by robert stewart
Advocate staff writer
October 18, 2012
The incident began with a stop at the wrong house — and ended with the shooting death of a Japanese exchange student.
The ensuing furor and trials 20 years ago in East Baton Rouge Parish triggered international media attention.
Yoshihiro “Yoshi” Hattori and Webb Haymaker, both 16 at the time, were on their way to a Halloween party in Central on Oct. 17, 1992.
Hattori had been living with the Haymaker family in Baton Rouge as an exchange student at McKinley High School.
After getting lost and asking for directions, the pair made it to what they thought was 10131 E. Brookside Drive. Instead, they had parked at 10311 — the home of Rodney and Bonnie Peairs.
Hattori and Haymaker knocked on the front door. No answer. As they walked away, Bonnie Peairs opened the carport door, looking on while one of her children stood by her side. Frightened, she slammed the door and urged her husband to get his gun.
Rodney Peairs grabbed a .44-caliber Magnum revolver, opened the carport door, staying within the frame, and pointed the gun at the boys he thought might attack his home.
When Hattori saw the open door, he approached it quickly, possibly dancing as he went. “We’re here for the party,” he said over and over.
Haymaker yelled at Hattori to stop.
Peairs pointed the gun at Hattori, and shouted “Freeze!” The teen kept moving forward.
Peairs pulled the trigger. The bullet went through Hattori’s chest and out his back. He died on his way to a hospital.
Haymaker, now a 36-year-old psychotherapist living in Philadelphia, says he thinks about the death about once a month.
“I get kind of a shiver of sadness about it,” Haymaker said in a telephone interview.
Yoshi the dancer
Hattori, from Nagoya, Japan, arrived in the U.S. in August 1992. He was outgoing and easily made friends at McKinley High, Haymaker said. At football games, fellow students in the stands would chant Yoshi’s name.
“He was much more popular than I was,” Haymaker said.
Holley Haymaker, Webb’s mother, described Hattori as an energetic teen who loved American culture — and dancing. He took jazz dance lessons from a nearby dance school.
The Haymakers and Hattori had earlier met some teenagers at the Baton Rouge Blues Festival who told them a female Japanese exchange student lived in their old neighborhood.
The teens got Hattori in touch with the girl. His gregariousness earned him and Webb Haymaker an invitation to the Halloween shindig at her host family’s home on East Brookside Drive.
Hattori dressed as John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.” Webb had injured his neck and was wearing a brace, so he added a few bandages to go as an accident victim.
That night, Holley Haymaker and her husband, Richard, were on their way home from a movie theater when she received a page from an unknown number. They pulled over to a gas station and called the number from a pay phone. It was the Sheriff’s Central substation.
“They said, ‘There’s been a terrible accident. Your son is fine, but the other boy was hurt,’ ” she recounted. “I said, ‘Well, we should meet you at the hospital.’ And they said, ‘That will not be necessary.’ ”
Holley Haymaker said they called the Rev. Steve J. Crump, pastor at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, to set up a memorial and asked the American Field Service to notify Hattori’s parents.
The church hosted services the following Tuesday for a standing room only crowd that included the mayor, the police chief and representatives of the Japanese consulate, Crump said.
“I don’t think we were prepared for the onslaught of attention that this event brought, not only to Baton Rouge but the entire nation of Japan,” Crump said.
‘A mad house’
By the Wednesday after Hattori’s death, American and Japanese media had descended upon Baton Rouge. Rodney Peairs had originally been let go by the Sheriff’s Office the night of the shooting, but a grand jury eventually convened in November.
When a manslaughter indictment was handed down, the courtroom was “a madhouse,” said Tim Talley, an Associated Press writer who covered the Peairs trial for The Advocate in 1993.
“It was a sea of reporters from the front door all the way to the back surrounding (then-District Attorney) Doug Moreau,” Talley said. “It remained that way through the trial.”
Moreau decided to prosecute the case himself. Peairs enlisted the help of Lewis O. Unglesby, one of the best defense attorneys in town.
Unglesby, in a recent interview, described Rodney and Bonnie Peairs as kind people who were unexpectedly thrust into an international frenzy.
Opening statements were given May 20, 1993. Moreau, according to trial transcripts, argued that Rodney Peairs took enough time between grabbing the gun and opening the door to think clearly about the situation.
Unglesby argued Peairs acted in self-defense, truly believing somebody was going to invade his home.
Closing statements were made May 23, 1993. That same day, the jury took three hours and 20 minutes to render its verdict, finding Peairs not guilty of manslaughter.
“Occasionally in a case you come out and everybody’s really happy,” Unglesby said. “This wasn’t that kind of case. He was sad about what had happened.”
Peairs didn’t get away unscathed. Masaichi and Mieko Hattori, Yoshi’s father and mother, filed a civil suit against him in July 1993. A state district judge found Peairs liable for Yoshi’s death and ordered him to pay more than $653,000 in damages to the Hattoris. Peairs’ homeowners insurance paid most of the damages.
East Baton Rouge Parish clerk of court records show Bonnie and Rodney Peairs divorced in 1997.
Rodney Peairs declined comment for this story through his father, Stephen Peairs Jr. Bonnie Peairs could not be reached for comment.
In the weeks after the verdict, media outlets kept calling Unglesby. He traveled to New York for interviews and spoke from Baton Rouge to shows such as “Good Morning America.”
One media representative, he said, offered him $5,000 for three minutes with him and Rodney Peairs. Unglesby said no, even after the representative raised the offer to $10,000 for two minutes.
“He stopped me and he said, ‘Are you sure you’re really a lawyer?’ ” Unglesby said. “I died laughing after that.”
In November 1993, Talley went to Japan in a tour for a book he co-authored about the case, “Freeze.” Japanese media flocked him for interviews.
Talley recalled one Japanese media outlet asking him to compare crime in the two countries by going through what was considered a high-crime neighborhood in Japan. Talley said he looked around and saw no guns, so he saw no danger.
“They asked me, ‘Did you feel threatened?’ and ‘Would you mind writing an article that compares what we consider to be dangerous here as to what is considered dangerous over there,’ ” Talley said. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll try.’ ”
The Haymakers and the Hattoris, through the tragedy, have become close friends.
Webb Haymaker said he traveled to Japan to stay with the Hattoris as a senior in high school. He said Yoshi’s sister Sachiko showed him around town.
“They treat me like family,” he said. “They’re just extremely sweet people.”
Holley Haymaker said Sachiko Hattori has celebrated Christmas with them. Haymaker said she and her husband have been to Japan at least three times since the tragedy and the Hattoris have been to the United States at least once since the trials.
Peace stones from Nagoya, Japan, have rested at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge in Yoshi Hattori’s honor since 1996.
His parents could not be reached for comment for this story, but they are expected to attend memorial services at the Unitarian Church on Goodwood Boulevard at 7 p.m. Friday and 9:30 a.m. Saturday. Much of the discussion at those events is expected to focus on gun violence.
Holley Haymaker, who with her husband has become an outspoken advocate for tighter gun control, says she isn’t asked about the shooting much these days. But every once in a while, someone brings it up.
“I’m a fair bit older now, but people will look at me and say, ‘You look familiar.’ Total strangers,” she said.
Webb Haymaker, one of the last people to see Hattori alive, said he remembers a feeling of disbelief in the days and weeks after the shooting.
“It’s hard to fully comprehend what it means for someone to die when they’re 16 years old,” he said.
Haymaker said he just wants people to remember the impression the Japanese student made on the Americans he came to know.
“If he had lived, I’m sure he would have touched many people’s lives because he was so outgoing and had such positivity about him,” Haymaker said.