This Tuesday, the family of Nicola Furlong will privately mark 10 years since their beloved 21-year-old daughter and sister was cruelly murdered in Tokyo.
The DCU student from Wexford, who was studying in Japan for a year, was killed by an American man after a night out at a concert with her friend.
Compounding her family’s grief on this milestone anniversary is the knowledge that her killer, Richard Hinds, is due to be released from prison within months.
Nicola’s parents, Andrew and Angie, asked for privacy this weekend as they mourn the loss of their eldest child.
The circumstances of Nicola’s murder, and Hinds’s subsequent criminal trial, shocked the Irish public.
“But 10 years later, it is Nicola’s loved ones who are still dealing with their loss,” according to a security source familiar with the case.
“The press moves on to the next story, and the rest of society forgets. But for the family, the grief and pain never leaves.”
On May 24, 2012, Nicola Furlong had been enjoying a night out with her friend at a Nicki Minaj concert — when a chance encounter with two American men led to her death.
Hinds was found guilty of her murder in March 2013. The then 19-year-old was given a sentence of a minimum of five years and a maximum of 10 with labour. The keyboard player has now been imprisoned for nine and a half years.
In accordance with the legal requirements of his sentence, he must be released and then deported back to the US by November of this year.
But the Japanese authorities, who have remained tight-lipped on when exactly Hinds will get out of jail, can legally release him at any stage.
“What we do know is that he can get out at any point, and that has been a possibility since five years into his sentence. But he must be released by November of this year,” added the informed source.
“He cannot legally be held any longer. He will be just 29 years of age. Still with his entire life ahead of him.”
Nicola’s father Andrew attended every day of Hinds’s trial in Tokyo, alongside his ex-wife Angie and their younger daughter Andrea.
The circumstances of the young student’s death so far from home were laid bare in Tokyo courtroom number 416. Japanese judges expect defendants to be remorseful. But despite the overwhelming evidence, Hinds, who claimed to be “a devout Christian”, lied repeatedly under oath and denied his crime.
Ahead of sentencing, Hinds spoke directly to Andrew and Angie, telling them from the witness box: “I look you dead in your eyes today and tell you that your daughter did not suffer.”
Ever since, those words have echoed around Andrew’s mind, who previously told the Sunday Independent: “I cannot tell you how that made me feel. How could he say those words, those lies? There is no forgiveness in my heart for that man and there never will be.”
Passing sentence in 2013, the chief judge told the court that Richard Hinds showed “no remorse” and “tainted the honour” of his 21-year-old victim.
Another man, James Blackston, a 23-year-old dancer, was jailed for a sexual assault on Nicola’s friend. Blackston has since been released.
Nicola, an international business student, was studying at Takasaki City University of Economics for the third year of her degree. After the concert the two Irish women socialised with the Americans at a bar, and took a taxi to the Keio Plaza Hotel, where Nicola and her friend were staying.
The trial heard Nicola had a date-rape drug in her system at the time of her death.
During legal proceedings, Hinds admitted to placing his hands on her neck for a prolonged period. Hinds also testified that he and Blackston were reluctant participants in the tragic events, and even tried to claim he was approached by two women who wanted to “party”.
Neither was interested in sex with the women, they claimed, they were simply being kind when they took them back to their hotel.
But their story was soon revealed as a fabrication and insult to the memory of Nicola. A conversation full of leering, predatory braggadocio recorded of the two American men in the taxi to the hotel was played in court.
“These bitches fell into our lap,” said Blackston, who then spoke crudely about the prospect of sex with them. At one stage the men exchanged fist bumps.
CCTV images from inside the hotel also showed an unconscious Nicola being brought up to the hotel room in a wheelchair. The judges concluded Hinds intended to rape the unconscious Nicola.
At his trial, the chief judge said: “It can be recognised that the defendant suffocated the victim to death, by strangling her with a towel or a string-like item with the intention of killing her.”
The judge took account of the killer’s age but said he was still entirely to blame.
Aside from seeing him at his Tokyo trial, Andrew has never come face to face with Hinds or been contacted by any member of his Memphis-based family.
What has helped the bereaved father with his grief is reaching out to other families dealing with loss in Wexford and further afield. A memorial garden, offering a place of peace and solace for those grieving the loss of young people, was opened four years ago by Andrew and other locals affected by bereavement.
Cuan Aingeal, or Angel Harbour, is located in Ardcavan, Co Wexford, opposite the Riverbank House Hotel. The garden has its roots in a vigil held in the aftermath of Nicola’s death.
Meanwhile, 10,000km away, Hinds is preparing for his release from Fuchu prison, in the western suburbs of Tokyo.
It has been entirely of his own making that he is still jailed. Good behaviour combined with remorse meant he could have been released after five years. But after conviction he continued to show no remorse, so the Japanese authorities kept him imprisoned.
Fuchu jail is a typical Japanese prison, very tough and rule-bound. There are regulations on how to sit, how to wash, sleep, talk, eat and walk. Prisoners are not allowed speak freely, and are not allowed speak at all during work time.
Shouting earns you a spell in solitary confinement, as does sleeping with a blanket over your head, as prisoners’ faces must be visible even when asleep. Failing to march in the correct way can also land inmates in trouble. Prisoners don’t walk in Japan, they march.
The emphasis for the 2,300 prisoners is on work, not exercise. Inmates work seven hours a day, six days a week.
That Nicola’s murderer will have suffered harsh prison conditions may have been of some consolation to her parents, added the security source.
"But I imagine that right now, all that is on their minds is that it’s been 10 years since she was killed. And the man who did it is about to walk back out into the world.”