SPOKANE - On a cold, clear morning last November, three Japanese teenagers waiting at a bus stop accepted a ride from a smiling American woman in a maroon Subaru.
It was a Saturday, and the young women, students at a local Japanese school, wanted to go downtown. They had been in the U.S. two months. There was still a lot to see, and everyone seemed so friendly.
They had just missed a bus, and it was a biting 9 degrees outside. The woman in the Subaru charmed them, insisted. The students climbed into the car, and off they went.
What happened next is called by Spokane Police Chief Roger Bragdon "one of the most despicable crimes" he's ever dealt with.
The driver picked up two men waiting nearby. The students were handcuffed and blindfolded. One woman was driven a short distance and released; the other two were brought to a Spokane Valley house where they were raped over seven hours.
The assaults were videotaped and photographed. The students were informed that if they told anybody what happened, the videotapes would be sent to their fathers.
The women eventually were dropped off a short distance from the bus stop at the main entrance to their school, the Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute.
Bragdon, fearing "an international incident," launched an all-out investigation. A week later, three locals were charged with multiple counts of kidnapping, rape and witness intimidation: Lana Vickery, 43, a clerk at an adult-novelty store; David Dailey, 38, a former carpenter who had been investigated in previous sex offenses; and Edmund "Eddie" Ball, 40, a leader in a local sadomasochist sex club.
One by one, the defendants pleaded guilty: Vickery in March, Ball on Friday and Dailey yesterday morning. Ball and Dailey's trial had been scheduled to start Monday.
Much of Spokane has followed the proceedings, not only out of prurient interest but also out of fascination that two peripheral subcultures would intersect in such a lurid way in their small city. Most townspeople had no clue such a sex club existed at all, and many knew little of the Japanese enclave on Spokane's western outskirts.
Throughout the investigation, this overwhelmingly white, all-American city encountered, and for the most part accommodated, Japanese customs and sensibilities.
The rape victims, 18 and 19, are still minors under Japanese law. Their school is owned and operated by Japanese, and its leadership was under no legal obligation, aside from answering routine questions, to cooperate with local police.
Bragdon, the police chief, said he acted quickly in part because he feared the school would "shut down communication" with investigators. And indeed the school did muzzle faculty members and students, and went to court to prevent the media from releasing any identifying information on the victims. The school also pressured police to play down the sexual aspect of the case.
Sex crimes in Japan, compared with the U.S., are relatively rare. The victims of sex crimes are profoundly stigmatized. Many victims do not discuss rapes with family or counselors, much less with police.
"To be an innocent victim of a sexual assault in Japan is a matter of great personal shame," said Hiroshi Takaoka, executive vice president of Mukogawa.
This was why the assailants targeted not just Asians but specifically Japanese, Vickery told prosecutors. The defendants thought the women would be too ashamed to report it.
Students keep to themselves
Mukogawa occupies 72 wooded acres above the Spokane River on the western edge of the city. The campus, a former Army fort, is the U.S. branch of Mukogawa Women's University in Nishinomiya, Japan, near Kobe. Nishinomiya is Spokane's sister city.
The branch opened in 1990.
The students, sophomore English majors, spend 15 weeks at the Fort Wright campus, immersing themselves in English and American culture. Enrollment last fall was 160.
Students are allowed to travel downtown as long as they travel in groups and return to campus by 5:30 p.m. They are instructed to be friendly but to limit contacts with locals. Takaoka said that in the 10 years since the school opened, he knows of no instance in which a student dated a local resident. Mukogawa and its students, for the most part, keep to themselves.
The two victims, identified in court documents only by their initials, arrived in September. On Nov. 11, after 22-1/2 hours of classes that week, the two and a third student waited off campus for the No. 20 bus downtown when Vickery stopped to offer a ride.
The third student was released, it was revealed later, because the assailants could not handle more than two victims. That student immediately reported the abduction.
The assaults left the two rape victims "horribly traumatized," Takaoka wrote in a court affidavit. Particularly devastating to them was the possibility the videotapes would be sent to their parents. One of the women "expressed a wish to die."
On campus, students were told of the abductions but not of the sexual assaults. The victims' names were never revealed. Faculty members and students were forbidden to discuss the abductions with anyone outside the school. The school even omitted the names of all students from the graduation program so names could not be matched with the victims' initials.
School leaders asked police not to disclose the sexual assaults to the media. The Japanese consul-general in Seattle, Tomiko Saiga, called Bragdon at his home and reiterated the request.
"That'll be hard," Bragdon told him.
But Bragdon did his best to release little information for as long as possible. It wasn't until charging papers were filed, nearly 10 days after the abductions, that the sexual assault became public.
Attorneys for Mukogawa argued unsuccessfully to ban publication of the victims' names and photographs. Takaoka told a Spokane County judge that rape victims in Japan risk losing family honor and status, and the ability to marry into upstanding families. In some cases, rape victims in Japanese courts testify from behind screens so as not to be seen, he said.
"The sense of shame is particularly strong in the Japanese mind," he wrote, citing cases in which victims committed suicide or moved from their hometowns.
The Spokesman-Review, the local newspaper that argued against a ban, never published the victims' names and published only their initials before the sexual nature of the attacks was made public. No other media published the names.
Japan has one of the lowest rates of reported sex crimes in the world: one rape for every 100,000 people. In the U.S., the rate is 38 rapes for every 100,000. (In both Japan and the U.S., studies say that 90 percent of all sexual assaults go unreported.)
