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Saturday 25 November 2017

Maeve Sheehan: Fight for answers as Nicola is home

Devastated parents have 'questions left unanswered' about their daughter's death in Tokyo, writes Maeve Sheehan

THE vast distance between the throbbing metropolis of downtown Tokyo and the seaside village of Curracloe has been keenly felt by the family of 21-year-old Nicola Furlong.

Since the student was found strangled in a hotel room in Japan, it was no longer a question of 6,000 miles that separated Angela and Andrew Furlong from their eldest daughter.

From their Wexford home, the Furlongs' grief has been compounded by a language barrier, an eight-hour time difference, and protocols adhered to by Japanese police to whom they appealed for information about their daughter's death.

When Nicola's body was brought back to Ireland last Thursday, her family claimed their daughter back. At Dublin Airport, her coffin was draped in a Tricolour, which her uncle, Denis Corrigan, said was intended to signify her return to Ireland. Her father, Andrew, took the wheel to drive his daughter back to Wexford. At a funeral home in Gorey, her body was transferred to a pink coffin; she was, after all, a "girly girl", her mother said.

Friends and neighbours who lined the road to Curracloe bowed their heads in her honour as she passed on her final journey home. She was waked amongst her family and friends, at home where she used to chat for hours at the kitchen table, offering fashion tips and guidance to her younger sisters, Andrea and Hannah. Today, she will be laid to rest after a funeral mass at St Margaret's Church in Curracloe. Her fellow students from Dublin City University, where Nicola studied business and languages, and her local GAA club, the Shelmaliers, are expected to turn out in her honour. Her family has selected some of her favourite songs for the service.

The scenes of mourning for the local girl who grew up beside the national school in Curracloe seemed a world away from the circumstances in which she died.

This weekend, two Americans remain in custody in Japan, where they are under investigation for Nicola's death and charged with "quasi-forcible indecency" on her best friend, amid allegations that their drinks were spiked.

Nicola was in year three of a four-year business and languages degree in DCU. For her exchange year, she enrolled at Takasaki City University of Economics, concentrating on marketing. She shared a Spartan student apartment with her best friend. They were among 150 European exchange students on campus. It was hardly party central.

According to some reports, Nicola helped out with a local volunteer group to improve her mastery of the language. Tokyo, the world's most populated city, was over an hour away by train.

Her parents -- who despite their grief gave interviews to some local reporters last week -- said Nicola was homesick. She contacted them frequently on Skype and was counting the days before she would be home in July. She missed her boyfriend, Danny Furlong, who played for Wexford Youths, the football team founded by local developer and independent TD Mick Wallace.

Both girls were into music. It seemed a big deal when they got tickets for the American rapper, Nicki Minaj, who was playing at the Zepp concert hall in downtown Tokyo on May 23. The concert later sold out.

Nicola's father, who spoke to her the day before the concert, told a newspaper: "She joked that next time we saw her would be in the papers drinking champagne with Nicki Minaj; she didn't know that the next time we would see her it would be in the papers as a victim."

On the day of the concert, Nicola texted her mother: "We put on our fake tan, all our shaving is done we are ready to go now mam, talk to you soon. Ten weeks and I'll be back in Ireland." This last text message seemed to capture the spirit of the daughter Angela Furlong described as a "girly girl" who loved life, loved fashion and spent hours chatting over a cup of tea in the kitchen.

They arrived in Tokyo that afternoon by train. Nicola had joked to her parents about getting in to the after-show party.

Instead, somewhere along the way, they encountered two Americans who were in Tokyo on tour with the Japanese female rapper Ai Carina Uemura.

James Blackston is a 23-year-old dancer who used the stage name King Tight and had performed with stars like Jennifer Lopez and the BlackEyed Peas. From a tough Los Angeles area, he took up "krumping" with a reformed drug dealer -- a dance style one LA writer described as equal parts break-dancing and demonic possession. After news of his arrest emerged on the blogosphere, a video was posted on YouTube purporting to show Mr Blackston on a train in Japan, in the days before the concert. It shows a black man in a hoodie and runners, wearing sun glasses and a set of ear phones on his head, dancing in front of Japanese passengers: he thrusts his hips in front of a couple of apparently middle- aged Japanese women. Mr Blackston's friend is a 19-year-old American keyboard player. His name was not released because he is considered a minor under Japanese law.

