YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — A USS Kitty Hawk petty officer second class involved in a fatal car crash Monday may be charged with a serious offense and could face trial and possible imprisonment in Japan, if an investigation into the crash determines he was negligent or reckless.

Joel Beza, a 23-year-old electronics technician, was in “pre-indictment custody” at the Yokosuka Pretrial Detention Facility following his arrest Monday night, according to Yokosuka police. Lt. Cmdr. Marc Boyd, a spokesman for the Seventh Fleet, said he could not confirm the sailor’s name but did say that he was in Japanese custody.

The sailor has been assigned to the USS Kitty Hawk since June 2000, Boyd said.

“We have no information as to when or if he’ll be turned over to U.S. authorities,” Boyd said Tuesday.

Japanese police said their preliminary investigation indicated the car driven by Beza apparently ran a red light and smashed into a car driven by Kenichi Kinoshita, a 64-year-old security worker from Yokosuka city. Kinoshita died of chest injuries at a local hospital about an hour later, according to Japanese police.

Kinoshita’s family, reached by telephone Tuesday, declined to comment.

“Our hearts go out to the families involved,” Boyd said.

The collision occurred at an intersection on Route 16 near the Mabori-Kaigan neighborhood, about six miles south of the base, police said.

A third car stopped at the light, containing a Japanese citizen who works at the base and his 8-year-old son, also was struck, apparently when the force of the collision pushed Kinoshita’s car into it. The boy, Akinari Okamoto, was treated for a chest injury at a local hospital but was expected to recover within two weeks, according to police. His father, Tetsuya Okamoto, 33, was not injured.

Additionally, one of Beza’s two passengers, Petty Officer 3rd Class Brendan McLaughlin, 23, of the USS Kitty Hawk, was treated at the base hospital for facial lacerations, according to police.

Boyd noted Wednesday the two passengers had returned to the Kitty Hawk.

Although indications were that alcohol did not play a factor in the crash, police said, Beza still may face serious consequences if investigators believe the crash was caused by negligence, such as speeding or ignoring traffic lights.

According to Japanese police, possible charges include “professional negligence resulting in death or injury” and reckless driving. The maximum penalty for negligence causing death is five years in prison. For reckless driving, the maximum penalty is 10 years in prison.

The investigation could take some time, however.

“The Japanese are very thorough. They don’t usually take something to trial unless they have a strong case,” said Jon Nylander, a spokesman for Naval Forces Japan.

Japanese authorities may take jurisdiction of any potential criminal case off base under the status of forces agreement, or SOFA.

Generally, in all but the most heinous crimes, such as rape or murder, the Japanese return pre-trial custody to U.S. military authorities, Nylander said.

In turn, the United States agrees to make suspects available for trial if an indictment is handed down and agrees to ensure U.S. servicemembers do not leave the country.

“A lot of times they’ll do their questioning, and the person is returned to us. We’ll have the person go about their military duties until they have to stand trial, if they stand trial,” said Cmdr. Ben Clancy, judge advocate for Naval Forces Japan.

In 2002, the last year for which data were available, 314 traffic offenses were reported involving U.S. servicemembers in Japan, according to statistics provided by United States Forces Japan. Those included speeding, DWI and professional negligence resulting in injury or death. But just half of those reported, or 157, led to indictments. Conviction rates were not available.

In October, a 29-year-old petty officer from Sasebo Naval Base was sentenced to 34 months in prison after being convicted of “death or bodily injury through negligence” in a fatal crash in April. Petty Officer 2nd Class Berry John Gibson was found to have been going 75 mph when he hit a car carrying a 46-year-old Sasebo woman and her 18-year-old daughter, killing the woman and seriously injuring the teen. It also was determined that Gibson had drunk alcohol, although the role that alcohol played in his charge or sentence is unclear.

Japan has harsh penalties for causing a fatal crash while drunk: The maximum is 15 years in prison.

If Beza is indicted for a crime in connection with the crash, the United States will pay for a Japanese defense lawyer to represent him at trial, Clancy said.

Additionally, the United States may have to pay any civil claims filed in connection with the case. In an average year, the United States pays almost $3 million to Japanese citizens who file on average 325 claims for damages, a USFJ spokeswoman said in 2001 following a fatal car crash near Misawa Air Base in northern Japan.

“The claims process is certainly out there,” Clancy said. “Civil litigation could go on for an extended period of time.”

Hana Kusomoto contributed to this report.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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