Spokane, a city of 200,000, averages 100 rapes a year, a rate that in Japan would be considered a disaster.
Bragdon treated the case with urgency from the start, assigning 12 detectives instead of the usual two. At various points he added eight, using nearly half the department's detective staff.
A tall, strapping man with fiery blue eyes, Bragdon was incensed by the crime, swearing and calling the suspects "animals."
"(The victims) were frail teenagers," he said. "Everything was foreign to them. They didn't know what was being said (during the crime). They didn't know what was happening. It's hard to imagine the terror."
Bragdon, whose wife is of Japanese descent, was keenly aware the crime could have become an international incident if the victims had been killed or maimed. As it was, the Japanese consulate informed Bragdon that government and media in Japan were monitoring the investigation.
Bragdon also may have felt the need to make up for an earlier blunder by one of his officers.
Police said the assailants had tried to abduct Japanese students on two other occasions. The first time, in mid-October, the assailants stalked but failed to capture two girls at Gonzaga University, near downtown.
The second time, three days before Halloween, Dailey and Vickery abducted two exchange students from near the Gonzaga campus using the same method, offering a ride downtown. The students were driven to an isolated road and zapped with stun guns but fought off their captors and escaped.
A Spokane police officer investigated that case but failed to file a report. The previous cases did not become known until the Mukogawa victims came forward. Spokane police came under searing criticism for not warning the public. Bragdon fired the erring officer.
Meanwhile, investigators sifted through dozens of leads in the days after the Mukogawa abductions. The critical lead, the one that led to the arrests, came within 24 hours. It was a short, anonymous e-mail message to the Spokane police Web site suggesting that investigators look into three people.
Dailey and a partner were loading a truck at his Spokane Valley home to get rid of evidence when police arrested him a week after the crime. Vickery lived in the same house. Officers noted that a newspaper on the dining-room table was open to a story about the abduction.
"They were reading about themselves," Bragdon said.
The chief was outside the house during the search of Dailey's home, pacing the sidewalk. His anger at the suspects coincided with a sense of relief. Bragdon said from the start he felt he was "dealing with animals who would do it again."
Sure enough, Vickery in her confession said the three already were planning another abduction.
The leader was Ball, a former truck driver and a devotee of bondage and sadomasochism. He co-founded the Spokane Power Exchange, or SPEX, a sex club of about 200 members, which met regularly for sex parties and bondage workshops.
The parties would often end up in Ball's home or in Dailey's house in the Spokane Valley, where the Mukogawa students were taken.
The club communicated primarily through its Web site, which is linked to a network of bondage and discipline organizations.
Ball's life revolved around SPEX activities. He went by the names Sir Eddie or Sir Kame and "owned" three sexual slaves, according to the Web site. He earned income by making and selling custom whips, floggers and cuffs.
Like his accomplice Dailey, Ball was a big man, 6 feet tall and 235 pounds.
"Eddie is just a big, huggable teddy bear," one member said in an e-mail message. "A huggable, muscular, tattooed, evil-looking teddy bear who carries a large bowie knife and a bullwhip and whose hobby happens to be torturing people."
A month before the Mukogawa abductions, he led a workshop at his home titled "Knife/Edge/Blood Play."
Ball's interest in Japanese culture was widely known. He traveled to Osaka, Japan, in 1997 as a student. SPEX members said he had a collection of Japanese bondage videos, and was expert in Japanese rope-tying techniques. Police found Japanese-language books at his home.
Vickery told police it was Ball who targeted Japanese students because he thought they were submissive and would be too afraid and ashamed to report the assaults.
Bet on stereotype
Said police spokesman Dick Cottam, "The suspects bet their lives on a stereotype, and they lost."
Not only did the victims report the assault, they were willing - after some coaxing - to go to extraordinary lengths to help police catch the suspects.
Ed Tsutakawa, a prominent leader in the local Japanese-American community, said he "pleaded" with the women to cooperate with police. Once they signed on, the women were surprisingly tough.
The distraught parents of one of the women flew to Spokane to pick up their daughter, but the daughter refused to go back to Japan, Bragdon said. She wanted to see the suspects caught and punished, and she wanted to finish the term at Mukogawa.
Bragdon said the woman inspired the other rape victim, who was more reluctant.
The women underwent intensive police interviews and impressed officers with their composure and stamina.
"We watched for emotional strain. `Want to rest?' " Bragdon said. "They'd say (through an interpreter) `No, let's keep going.' "
The women were blindfolded during the abduction but were able to catch glimpses. They agreed to a blindfolded drive to see if they could retrace the route. Bragdon said the women led officers to within 10 blocks of Dailey's house, nine miles east of downtown.
Ball, Dailey and Vickery each face sentences of 21 to 28 years. Ball is scheduled to be sentenced June 20. Had the three gone to trial, each would have faced up to 40 years in prison. Their guilty pleas mean, among other things, the victims will not have to return to Spokane to testify, which they were prepared to do.
The two victims returned to Japan in December and resumed their studies.
As for the videotapes of the assaults, which reportedly caused the victims almost as much grief as the assaults themselves, Vickery told police that Ball had destroyed them. But suspicion lingers. Will the tapes surface down the road in some unexpected way?
In the end, the possibility may be what will haunt the women most.
Alex Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216 or email@example.com.