The International Murder Case That Changed My Reporting Career

As a jaded TV news producer covering a murdered musician, a sexist mayor, and a brewing protest movement, I had no choice but to become a part of the story.

The International Murder Case That Changed My Reporting Career

I shrugged my arms out of my suit jacket, as our fixer greeted us in the parking lot of Piarco International Airport, steering our small news crew toward our car. I couldn’t tell if it was unethical for me to enjoy the welcome change from New York’s frigid weather, since I was here in Trinidad and Tobago for the somber task of covering a murder. Still, the warmth hugged my shoulders as we sped toward Port of Spain. I relaxed into its soft grip despite my misgivings. “First, we are going to the Silver Stars Panyard, where I hear Tim Kee will be,” Paul, the fixer, told us from the front seat. “Then I will take you to where her body was found.”

Asami Nagakiya was a 30-year-old Japanese woman from Hokkaido who visited Trinidad and Tobago to play the steel pans. Steel-pan playing is an art originating in Trinidad and Tobago, where an industrial drum is cut and shaped, such that a pannist (what you call a steel-pan player) can use a set of wooden rubber-tipped sticks to produce a series of silvery, rounded sounds. In an interview she had given a few years earlier in Japan, Asami said that she had touched a steel pan for the first time at her college conservatory and fell in love. Since then, she’d made it her mission to master the instrument, meeting and befriending Trinidadian people.

Steel-pan playing is closely linked to Trinidadian Carnival, and every year for the last six years, Asami had been invited to play with the Silver Stars, a pan group in Port of Spain, in the Carnival parade. In a video she posted on her Facebook page a few days before her death, Asami plays feverishly during a Silver Stars rehearsal. At first, the camera sweeps the large ensemble, swinging left, leaving the viewer wondering if she might be lost in the crowd. As the tempo of the song builds, each body dancing in time, everyone wearing a uniform white T-shirt, the camera swings back to its right and you see her birdlike form, the nod and shake of her head, eyes shut tight in feeling and concentration. Asami is playing her heart out.

When we pulled into the Silver Stars Pan Yard, the mood was sober and commemorative. “There’s Mayor Tim Kee,” whispered Paul as we walked up the driveway, pointing to a man in a suit standing at the lip of the yard. After Asami’s body was discovered, Mayor Kee publicly questioned whether her manner of dress was to blame for her death, saying: “Women have a responsibility to ensure they are not abused during the Carnival season. It’s a matter of, if she was still in her costume — I think that’s what I heard — let your imagination roll.” Kee was referencing the fact that Asami had died in her Carnival wear, which consisted of a yellow bikini and turquoise jewelry. His comments spread quickly through Port of Spain, igniting a tall flame of anger in its residents. Though less than a day had passed since the whole business started, there was already an online petition demanding Kee’s resignation that had amassed nearly 10,000 signatures. Alongside said signatures were comments from supporters: “Rape culture blames victims. Justice stops rapists. Fire this fool.” “You are in the wrong and more women will be harmed or killed as a result of the ideas you espouse.” “Shame on you.”

Mayor Kee seemed unbothered when I sidled up to him, microphone in hand, to ask for an interview. I can no longer remember what exactly he said to me, just that he doubled down on his previous comments. The placid pool of his face, posture carefully casual, his shoulders pushed back — all this remains vivid in my mind. By then, I’d grown used to shuffling next to people with a microphone, the cameraman hanging back. “Excuse me, my name is Nina,” I’d say, painting a toothy smile on my face because I’d learned that people are more likely to give you what you ask for if your voice is inflected by a grin. As a producer in the New York bureau, I worked bilingually to help Japanese reporters cover U.S. news for Japanese audiences. For smaller jobs like man-on-the-street interviews, I interviewed mostly Americans in American cities with the help of a cameraman, while the Japanese reporter hung back to work on their script. (This time, all of the senior producers who would usually take more global stories were on other assignments, which is why a junior producer like me had been sent to Trinidad and Tobago.) A year and a half into the job, I’d asked people on the street if they thought dropping the atomic bomb was justified, what they thought about police brutality, if they’d ever eaten deep-fried pizza, if they owned a gun, if they thought Bill Clinton’s infidelity had any bearing on Hillary’s run for president. When I first started, I’d approached the questioning with gusto. I thought I’d be bringing up important topics, helping to raise awareness about current events, trying to understand people. I was chipper, high-pitched, stereotypically bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But after a few months of listening to people justify historical atrocities and publicly speculate about a president’s sex life with lurid glee, I began to disengage. I would watch their facial expressions, their hands, nodding while the sound of their voice slid from my ears, tuning back in only to prod with a follow-up question. I never failed to be surprised by what people felt comfortable saying on camera when they were assured that whatever they said would not air in the United States, but rather in faraway Japan.

