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Japanese police arrest 14-year-old in beheading of schoolboy

June 28, 1997

TOKYO (AP) _ Cracking a bizarre murder mystery that shook Japan, police on Saturday arrested a 14-year-old who confessed to killing a younger boy and dumping his severed head in a schoolyard in the western city of Kobe.

The boy, whose name was not released, lived in the neighborhood where the mutilated head of 11-year-old victim Jun Hase was found by a custodian May 27 at the gate of a junior high school.

Hase’s eyes had been gouged out and mouth split open from ear to ear. In a note stuck in the mentally retarded boy’s mouth, the killer called the police ``fools″ and boasted of enjoying nothing more than seeing people die.

Saturday’s confession and arrest ended an exhausting search for a killer whose brutal act came to symbolize for Japanese an increase in violent crime that has shaken their prized sense of security.

Many found it hard to believe such a young person would be capable of such a crime.

``I’m shocked. I never imagined that the killer would be a junior high school kid,″ convenience store employee Yukihiro Takeda told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Kobe.

Fear that the killer would strike again had gripped the tidy, middle-class neighborhood. Parents and teachers led children to and from schools in groups, often with patrol car escorts. Parks emptied and residents stocked up on alarms that a child could set off if accosted by a stranger.

Takeda said far fewer customers had come to his store over the past month.

``I’m so relieved that they found the killer, since it happened near my house,″ he said.

A week after the murder, the attacker sent a rambling, 1,400-word letter to a Kobe newspaper threatening to kill three more people a week if he became upset and expressing hatred for Japan’s high-pressure, conformist education system.

The sometimes incoherent letter described murder as a kind of release and included a threat to kill ``vegetables″ _ a word police took to be the writer’s disparaging term for people.

Lead investigator Seishi Yamashita said in a nationally televised news conference that the suspect confessed Saturday after several hours of questioning. Then police found a knife believed to be the murder weapon in the suspect’s house, he said.

``As far as the motive, that’s something we’ll be investigating very closely,″ he said, refusing to explain how police had zeroed in on the suspect.

National broadcaster NHK reported that police had been led to the boy as it investigated killings of pigeons and other small animals in the area.

The Hase death coincided with increases in violent crime and attacks against children, troubling trends that have lead Japanese to speculate about problems in country’s education system.

The arrest of such a young suspect was unexpected. Several people reported seeing a man in his 30s or 40s around the school just before Hase’s head was found, and police initially appeared to have few other leads.

Police had suspected the killer may have had other victims. In March, a girl died after being bludgeoned in the neighborhood. Less than an hour later, another girl was stabbed in the chest and nearly bled to death.

Kobe has had its share of tough times. A massive earthquake in January 1995 killed more than 6,000 people and wrecked the once-charming port. The city of about 1 million people is still recovering.

For many Kobe residents _ particularly parents _ the arrest meant they could relax for the first time in a month.

``I’m so relieved,″ one mother told NHK. ``I always worried if my child had made it safely to school or if he would come back home alright.″

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