation may well be shattered”

Even though sentiments in Japan sided against Father Vermeersch, that wasn’t necessarily the case overseas. On June 4, Frank T. Bow, Republican Congressman, read an article from the English language version of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper in the U.S. Congress.

Studio Daiei produced “Stewardess Murder: White or Black?” in 1959

The article, written by a writer going by the name of John Robb, mentioned two high-profile cases, one of which was the murder of Takekawa. In it, Robb wondered whether “fairness” was lacking within the Japanese legal system.

“Now we have the case of the Belgian priest questioned in connection with the murder of a BOAC stewardess. He has been hounded publicly by the police for weeks on end and driven to hospital, subjected to all sorts of innuendoes,” Robb wrote, according to the Congressional Record.

He added, “He has no recourse to law, because he has never been charged with anything. But to the newspaper-reading public, his name must already be smeared. The police have issued no statements one way or another.

“What does this mean? That the police have decided he is innocent? That they have been unable to gather significant evidence? That they are biding their time? The matter is blithely left in the air; a man’s career and reputation may well be shattered, but there is no recourse to any form of legal referee.”

“Stewardess Murder”

This past January 8, just days after Carlos Ghosn fled Japan, he held a press conference from Lebanon. During the session, he said he left Japan because he had “zero chance” of a just trial. “I didn’t run from justice, I left Japan because I wanted justice,” he said.

With no social media or round-the-clock news cycle in place in the 1950s, it is not known what Father Vermeersch felt similarly of his chances for fair treatment. But perhaps his subsequent actions are instructive.

On June 10, three days before he was to be interviewed for a sixth time by police, the priest arrived at immigration at Haneda Airport. The examiner on duty contacted police. However, he was permitted to board an Air France flight out of the country on the following night.

“We were not, in any way, contacted regarding the departure of Vermeersch-san, which is truly regrettable,” a police executive was quoted. “But since there is no outstanding warrant for his arrest there is nothing under the law to stop [him].”

Seicho Matsumoto’s “Black Gospel”

A reporter assigned to the London bureau of the Yomiuri Shimbun was also aboard that flight. The priest told the reporter that he was returning to Belgium under an order handed down by the church. He also expressed a desire to see his aging parents. “If requested [by the Japanese police], it is my intention to accept at any time, at any place,” he was quoted in the May 13 evening edition of the paper.

Much like Ghosn’s exit, the priest’s departure was not well received in Japan. The matter was later raised in the lower house’s Committee on Judicial Affairs. An investigation into the handling of the case was then launched. However, it was abandoned after little progress was made.

The incident continued to gather attention that year. On October 6, the film “Stewardess Murder: White or Black?” was released. The studio Taiei Film production depicted a foreign priest murdering a Japanese stewardess, played by Naoko Kubo. Though promoted as fiction, the film was harshly criticized by the Catholic Church.

The next month, magazine Shukan Koron began publishing a serialized novel by Seicho Matsumoto that was based on the incident. In 1961, publisher Chuo Koron released the full novel “Black Gospel,” which became a best seller.

In Matsumoto’s version, the priest enlists the stewardess to engage in drug smuggling. He winds up killing her after taking her to a hotel.

Takeshi Kitano (left) starred in TV Asahi’s adaptation of “Black Gospel” in 2014

“Rest in peace”

The murderer of Takekawa was never found. Police in Tokyo closed the case on March 10, 1974, listing it as unsolved.

The case, however, remains in the eye of the public. In 1984, an adaptation of “Black Gospel,” written by Kaneto Shindo, was broadcast on TBS. TV Asahi aired its own version, starring Takeshi Kitano, in 2014. That same year, Yoshiteru Ohashi authored the book “Pursuit of the Vanished Priest: Solving the BOAC Stewardess Murder.”

Whether Ghosn will return to Japan to continue legal proceedings remains in doubt. Father Vermeersch never did. On March 17, 2017, the priest passed away in New Brunswick, Canada, where he settled after leaving Japan. He was 96.

An obituary for the priest appearing in the Telegraph-Journal did not mention the murder of Takekawa. One part read, “A son of Belgium, from a long tradition of farming, Father Vermeersch also became a son of New Brunswick, sowing the Word of God in the North, the South and on the high seas. May he now rest in peace!”