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Somewhere Near Besancon

Narumi Kurosaki in November, in a widely circulated “Missing” photo from her Facebook page (by AFP)

By David Yamaguchi

The North American Post

Besancon, France, is the sort of quaint city of 116,000 that we would all like to visit, wander, and learn French in. Set in eastern France away from   well-trodden tourist paths, the most high-profile internet travel article on the city dates from 2009. The city fills a picturesque oxbow of the Doubs River. There is a cave where one can taste and buy 34-month old cheeses. Best of all, the city has its own seventeenth-century castle, La Citadelle, which today houses a museum. The surrounding countryside is charmingly wooded.

I bring up Besancon because it has been featured regularly in a developing story in the Japanese and French media. For Besancon is the location where another Japanese exchange student has gone missing and is presumed dead (see “On Natsumi Kogawa,” Oct. 13 issue).

The storyline is a modern twist on the classic stalker narrative. The student is young, female, pretty, and petite. She is new enough to the country and city that she does not yet know her classmates and way around well.

Narumi Kurosaki, a junior at Tsukuba University, near Tokyo, has been in Besancon since September to study French at the University of Franche-Comte. Twenty-one years old, she was last seen on campus at a group dance practice on Dec. 4. That evening, she was videotaped having dinner in a suburb with a former boyfriend by a security camera. He brought her back to her dormitory at midnight, after which she vaporized into the night. Since that evening, Ms. Kurosaki’s mobile phone has largely gone quiet.

Ms. Kurosaki is not deemed a suicide candidate. Her classmates describe her as “always smiling.” The local police describe her as “a young girl full of life.” Yet her credit card too has been inactive.

Most terribly, dormitory residents reported hearing a woman screaming at 3 a.m. on Dec. 5. At first, one interviewed student thought she was overhearing a movie. But the cries continued, to the extent that they scared her. They were accompanied by banging on furniture and doors. Blood would later be found on the steps of an unmonitored emergency exit. It is being analyzed. Tire tracks outside suggest a car peeled out.

The sole suspect is the former boyfriend, Nicolas Zepeda Contreras, a 26-year old Chilean teaching assistant Ms. Kurosaki met in Tsukuba. Later he would threaten her in an internet video before traveling to Besancon. Not enrolled as a student there, he skipped town shortly after the Dec. 4 dinner, and has been on the move ever since.

Driving a rental car, Mr. Contreras’s first known destination was Geneva, 108 miles south of Besancon across the Swiss border, which he crossed on Dec. 7. From there, he flew home to Santiago on Dec. 13 via Madrid. On Dec. 30 he was seen in front of his home, in a high-rise luxury apartment building, getting into the back of a truck belonging to his father. The Jan. 5 Japan Times shows a photo of his mother’s condominium, in La Serena, 290 miles north of Santiago, where Mr. Contreras was last seen entering and remains in hiding.

In the meantime, somewhere near Besancon, Ms. Kurosaki’s body or remains probably lie hidden in the forest. The suspect’s mobile-phone signals (records of pings to phone towers) suggest it is in the Foret de Chaux (Le Parisiene, Jan. 5, in French). This is dense national forest 36 miles west-southwest of Besancon. While one can get to Geneva from there, it is an indirect route that adds 68 miles to the journey. Police have been searching with dogs and divers, but the task is impeded by snow and ice.

While Chilean police have been aiding in the investigation, most recently supplying Interpol with Mr. Contreras’s credit card and bank information, they need more evidence to arrest him. The crime occurred outside of Chile. France and Chile lack an extradition agreement. A weak case can be appealed in the courts.

Chilling clues that have been reported in the media include Mr. Contreras’s apparent digital efforts to delay a search for Ms. Kurosaki. Someone used her phone to text her classmate at 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 5 to say that she was en route to the Japanese consulate in Lyon—158 miles southwest—to take care of a problem with her visa. Yet she did not visit the consulate (NHK World, Dec. 27). Moreover, a Dec. 7 update on her Facebook page reports her breaking up with her boyfriend. Yet the entry was made from his phone (Tokyo Reporter, Jan. 7).

Mr. Contreras had planned more obfuscation. As late as Dec. 14-15, he asked a Tsukuba acquaintance to translate to Japanese phrases like “I happen to be in an environment where I can’t connect to the internet” (Japan Times, Jan. 7).

Additional details have continued to emerge. Before Ms. Kurosaki went missing, Mr. Contreras bought garbage bags, detergent, and some type of fuel at a shopping mall (Tokyo Reporter, Jan. 8).

In the meantime, two parents undoubtedly wait anxiously, hoping against hope that their daughter still breathes. A half-dozen homemade internet videos and many news videos in Japanese, French, Spanish and English paint a picture of a popular young girl graduating from high school, dancing in performance groups, and starting  campus life anew in rural France.

Student readers, if you resemble Ms. Kurosaki, be careful out there. It is exhilarating to be a student; it is even more so to be an exchange student. Enjoy your days, by all means. But keep in mind that to do so fully, you must remain alive.