Search for son leads to Japan ... and frustration
October 21, 2007
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — For the Lee family, visiting Japan was just another frustrating chapter in a family nightmare that began more than five months ago when their son, a sailor stationed aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, vanished.
“We’re here looking for our son,” said Cherri Lee as she, her husband, Kenneth, and their daughter, Lakesha, packed their suitcases in a darkened Yokosuka hotel Thursday. “From what we understand, the command is doing absolutely nothing.”
According to a statement Kitty Hawk public affairs officials released Friday, Airman Kenneth Lee was last seen April 13, when he left the ship for the weekend. A shipmate reported seeing him at a train station, where Lee reportedly said he was going to visit his girlfriend in Tokyo.
The following Monday, Lee failed to report back to the ship. He has been missing since.
Lee’s wallet and an uncashed check for $1,300 were later found in his ship locker. Kitty Hawk officials said they found no evidence to suggest anything unusual — or any clues as to Lee’s whereabouts.
It was written up as an unauthorized absence, which later was upgraded to desertion.
That didn’t sound right to his family and they contacted the ship, their congressman, the FBI and anyone else they thought might help find out what happened to their son. They even created a MySpace page (www.myspace.com/findingkj) dedicated to the search, which offers a $5,000 reward for information leading to his recovery.
This month the family flew to Japan to search for themselves. They spent several days handing out missing-person fliers and searching the Yokosuka area for any signs of Kenneth Lee.
But they said they were disappointed at the response they received from Kitty Hawk leadership.
According to Cherri Lee, Kitty Hawk officials were “less than helpful” from the beginning, ignoring certain questions. And the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, she said, was “outright nonresponsive.”
Lee said Kitty Hawk officials even refused to give her the name and contact information for the ship’s chaplain.
Kitty Hawk officials, however, maintain they have assisted the Lee family from the beginning.
“We have extensively communicated with the Lee family and provided them with as much information as possible, even during our summer deployment in the western Pacific,” Kitty Hawk spokesman Lt. Bill Clinton said in an e-mail response to Stars and Stripes.
That assistance included contact information for the ship’s chaplain in the initial absence notification letter dated April 26, he said.
He said the ship also sponsored the Lee family’s adult daughter to Japan so she could accompany her parents.
Cherri Lee said the “extensive communications” included an e-mail from the aircraft carrier’s executive officer, Capt. Steven Vissers, directing her to “stop tasking his people” and deal only with him.
The Lees were not the only ones suspicious about her son’s disappearance, she said. During a meeting with an FBI agent before flying to Japan, the agent expressed concern, based on the evidence she presented, that foul play could be involved in her son’s disappearance, she said.
Fueling the family’s suspicion were comments from some Kitty Hawk sailors who claimed Kenneth’s girlfriend was rumored to have criminal ties and was “bad news,” Cherri Lee said.
“And [the Navy] still says there’s no need to open an investigation?” she asked.
“When you have one of your people out here and you put forth no effort at all to find him — and just wipe your hands of the whole thing — that’s unsatisfactory,” said Kenneth Lee Sr.
“Kitty Hawk leadership is always concerned about the well being and safety of all Kitty Hawk sailors,” Clinton said. “We will continue to make every effort to communicate with the Lee family in sharing any new information and encouraging their son’s safe return.”
The Lee’s said they will not give up. They said Lakesha, who speaks conversational Japanese, is staying in Japan for a couple more months to continue the search.