She moved from year to year, for fear someone would recognize her. She cut her long hair and donned scholarly glasses. But when Japanese police finally caught up with Naoko Kikuchi after 17 years on the run, one of the last remaining suspects from the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway expressed relief that her life on the lam had come to an end.
Kikuchi, now 40, was intercepted by police Sunday as she returned to her home in Sagamihara, a city less than 20 miles southwest of the Japanese capital where she is accused in the murders of 13 subway passengers and the poisoning of 6,000 others.
Kikuchi immediately acknowledged she was the fugitive and told police she was weary of hiding and evading detection, the NHK network reported, quoting Tokyo Metropolitan Police.
“I had to hide my identity and used an alias all these years while I was on the run. Now I'm arrested and I don't have to do that anymore. I feel relieved,” police quoted Kikuchi as saying.
NHK aired footage of the woman, who had been employed at a local nursing home under a fake name, in the front seat of a police car, her head bowed and obscured by a sweep of chin-length black hair. The network also showed footage of a heavier Kikuchi from her days as a member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, wearing a white satin cloak, her hair flowing below her shoulders.
Police also arrested 41-year-old Hiroto Takahashi, with whom Kikuchi had been living at the Sagamihara apartment for the last two years. NHK footage showed the man suspected of harboring a fugitive, seated in the back of a police car with a coat covering his head.
Police were searching Kikuchi's home for signs that she was in contact with the last suspect in the attack who remains at large, Katsuya Takahashi, who would now be 54. Takahashi is a common name and the fugitive isn't believed to be related to Kikuchi's roommate. A third longtime fugitive from the gas attack, Makoto Hirata, turned himself in to police six months ago.
Shoko Asahara, the head of the doomsday cult that plotted and carried out the 1995 attack as a prelude to an expected apocalyptic clash with authorities, is on Japan's death row, along with a dozen others convicted of murder. Nearly 200 others from the cult have been prosecuted. The cult once had a following of 10,000 but its size has dwindled in Japan under close law enforcement supervision.
Asahara also claimed 30,000 devotees in Russia at the time of the attack, and disgruntled scientists in Moscow were identified during some cult members' trials as having sold the sarin gas production technology to the cult.
-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Fugitive Naoko Kikuchi, a former senior member of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, has been captured 17 years after the deadly sarin gas bombing of Tokyo's subway at rush hour, in which 13 died and 6,000 were injured. The photos show Kikuchi before the bombing and after her arrest. Credit: File photos of Kyodo News and Tokyo Metropolitan Police / Associated Press