A demonstrator in her Carnival costume calls for Mayor Kee’s resignation over his comments about Asami Nagakiya’s clothing, February 2016. (Photos by Janine-Mendes-Franco, via Global Voices)

After wrapping up his remarks, the mayor left the pan yard. We interviewed a few more people and then got back into Paul’s car, heading toward Queen’s Park Savannah, the largest park in Port of Spain, where Asami Nagakiya’s body had been found. It was nearing midnight by then, and though the park was bordered by streetlights, the trees, the rocks, the grass all appeared only as silhouettes, black shapes against the deep navy of the sky. The previous day, a passerby had discovered Asami’s body in the hollow of a tree, arranged in the fetal position. Yellow caution tape now ringed the crime scene and the tree. I waited on the sidewalk as the cameraman and reporter did a few takes of the report. I felt swallowed up by a heady emptiness. Shouldn’t this disturb me more? Shouldn’t I be shaken by this woman’s senseless death? Instead I felt only a looming flatness, periodically interrupted by an impatience to check in to our hotel. A few more takes later, the reporter wrapped up, and we departed.

Because we were on a fast-approaching deadline, the cameraman and reporter made a beeline for the hotel lobby to send their clips to Tokyo. I approached the front desk and gave my name, asking for the three rooms I’d reserved. The concierge looked apologetic. “We don’t have a reservation under that name,” she said. Puzzled, I pulled up the reservation confirmation on my phone and realized that I’d reserved three rooms for February 12, 2017, a full calendar year later. I began to panic. It was my first big work trip abroad and I’d made a colossal mistake. Heat rose around my face. Where were we going to stay? It was Valentine’s Day weekend at nearly one in the morning. I was certain there wouldn’t be extra rooms for us to stay in, especially at the (now in retrospect, oddly) discounted rate I’d picked up earlier online.

“Excuse me,” the concierge interrupted my doom reverie. “Are you perhaps here about the Japanese woman?” I looked up and nodded, still panicking. The concierge’s eyes softened, turning sorrowful: “We were all shocked by her death. There aren’t a lot of Japanese people who come to Trinidad. Let me see how I can help you.” She gently took my phone from me, looked at the reservation, and after a few minutes of typing, handed it back to me. “Here are your keys for your room tonight,” she said. “The rate will remain the same. Again, we are so sorry about her death.”

Trinidians at a protest with a sign asking for Japan’s forgiveness over Asami’s murder.

As I sat down next to my team in the lobby to begin transcribing and editing our interviews, I mulled over the concierge’s response. Trinidad and Tobago was a small island, to be sure, and though Asami seemed to have gained a small amount of fame as the Japanese woman who played at Carnival, it didn’t make sense that everyone should feel so close to her death, or so responsible for her murder. Or was it that I was desensitized?

I tried to put the question out of my mind as I typed, but hours later when I finally collapsed in my hotel room bed at around four in the morning, I found myself wondering again. Before I had taken this job as a television producer, I was supposed to go to social work school to be a therapist. Empathizing, even over-empathizing, used to be the norm for me. And for the first few months of adjusting to the pace of television, I continued to feel every story. That summer saw a rash of police brutality and school shootings, occurring in eerie one-two synchronization almost every week. Earlier that year, Donald Trump had announced his presidential campaign in what seemed at first to be an elaborate prank. But as the primaries progressed, his message crystallizing around lines of racism and white supremacy, his presence felt less and less like a joke. Among all of these things, I professed my outrage out loud as I worked. Then I began to work silently with breaks to cry angry tears in the women’s bathroom. Finally, I just worked, no longer able to feel rage or sorrow at the unjust state of the world. Before coming to Trinidad and Tobago, Asami Nagakiya’s death felt like yet another tragedy in the string of unfortunate events that seemed to make up the story of world news. But faced with the sincere regret in the concierge’s eyes, I found myself troubled by something knocking at the facade of my numbness. I tossed and turned in the pristine, immaculately made bed, and slept fitfully for a handful of hours.

The next morning, we made our way to Port of Spain’s main square to cover a scheduled protest calling for Mayor Kee’s resignation over his comments about Asami’s clothing. I was uncomfortable in my day-old pantsuit, my hair frizzing in a halo around my face. Not to mention, I was prickly with skepticism. So many well-meaning stories I’d filed had ended with unexpected backlash, or with the news cycle losing interest. With every story about a police murder and ensuing protest, I increasingly felt like I was complicit in a complacent system that fed off of images of violence, allowing injustice to flounder while higher-ups remained impassive and changeless. This protest in Asami’s name seemed like just another event I’d been assigned to turn into a momentary spectacle. Something exciting, something explosive to fill a screen, with little to no follow-through.