The first accounts of what happened to the girls emerged from Japanese news agencies. They quoted police sources as saying that Mr Blackston and the 19-year-old approached Nicola and her friend after the concert and invited them for a meal. With their blonde hair and Western good looks, they would have stood out in a crowd.

They went to Shibuya, a downtown shopping and drinking district of Tokyo where, it's suspected, their drinks may have been spiked. The men took the girls back to their upmarket Keio Plaza hotel in the Shinjuku district.

Witnesses reportedly saw Nicola and her friend being pushed into a taxi, and the taxi driver may be an important witness. He is thought to have witnessed Nicola's friend being indecently assaulted in the taxi. According to Tokyo police, she was already "comatose" by then.

At the hotel, the men brought the girls to their separate rooms, Nicola to the 19-year-old's and her friend to Mr Blackston's, according to Japanese newspaper reports.

According to those reports, at 3.20am a guest complained of noise coming from one of the rooms. A hotel employee went to check and found Nicola unconscious on the floor, and the 19-year-old standing nearby.

Nicola was rushed to hospital where she was pronounced dead.

Mr Blackston and his friend were taken into police custody. According to reports, a post-mortem early on Friday morning found that Nicola had been strangled.

A Tokyo Police spokesman

later elaborated on what happened to the girls when the two men were charged last week:

"These two men allegedly took advantage of a female unable to resist due to the fact that she was in a comatose state from a highly alcoholic beverage.

"On a taxi ride between Shibuya and Shinjuku they took advantage of a woman by touching her body. As that is an indecent act, they have been charged with quasi-forcible indecency."

As Nicola's death made international headlines, Nicki Minaj used Twitter last week to offer condolences to the family and to deny that Mr Blackston was her dancer.

"We do NOT know the men in custody. My dancers had nothing to do w/this tragedy. No one in my entourage was questioned or arrested. They all flew home from Japan."

Toxicology results on Nicola's body should show whether she was drugged. According to the British Foreign Office, it's not uncommon for tourists to find their drinks spiked. In an official travel notice, it warns that while crime is low, tourists in Tokyo's 'entertainment district' have had their drinks spiked with date rape drugs such as Rohypnol and lost consciousness. Later, they discovered huge charges billed to their credit cards.

Andrew Furlong was at home in Curracloe on Thursday early afternoon when he heard of his daughter's death: "The gardai arrived at the door. I thought it must have been about something to do with my car. When I heard the news, I said, 'Oh Jesus'. I have never dreamt, it never dawned on me, it shook me to the floor," he told the Enniscorthy Echo. He considered flying to Japan but he was advised not to, as the flight would take 15 hours and police were working quickly to allow his daughter's body to be released to the family.

According to Angela Furlong, at that stage, they only knew that Nicola was dead. Three days passed before they were to learn how she died.

"The news that your daughter is dead is very, very hard to accept. But the hardest of all was on the Saturday morning to hear what had actually happened to my baby. That was worse than actually hearing that she was dead," said Angela.

"When we received the news, that was worse. That was really, really, really worse. I knew there had been an accident and I hoped it was a car crash that she had been killed instantly. She was so tiny and it had given her a heart attack. Nobody would hurt my baby."

Despite the assistance of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and Gardai, the Furlongs struggled to cope with their daughter's sudden death in an information vacuum. At first the Japanese police were reluctant to speak directly to the family over the phone but the authorities later relented.

Nicola's best friend, meanwhile, was in a truly nightmarish situation. She found herself in a strange city. Her best friend was dead. She could not go home because the police needed to talk to her. And for those days, she was entirely alone until her parents flew to Japan to be with her. She flew home this weekend for Nicola's funeral, after uncertainty whether she would be allowed to leave.

"There were thoughts that they (the girl and her mother) might not be able to get out but they are allowing her out because her best friend is being buried and she would like to be at the funeral," Andrew Furlong told reporters. "It could have been her just the same as it was Nicola; she was there when whatever happened, happened. She is just happy to be coming home."

Fr Jim Fitzpatrick said yesterday that Nicola's family had "questions left unanswered". The Furlongs' priority this weekend is to lay Nicola to rest. Then they will begin the onerous and heartbreaking business of finding justice for their "generous, stunning" daughter, who was the centre of their lives.

Sunday Independent

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