#BringRidgeHome: Latter-day Saint Naval Officer Wrongfully Imprisoned in Japan

For U.S. Navy Lieutenant Ridge Alkonis, living with his family in Yokosuka, Japan, while fulfilling his patriotic duties exceeded his wildest expectations. Like many young men of his faith, he’d completed a two-year ecclesiastical mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nagoya and afterward worked tirelessly in both professional and personal capacities to share his knowledge and love of Japan and its people. To once again serve in the land he loved with the people he loved was a dream come true.

Now a traffic accident and shocking prison sentence have shattered that dream.

On May 29, 2021, Lt. Alkonis, his wife Brittany, and their three young children went on a special day trip. About to be deployed aboard the USS Benfold, Lt. Alkonis let each of his children plan an activity to do as a family before he left. His youngest daughter wanted to hike Mount Fuji and then get ice cream at one of their favorite shops near the base of the mountain.

After a joyful day of hiking, the family began to drive down the mountain and head towards Fujinomiya. As they entered the city, Lt. Alkonis suddenly, and without warning, lost consciousness. He slumped to the side and the vehicle drifted across traffic and crashed into several parked vehicles in a restaurant parking lot. Neither the screams of his daughter nor the subsequent crash roused him. Tragically, an elderly Japanese woman and her son-in-law both passed away as a result of the accident.

Despite the medical emergency Lt. Alkonis experienced, he was not taken to a hospital for evaluation. He was immediately arrested and detained, where he remained in solitary confinement for 26 days. Lt. Alkonis endured daily and lengthy interrogations without representation and was deprived of rest by being forced to sleep directly under bright lights.

He was indicted on charges of “negligent driving” and released on bail. Lt. Alkonis finally received a medical evaluation and was diagnosed by naval doctors and neurologists with Acute Mountain Sickness. The condition causes sudden syncope (fainting) and can affect an individual for up to 24 hours following rapid changes in altitude, which Lt. Alkonis experienced when he drove down Mount Fuji. Several individuals have reached out to the Alkonis family to share similar experiences when they witnessed fellow climbers suddenly faint after descending Mount Fuji.

Lt. Alkonis and his family were quick to take responsibility for the accident and offered gomenasai, a formal Japanese-language apology for causing offense or damage. Feeling great sorrow, Lt. Alkonis wrote letters of condolence and offered gifts to honor the family, keeping with Japanese customs. He also fulfilled every request of the victim’s family, including the largest private gomenasai settlement by a U.S. service member in Japan’s history—$1.65 million.

Ridge has said from day one, minute one: All he wants to do is help this family. He feels the burden of what happened that day,” said his mother, Suzi Alkonis, in an interview with Axios. “We all do.”

For the Japanese criminal justice system, which places high value on genuine acts of remorse and restitution, such settlements often avert criminal prosecution. As the official proceedings concluded, Lt. Alkonis and his representation anticipated a three-year suspended sentence, considered the norm for cases like this.

That’s when the judge announced a three-year prison sentence for Lt. Alkonis, claiming he was fatigued and acted irresponsibly by continuing to drive. There is no evidence to support this claim; all family members, including Lt. Alkonis and his daughter, who was awake at the time of the crash, stated he was well-rested and alert. The evidence by doctors and neurologists of Acute Mountain Sickness had not been permitted to be presented at the trial. According to family reports, the shock at the sentence was palpable.

“I was there the night that they pronounced the three-year sentence. It was a shock to virtually everybody. We had his bags packed, the kid’s bags were packed, he was coming home. We knew it. Then we got the phone call that he wasn’t,” Suzi Alkonis said.

Lt. Alkonis is currently out on bail and remains in Japan as he appeals the decision. His family now seeks support to bring him home and expose the injustices he faces at the hands of the criminal justice system in Japan. For a family with so much respect and love for the Japanese people, the process has been excruciating. However, they believe Lt. Alkonis is innocent and that his story needs to be shared.

At the heart of their petitions are clear violations of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). SOFA is an agreement between a host country, such as Japan, and a foreign country that has military forces stationed there. Two main violations occurred. First, a judge granted the approval for Lt. Alkonis’ continued confinement though he did not meet the qualifications to be held for 26 days. Second, the judge’s ruling was not made immediately, as required by SOFA. These are compounded by the human rights violations Lt. Alkonis experienced while in custody.

Many in Japan are influenced by a history of U.S. service members committing crimes while intoxicated. Lt. Alkonis’ family hopes they can continue to show the Japanese people and the courts that he is a man of great faith and service. As a faithful Latter-day Saint, Lt. Alkonis does not drink or use drugs and has dedicated years of his life serving his country and the people of Japan.

Lt. Alkonis as a missionary in Japan, far left.

“Elder Alkonis was an outstanding leader, none better. He attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis, before and after his mission. I attended his graduation from that elite academy. Ridge is extremely patriotic, loving his homeland as well as Japan, his second homeland. I have been so impressed in following Ridge as he married, raised beautiful children, and excelled in his military career. Much of his military service has been in Japan, a privilege he has cherished. Ridge was passionate about the game of baseball. However, he chose to walk away from future opportunities in that sport because he felt that it may prevent him from serving the Lord as he desired. Ridge is a true disciple of Jesus Christ and I’m privileged to call him my eternal friend.”

Ridge is my older brother. He is dedicated and steadfast and thoughtful. I doubt there are people that meet him that think otherwise,” shared Emma Garrett. “And while the immediate aftermath of the accident was incredibly emotionally taxing, there was never any way I was going to do anything other than whatever I could to help Ridge and his family. Like most in my family, I’ve spent hours hunched over a computer desperately trying to understand a justice system of a country I’ve never visited. I don’t just support Ridge because he’s my brother, or because I believe him to be a genuinely good person, I also support him because the way this case has unfolded has been unfair and unjust and inconsistent with both Japanese law AND the rights he should have been afforded under SOFA as a US service member.

You can help #BringRidgeHome by signing the family’s petition and bringing awareness to his story by sharing articles such as this. Increased public support helps get Senators and other U.S. government officials involved to ensure justice for Lt. Alkonis.

Want to stay updated on this story? Click here to follow #BridgeRidgeHome on Instagram and visit the family’s official blog. To learn more about some of the potential injustices of the Japanese criminal justice system, you can watch the short investigation documentary below.

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