Upon our arrival, the square was empty, with only a few people milling around a large gazebo. But, as time passed, more and more groups of women began to gather. Strolling together in pairs and threes, they flooded in from the street. The empty and barren park quickly transformed into a seething mass of protesters. Hand-painted signs were held aloft, different women standing at the edge of the gazebo ledge to make speeches. A collective sense of fury and sorrow swept the square. Emotion swirled and pulsated like a living thing, lifting the protester’s voices and sending them raining down onto the adjacent city hall. I imagined the mayor inside, quaking, the walls of his office shivering with the women’s righteous rage.

News media surrounded by protestors at the gazebo in front of the Port of Spain City Hall during the protest.

Weeks later, I would learn that I had inadvertently been a small part of the demand for Mayor Kee to resign. It turns out, a photo had been taken of me on the morning of the protest and added to a Trinidadian article. In the photograph, my eyes are screwed up, my hands on my hips, my weight shifted to one side. Surrounded by protesters, I look cross, disappointed and frustrated. The caption under my photograph alludes to the presence of the Japanese media in Trinidad and Tobago, and speculates that we too must be feeling grief for Asami’s death and disgust at the mayor’s victim-shaming comments.

In reality, the photograph did not capture a moment of grief and disgust, but rather one of discomfort and bewilderment. With the sun in my eyes, I was attempting to process the swell of people roiling around me. Asami was a stranger, a foreigner from a far-off country, and yet hundreds of Trinidadian men and women came to demand justice in her name. There were so many people in the square, their teeming filled my eyes. They laid bare my cowardice in choosing not to feel, urging me to see rage, heartbreak, emotion overall as propulsive, necessary forces.

By the following Tuesday, as a result of the continued public pressure of the protesters and petition signers, Tim Kee would resign his position as mayor of Port of Spain.

After the protest, the rest of the day passed in a blur. By then, the investigation was too far underway to get sufficient comments from officials, and most of Asami’s acquaintances had left the country, Carnival now over. We spent some time shooting B-roll in various corners of Port of Spain. I tried to get in touch with a disgraced FIFA official to do a side story, but he (understandably) rejected our interview request. The night ended with a quick meal at the hotel, where we toasted our fixer for his efforts in showing us around the city, introducing us to the mayor right before he became unavailable for press interviews, guiding us and keeping us informed throughout the day.

We flew home the next morning, arriving in New York in the early afternoon. When I stepped out of the airport terminal doors to hail a cab, I realized too late that in my haste to get to Trinidad and Tobago, I’d worn only my suit jacket and forgotten my winter coat at the office. I waited in the cab line, full-body-shivering, periodically trying to crouch behind my suitcase to see if it would cut the strength of the wind. In stark contrast to balmy Trinidad and Tobago, a blizzard was descending upon the East Coast.

That afternoon, I dragged myself up the stairs into my apartment, bone weary and half frozen. It was Valentine’s Day, and though everyone I knew was getting ready to head out for the night, I wanted to be alone. I set down my falling-apart bag, took a hot shower, and settled down on my roommate’s expensive leather couch. Outside, snow flaked into the gray courtyard, muffling the city. A great stillness filled me, as if the hard, unfeeling thing that had calcified and taken up space in my chest these last months had melted, leaving only open air. I thought of the skeletal shadow of the trees in Queen’s Park Savannah, the dry pulling of Kee’s mouth on camera. I remembered the sound of the chanting crowd in the square, the voice of one lion-faced woman, courage and justice blazing in her face, her red hand-painted sign sailing above her head. I thought of Asami, the photographs of her face I’d pored over converging into a collage portrait: her crooked grin, her full cheeks, her bright hair, her sun-colored bikini, vibrant turquoise on her skin. One incandescent life, cut short. The hundreds of other lives that flared up, demanding justice for hers.

Four years later, Asami’s murder remains unsolved. I think of her often still, thought of her in the following months when I followed the Clinton and Trump campaigns, interviewing supporters and dissenters alike. I thought of Asami on election night in 2016, when I smoked a furious cigarette to mask rage-tears in an eerily empty Times Square, Donald Trump’s victory flashing on a giant screen. I thought of her again, almost a year later, when I stopped producing news, unable to justify giving my time and energy to covering the inauguration. I thought of her as I became not an observer but a protester myself. I think of her as I read and learn and grow, trying to write into existence better, more just futures. I think of her as I write this, as protests bloom across the city, as Black people lead so many of us in the struggle for abolition, reinforcing the lesson I learned in Port of Spain a thousandfold. I think of her now as I try to remain open, compassionate and tender. I imagine I will think of her always.