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Kirk Matthew LANKFORD





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: The body was never found
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: April 12, 2007
Date of arrest: 14 days after
Date of birth: 1985
Victim profile: Masumi Watanabe, 21 (Japanese tourist)
Method of murder: ???
Location: Pūpūkea, Hawaii, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison on July 31, 2008

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Kirk Matthew Lankford (born 1985) is an American from Kalihi, Hawaii who was convicted of murdering a Japanese tourist in Pūpūkea, Hawaii.

On April 12, 2007, Japanese tourist Masumi Watanabe disappeared in Pūpūkea. Lankford was arrested and charged with second-degree murder on April 26, 2007, after police found blood and items belonging to Watanabe in his pickup truck. Watanabe's body was never found, but the blood in Lankford's truck was determined to have been Watanabe's.

At his trial, Lankford pleaded not guilty. In his trial testimony, Lankford claimed that he had accidentally hit Watanabe with his truck, but that she had not been seriously injured and he offered to give her a ride to her destination. Lankford claims that after he began driving with Watanabe in the truck, she jumped out of the moving vehicle and hit her head on a rock by the road. When Lankford discovered that she had died, he says, he disposed of her body in the ocean because he said he was frightened that he would lose his job. Prior to his trial, Lankford had told police he had never seen Watanabe before.

The jury found Lankford guilty of second-degree murder. At his sentencing hearing, Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto referred to Lankford as a "predator" and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Peter Carlisle, the city prosecutor, asked the parole board for 120-years minimum imprisonment,


Judge calls Lankford a ‘predator,’ gives him life in prison

By Nelson Daranciang -

July 31, 2008

Calling him a predator and a danger to the community, a state judge sentenced Kirk Matthew Lankford this morning to the mandatory life prison term with the possibility for parole for the murder of missing Japanese visitor Masumi Watanabe.

Lankford, 23, admits his handling and disposal of Watanabe's body was heartless and wrong. However, he continues to declare his innocence.

"I'd like to say again, I did not kill Masumi Watanabe."

Lankford claims Watanabe, 21, died April 12 last year when she jumped out of his moving truck and hit her head on a rock.

"Twelve members, men and women, of your community here in Hawaii did not believe you," said state Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto referring to a jury verdict earlier this year.

Watanabe's parent also said they do not believe Lankford's claim that he disposed of their daughter's body in the ocean.

"I will not be able to forgive you for my entire life," said Hideichi Watanabe, Masumi's father through an interpreter.

The Watanabe family believes Lankford buried Masumi's body somewhere on Oahu.

"Even after all of this, we still bow humbly to you, to beg and plead to show us some way that we can return her remains to her hometown in Japan," said Fumiko Watanabe, Masumi's mother.

It will be up to the Hawaii Paroling Authority to determine how much time in prison Lankford will serve before he is eligible for parole. The Watanabes said they will return to Hawaii for every hearing.

Lankford claims he accidentally struck Masumi Watanabe with his work truck as she was walking on Pupukea Road. As he was driving her around the area to find out where she lives, he said Watanabe jumped out of the truck, striking her head on a rock and died. He said he didn't report the incident and disposed of the body out of fear of losing his job.


Life turns upside down on North Shore

By Eloise Aguiar -

Saturday, April 28, 2007

PUPUKEA — Residents of this North Shore community say their sense of safety and feeling of community have been shaken by the disappearance of a young Japanese woman and news that police consider her case a murder.

"My kids are not allowed outside unless there's an adult watching them," said Natasha Lowery, who grew up here and is now raising her children. "Nobody lets their kids out of their sight now. They can't go just anywhere anymore."

Beginning with the April 12 disappearance of 21-year-old Masumi Watanabe, through the searches by police and volunteers, and especially after Thursday's arrest of a homicide suspect, residents say they have been forced to change their everyday habits.

Antya Miller, a resident and executive director for the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, said now she tells her 17-year-old son that she doesn't want him walking down the hill on Pupukea Road, where police believe Watanabe may have been abducted.

"It just gives you an unsafe feeling," Miller said.

Lowery said the foot traffic on normally busy Pupukea Road has slowed to a trickle. Only three people were on the road in the afternoon when usually dozens of children and adults can be seen, she said.

"Now there's not many walking the hill to exercise," said Lowery, pointing to the deserted road while on a break from her job at Foodland. "It's different. It's changed."

Watanabe was staying with friends who live near the top of Pupukea Road and about half a mile into a side road. Police said that she walked the 2.5-mile trip from the home to Foodland almost every day.

Police on Thursday arrested Kirk Lankford, 22, on suspicion of second-degree murder. Police found blood and items possibly belonging to Watanabe in Lankford's Ford F-150. Police said they have not found a body.

Witnesses reported seeing the truck in the vicinity at the time of Watanabe's disappearance.

Prosecutors have until about 5 p.m. today to charge Lankford or release him from custody. He was arrested at his Kalihi home about 4:50 p.m. Thursday.

An official with the Japanese Consulate of Honolulu said Watanabe came to O'ahu to experience American life and was staying in the North Shore home of friends of her parents.

The parents have been in Honolulu since her disappearance and are planning to stay until she is found, said Makoto Hinei, senior consul at the Japanese Consulate of Honolulu.

She was not in school and was in Hawai'i for "the experience," Hinei said.

