Details of Disappearance
Watanabe is a Japanese citizen who was visiting Hawaii in the spring of 2007. She was staying with a distant relative on the island of Oahu and volunteered at Sunset Beach Elementary School. She was last seen between 9:20 and at 10:00 a.m. on April 12, 2007, walking on Pupukea Road.
Witnesses saw Watanabe get inside a Hauoli Termite and Pest Control truck at the Pupukea Foodland. The vehicle was being driven by a Caucasian man. Watanabe looked "confused" at the time and was not speaking to the driver, although he was speaking to her. She has never been heard from again.
Later that month, Kirk Matthew Lankford was charged with Watanabe's murder. Photographs of Lankford are posted with this case summary. At the time of her disappearance, he had worked as a technician for the pest control company, although he was later fired. He was working in the area on the day Watanabe disappeared.
Authorities found Watanabe's blood and her eyeglasses in Lankford's company truck, and the windshield on the passenger side was cracked. Lankford claimed a bird had caused the damage.
A witness reported seeing a man digging a hole near Kahana Bay at about midnight on April 12. The man claimed he was looking for a gold chain he had lost. The witness wrote down the man's vehicle's license plate number and it matched Lankford's personal truck, and the witness later identified Lankford in a police lineup.
Lankford's wife stated he left the house that evening, saying he was going to work a side job, and when he returned his socks were muddy. She later recanted her statement.
Lankford had no criminal convictions as an adult, though he did have a record as a juvenile, and he is described as deeply religious and a devoted father and husband. The indictment charged him with second-degree murder and accused him of either knowingly killing Watanabe, or knowingly harming her and allowing her to die without rendering aid.
At his March/April 2008 trial, Lankford admitted Watanabe was deceased but claimed her death was an accident. He said he accidentally sideswiped her with his truck and slightly injured her, then put her in the truck to take her home. He claims Watanabe could not communicate with him because of her poor English, and she became agitated and jumped out of the vehicle, hit her head on a rock and died instantly.
Lankford says he panicked afterwards and disposed of her body. He said he tried to bury it, but after he was caught digging the grave, he dumped the body in the ocean instead. He explained he did not call rescue workers or the police because he had previously been disciplined by his employer for poor driving, and was afraid he would be fired if he reported the accident.
Prosecution experts at the trial described Lankford's version of events as "impossible." A crash re-creation expert said Watanabe would have had severe injuries if she was hit by a truck, but Lankford says Watanabe was only scratched on her arms and hands.
The truck's side mirror and antenna were intact, and they should have been damaged if Lankford had run into Watanabe as he said. In addition, no blood was found in the truck bed, where Lankford said he put Watanabe's body, and no blood was found on any rocks in the area where he claims she sustained the fatal head injury. The rocks, however, were not tested for nearly a year after Watanabe's disappearance.
In April 2008, a year almost to the day after Watanabe disappeared, Lankford was found guilty of second-degree murder. The normal sentence for second-degree murder is life in prison with the possibility of parole, but if the offender is proven to be exceptionally dangerous to the community, a harsher sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole can be imposed.
Prosecutors initially planned to seek the enhanced sentence for Lankford, but they decided against it in May 2008 after psychiatric experts determined Lankford did not a significant history of criminal violence, which is a requirement for the enhanced sentencing.
In April 2009, a year after Lankford's conviction, the parole board sentenced him to 150 years in prison. Lankford will have to serve at least one-third of this, or 50 years, before becoming eligible for parole.
Watanabe's family continues to hope her body may be found. Investigators do not believe Lankford dumped it in the ocean as he said, since if he had the body would almost certainly have washed up on shore. Her remains may be buried somewhere on the island.
Watanabe is described as a shy, artistic young woman who loves drawing, especially dogs and other animals. She normally lived with her family on rural Sado Island in Japan. Her body has not been recovered, but foul play is suspected in her disappearance due to the circumstances involved.