Family working to free former Claremonter from Japanese prison

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

In May 2021, former Claremont resident Ridge Alkonis, a U.S. Navy lieutenant stationed in Japan, took his wife Brittany and their three children on a day trip to Mt. Fuji, which was not far from their home.

The family traveled by car to about 8,000 feet in elevation, where they went on a day hike. As they returned to the car and began the trip down the mountain, Alkonis lost consciousness while behind the wheel and the vehicle crashed into a parking lot, killing an 85-year-old woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law.

According to the Alkonis family, Ridge, 34, suffered a case of acute mountain sickness, an account that was backed up by his pale complexion after he awoke.

Alkonis has expressed his sorrow over the deaths, and his family, with help from friends, has paid $1.65 million in restitution.

However, the Japanese courts did not agree with the mountain sickness claim. Prosecutors there said Alkonis had been drowsy while driving and should have pulled over immediately. In October 2021 he was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. A subsequent appeal was denied, and Alkonis surrendered in July and is now serving his sentence at Yokosuka Prison in Kanagawa.

Since mid-August, Alkonis’ wife Brittany has been lobbying the Biden Administration with daily vigils in front of the White House or the U.S. Capitol to get the attention of anyone in Congress who might be able to help get her husband out of prison.

“She’s got signs and is pleading with anyone that will listen to her and hoping to get the president’s attention,” said Emma Garrett, Ridge Alkonis’ sister.

Meanwhile, other family members have led supporters in local rallies, including one in Claremont on September 23 when about 40 people gathered at the corner of Bonita and Harrison avenues to show their support for the Alkonis family. Many of the attendees carried signs and wore blue T-shirts emblazoned with “Bring Ridge Home.”

Derek Alkonis speaks with a group of supporters during a recent Claremont rally in support his son, Ridge Alkonis, a 2006 Claremont High School graduate who is incarcerated in Japan. COURIER/photo Steven Felschundneff

Just before sunset, the crowd relocated to the plaza in front of the public library where Ridge’s father Derek Alkonis spoke.

“Coming down that hill was a tragedy but it wasn’t negligent,” he told the gathering. “We keep saying this over and over again because that courtroom was really difficult to take. To see your son being criminalized in a foreign country that he loved, that he still loves …

“And one of the reasons why we didn’t say anything initially was because we were sensitive to the family that lost their loved ones and Ridge wasn’t saying ‘Save me’ at the expense of having to drag this family through the horrible situation, too. However, over time it’s gotten nothing but worse and he’s felt nothing but more alone.”

Communication between the Alkonis family and the Japanese government has been minimal, chiefly because authorities in that country view the case as closed: there was a trial, he was convicted, and now must serve his time. However, members of the U.S. government are allegedly in conversation with Japanese officials.

“We have heard that the White House press secretary said we are in talks about my brother’s situation specifically, and they are trying to work toward a resolution,” his sister Garrett said.

Ridge Alkonis went straight into the Naval Academy after graduating from Claremont High School in 2006. According to his family, it’s all he ever wanted to do and he is the “best and brightest that the Navy has to offer.” He has been stationed in Japan for years and is an anti-submarine warfare officer.

Since he reported to prison, the family has received one letter from Alkonis, sent to his wife.

According to Derek Alkonis, the letter from his son said in part: “My exercise routine and my scripture study routine is exactly the same as it was when I was a free person.”

The only difference is now he walks three miles entirely within the two-by-four meter cell. He does have some comforts of home. The Navy provides his meals and he has access to American television.

“I just visualize what is going on at home and know that you guys are working hard. Everybody is progressing. I’m progressing and one day we will all be together,” Ridge Alkonis said in his letter.

“His resolve, his ability to move on and not crumple up in a corner and say ‘Woe is me and this is horrible,’ is testament to where he was raised in Claremont. Which you can’t have a better place,” Derek Alkonis said.

The family continues to hope they can secure Ridge’s freedom through diplomatic efforts, and that happens by keeping his name front and center in the minds of national lawmakers.

Currently, the two public officials who have by far been the most involved are Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Representative Mike Levin, who represents the area in Orange County California where Derek and his wife Suzi Alkonis now live.

According to Garrett, Lee and Levin have been working to circulate a letter throughout both houses of Congress to build support for securing a reprieve for Alkonis.

“We know they are communicating with one another,” Derek Alkonis said. “That’s good, but we want to see action. We don’t want to see just talk. We want to see him change his uniform from a jumpsuit in Yokosuka Prison to civilian clothes and get on the darn plane and get here. That is what we are asking for.”

A petition to help raise awareness of Alkonis’ case is up at change.org. Search “Alkonis” to view it.

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