Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
On the seventh anniversary year of their daughter’s death, the parents of Masumi Watanabe from Sado Island, Japan, attended an intimate memorial service at Kawaiaha‘o Church in Honolulu that included prayer, beautiful music and warm embraces. Sitting alongside their parents, Hideichi and Fumiko Watanabe, were Masumi’s two older brothers Kenya (and his wife Kana) and Ryo (and his wife Kumi). Kenya’s and Kana’s two young children, both of whom were born after Masumi’s death, also attended the Dec. 15 service for the aunt they never had a chance to know.
Masumi was a shy, young 21-year-old woman when she was last seen on April 12, 2007, along Püpükea Road on O‘ahu’s North Shore. Although her body has never been found, Kirk Lankford, a pest elimination company employee, was convicted a year later of murdering Masumi, based on circumstantial evidence. On July 31, 2008, Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto sentenced Lankford to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Nearly a year later, the Hawai‘i Paroling Authority ruled that Lankford must serve a minimum of 150 years before he will be eligible for parole. Lankford is serving his sentence in an Arizona prison.
But the seventh year memorial service for Masumi was not a time to focus on her killer, but rather to celebrate Masumi’s life and to remember her with fondness and aloha. There was an abundance of both sentiments — for Masumi, as well as her family. Kahu (Pastor) Curt Kekuna Sr. told those gathered that it was a time to remember all that was good about Masumi.
Bob Iinuma, who has consistently advocated for Masumi and supported her family, reminded everyone about the little things that made Masumi a real human being and not just the victim of a tragic crime. For example, he said, Masumi liked hamburgers, Spam, grapes and cherries, and her favorite movie was “Spiderman.” Iinuma said Masumi was a few years away from growing into her potential, perhaps getting a job, driving, getting married and having children of her own.
Iinuma recalled that when he first learned of Masumi’s disappearance through the news media, he paid immediate attention to the case. It is an interest that continues to this day. He said his own children were about Masumi’s age and he empathized with what Hideichi and Fumiko Watanabe must have been going through, trying to navigate a foreign legal system during such a difficult time in their lives. He was able to meet the Watanabes early on and offered his assistance, which they accepted. Translator Mieko Crans, who chaired the memorial service, also stood by the Watanabes in those early days and formed lasting bonds with the family. Additionally, Iinuma set up a website — http://findmasumi.org — to keep Masumi’s memory alive and to try to find answers about what really happened to her.
Iinuma shared that in his interaction with many different people who had never met Masumi, but knew of her story, there was a genuine outpouring of caring for Masumi and her family.
He also recalled asking Masumi’s father, “What can we do for you?” — to which Hideichi Watanabe replied: “I want to find my daughter. I want to bring her back to Japan.”
He reiterated that point to those gathered for the memorial service, including former Honolulu city prosecutor Peter Carlisle, who prosecuted the case in 2008, as well as current city prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro. Watanabe thanked everyone who has supported them over the years, emphasizing that he still wants to know what happened to his daughter’s body, even though he knows her spirit is with them. Watanabe started running the Honolulu Marathon as a means of honoring his daughter’s memory.
Iinuma referred to everyone who did their best to pursue justice for Masumi as “heroes.” He said she brought out the best in her heroes and that they all did their best work. Despite that, Iinuma said he regrets that her body has never been found. He said those who cried for Masumi, even without personally knowing her, reflected a common humanity.
Like the first service for Masumi, held a year after her disappearance and attended by 250 people, Kawaiaha‘o Church once again welcomed the Watanabe family for her seventh-year service. Kawaiaha‘o Church is known, historically, as a place of worship for Hawaiian royalty. While planning for Masumi’s first memorial service in 2008, Iinuma recalled that Kahu Kekuna had asked him what kind of service he thought would be appropriate. Given the historic setting and the person being memorialized, Iinuma replied: “A service fit for a princess.”
Masumi Watanabe was her parents’ princess — their only daughter — and their loss is as deep and persistent as their love for her. But many still hold hope that Masumi’s remains will be found and returned to quiet Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, where she was born and spent her childhood.
Any information regarding Masumi’s disappearance or the whereabouts of her remains can still be reported to the Honolulu CrimeStoppers Program at (808) 955-8300.
Bob Iinuma emphasized: “It’s as close as one good tip, and she’ll be home.”
Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.