"It's a terrible tragedy," said Hinei, who said the consulate is in daily contact with Watanabe's parents. "They are terribly grieved by the news released (Thursday) by the chief of police. They took the news as only parents do."

Hinei said the consulate was complying with the parents' request not to release information about Watanabe, including where she comes from in Japan and details about her life here.


Watanabe's parents have been meeting with a Honolulu police officer who speaks Japanese and are grateful for the courtesy provided by the department, Hinei said. Police notified the Watanabes of the arrest before telling the media, he said.

"They are much appreciative of the nice gestures of the police department," Hinei said.

The accused man was described by two neighbors yesterday as a churchgoing man who lives in a Kalihi home with his wife and baby boy. His wife is pregnant, they said.

"They're a churchgoing family," said one neighbor, who would not give her name.

Lankford's parents defended their son in telephone interviews with television station KITV.

"He's not a killer," Howard Lewis Lankford told KITV, speaking from Colorado Springs, Colo. "He's way, way on the other end of the spectrum. He'd give you everything he had before he'd do anything to you."

"The police lie. That's what I know. That's all I know at this point; the police lie. My son is innocent," Patricia Ann Sander, the suspect's mother, told KITV in a separate interview.

"I just hope that the police are doing their job right ... and don't try to pin something on him," Howard Lewis Lankford said.

Kirk Lankford's brother, Ryan, also spoke with the station, saying, "There's no prior behavior of him doing anything like this."

The suspect's neighbors, who did not want to be identified, said they were shocked to hear about his arrest and described Kirk Lankford as quiet and pleasant. They said Lankford and his family moved to their home on Hani Lane about a year and a half ago.

Lankford was known for hosting Bible studies at his home on Fridays and even took a neighbor's son to church with him, another neighbor said. Kirk Lankford attended The Potter's House church, at 2320 S. King St., one neighbor said.

"Pretty much overall, he was a nice guy," said the second neighbor.

No one was at the church yesterday afternoon and no one answered the phone.

No one answered the door at Lankford's home, which is at the end of a small, crowded lane, at about 3:30 p.m. yesterday.


Joshua Raum, 26, of Waipahu has known Kirk Lankford for about four years. They are both members of The Potter's House.

Though they attend different services — Raum goes to the Waipahu branch, while Kirk Lankford belongs to the East Honolulu branch — they would hang out a couple of times a month, usually at church functions or community service events.

Raum said Kirk Lankford attended services regularly.

"He's an upright man, very honest," Raum said. "He's very faithful."

Upon hearing about Kirk Lankford's arrest, Raum said he was shocked: "That doesn't sound anything like Kirk, nothing like him at all."

Hauoli Pest Control, which had employed Kirk Lankford as a technician since August 2003, has terminated his employment, according to a news release yesterday. The release did not say when the termination occurred.

"We join with the rest of the community in offering our thoughts and prayers to the friends and family of Masumi Watanabe," the company's release said. "We will continue to cooperate fully with authorities in this investigation." The company said it would not release further information.

Michelle Yu, Honolulu police spokeswoman said police were not issuing any statements yesterday. She said it's up to prosecutors to decide what charges to file.

Jim Fulton, executive assistant at the prosecutor's office, would not comment.


Though a body has not been recovered, city prosecutors can proceed with a murder prosecution under state law if they have enough evidence to establish that the victim died.

The latest case involved the murder conviction of Jenaro Torres, who was convicted last month of the 1992 slaying of Pearl Harbor base cashier Ruben Gallegos. Gallegos' body was never found, but he has not been seen or heard from by relatives and friends. State prosecutors convinced a jury that Torres murdered Gallegos.

The large ranch-style home where Watanabe was staying is part of an aging group of homes of varying size on lots that are about an acre. The yard is lush with plants and tropical flowers along with areas of open grassy space. The streets are without lights or sidewalks.A woman who said she lives at the home said she didn't think Watanabe would accept a ride from a stranger, but she didn't elaborate nor did she want to give her name. The woman, who said she was a friend of Watanabe, said it is common for residents to offer rides to pedestrians.

And that made the apparent attack even more surprising to residents.

"I haven't ever really heard of any woman getting abducted in these parts," said Anthony Palazzolo, 20, who grew up in the area. "It's the first time I've ever heard of it."

Island visitor Irma Mauch said she wasn't happy to hear about the incident because she wants to feel safe when she's visiting a place. Mauch is visiting her son, Austin, a student at Brigham Young University-Hawai'i.

Austin Mauch, 20, said he didn't think the incident would leave a stigma on the community.

"It can happen in the safest place," he said.

But that safe feeling in the community has been shattered and people are looking out more for one another.

"We're just a little bit more cautious about watching how people behave," said Kristine Buttel, who works at Starbucks in Pupukea.


Masumi Watanabe

Vital Statistics at Time of Disappearance

Missing Since: April 12, 2007 from Honolulu, Hawaii
Classification: Endangered Missing
Age: 21 years old
Height and Weight: 5'0, 100 pounds
Distinguishing Characteristics: Asian (Japanese) female. Black hair, brown eyes. Watanabe is a native of Japan. She speaks Japanese and very little English. She has extremely poor vision, with both myopia and astigmatism, and wears silver-framed prescription eyeglasses.
Clothing/Jewelry Description: A navy blue long-sleeved hooded sweater, a brown shirt, blue jeans and pink shoes.

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 below 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 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.



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