TOKYO — His trail cold for years, the last fugitive suspected in a doomsday cult’s deadly nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subways in 1995 was caught at a comic book cafe today, closing a chapter on Japan’s worst terrorist attack.
He had altered his appearance and reportedly used a fake name and avoided meeting people to evade arrest, but Katsuya Takahashi admitted who he was when approached by police at the cafe in downtown Tokyo.
The former bodyguard for the Aum Shinrikyo cult leader, Takahashi had been on Japan’s most wanted list for years for his suspected participation in the sarin gas attack that killed 13 people and injured about 6,000, shattering Japan’s long-held sense of safety.
According to media reports, he worked for a construction company and avoided capture for years by using fake names, wearing a surgical mask on the job and seeking assignments that didn’t involve meeting people.
The manhunt heated up after the June 3 arrest of another cult fugitive, Naoko Kikuchi, who reportedly lived with Takahashi for a time and had information about him. Thousands of officers hunted for Takahashi across the capital, handing out fresh photos of him and monitoring transportation hubs to keep him from escaping.
Takahashi disappeared from his job after Kikuchi’s arrest, but an employee at the comic book cafe where he was spotted told a TV talk show Friday that he had visited the shop several times recently.
A cafe employee recognized Takahashi and called police, a Tokyo police spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity, citing department rules. Police arrested him on suspicion of murder, she said.
TV footage showed a huge crowd outside the cafe, trying to glimpse the last cult fugitive. Public broadcaster NHK showed a thin, bespectacled Takahashi being pushed into a police car.
The 54-year-old’s appearance has changed greatly — in particular, his trademark bushy eyebrows have become much thinner. So police had to wait while his fingerprints were verified. He was arrested after being taken to a nearby police station, then transferred to Tokyo police headquarters for interrogation, police said.
Takahashi told police that he was only following the orders of higher-ups but not fully aware of the purpose, reports said.
The manhunt was one of the longest ever in Japan. Nobuko Shigenobu, a former Red Army extremist, was on the run for 26 years from 1974 until her arrest in 2000.
The Aum cult had amassed an arsenal of chemical, biological and conventional weapons in anticipation of an apocalyptic showdown with the government. Top cultists sometimes used illegal drugs and electric shocks to brainwash followers with apocalyptic teachings. Police reportedly found about a dozen Aum textbooks in Takahashi’s bag later Friday in a coin-operated locker, and plan to examine whether he is still controlled by the cult teachings.
Masaki Kito, a lawyer and a long-time Aum watcher, said Takahashi’s arrest and investigation could provide a fuller picture of the Aum cult’s crimes.
“The case has never been fully resolved,” Kito said in one of the TV talk shows that were dominated by news of Takahashi’s arrest. “He was a last piece of a jigsaw puzzle.”
Nearly 200 cult members have been convicted in the 1995 attack and dozens of other crimes. Thirteen, including cult guru Shoko Asahara, are on death row.
Police have been criticized for a series of bunglings in the investigation. They were aware that there was something ominous about the group, which had a highly guarded commune at the foot of Mt. Fuji, but they could not prevent the sarin attack. A near-fatal shooting of the chief of National Police Agency at the time, in which an Aum member was suspected, closed unresolved in 2010 due to a statute of limitations.
Takahashi had been Asahara’s bodyguard, and authorities say he was assigned to the cult’s “intelligence ministry” in charge of plotting attacks and coverup schemes. He allegedly helped one of the members who released sarin on one of the subway lines run away from the scene. He is also suspected in a 1995 cult-related kidnapping-murder, as well as a mail bomb that injured a Tokyo city employee.
Police had come close to capturing Takahashi and Kikuchi in 1996. They had traced them to an apartment in Tokorozawa city, just north of Tokyo, but lost them just before raiding the hideout.
Takahashi disappeared for many years, but the recent arrests of the other two fugitives helped police get back on his trail. Makoto Hirata, 47, charged in the 1995 kidnapping-murder as well as the subway attack, surrendered to police on New Year’s Eve. Kikuchi, 40, was arrested earlier this month after she was spotted in Sagamihara city, 30 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of Tokyo. She is accused of helping produce the deadly sarin.
Kikuchi reportedly told police that she and Takahashi moved to an apartment together in Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo, in 1997, each using an alias. Kikuchi left the apartment five years ago but Takahashi remained until last year, when he moved to a company dorm in the same city, according to NHK.
He began working at a construction company around 2004 under the name of Shinya Sakurai. He quit in 2008 but returned last October, media reports said. His former boss, whose name was not released, said Takahashi was often wearing a surgical mask, and he asked for assignments that didn’t require meeting people.
The day after Kikuchi’s arrest, Takahashi reportedly called his boss, saying he needed a week off because his relatives were dying. He then dropped by a credit union to withdraw some 2.3 million yen ($29,000) in cash, bought a travel bag and disappeared.
Images of the fugitive were captured by security cameras, parts of which were released to the media. He wore different clothes almost at each location, in an apparent attempt to avoid detection.
The Aum cult once had 10,000 members in Japan and claimed another 30,000 in Russia. It still has hundreds of members. The cult is under police surveillance and its current leaders have publicly disavowed Asahara.