Photo/IllutrationTatsuma Hirao, center, is taken from the Hiroshima-Higashi police station in Hiroshima on April 30. (Koichi Ueda)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

HIROSHIMA--A convicted thief who eluded a manhunt involving thousands of police officers and swam across the sea was arrested here on April 30, 23 days after his escape from prison, sources said.

Tatsuma Hirao, 27, was taken into custody at 11:38 a.m. after Hiroshima prefectural police received a report from an Internet cafe at 11:25 a.m. that a man resembling the fugitive was seen near JR Hiroshima Station.

Police arrived at the scene and found Hirao walking on the nearby street. When he noticed the police vehicle, he dashed into an alley and tried to scale the fence of an elementary school.

But officers caught up with him before he could prolong his flight from the law.

Hiroshima is about 70 kilometers west from Mukaishima, an island that is part of Onomichi in the prefecture.

Police suspect Hirao had been hiding out on the island since he escaped from prison on April 8.

The closest point from the island to the central district of Onomichi on the main island of Honshu is only 200 meters away.

“I swam and crossed the sea,” a police source quoted Hirao as telling investigators.

Hirao was serving time for theft at Matsuyama Prison’s Oi shipyard in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture. The work facility is used for “model prisoners” and does not have an exterior wall like at an ordinary prison.

A surveillance camera showed a man looking like Hirao running away from the prison after 6 p.m. on April 8, according to Ehime prefectural police.

About an hour later, a vehicle was reported stolen from a parking lot near the prison.

Police also received a witness report that a man resembling Hirao paid a toll at Mukaishima, about 60 kilometers from Imabari, via the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido Expressway.

Thousands of officers were mobilized to search for the fugitive on the hilly island that is home to about 22,000 residents.

The abandoned vehicle was later discovered in a parking lot on Mukaishima.

However, police were unable to locate Hirao. Police sources noted that the island contains many vacant houses, and investigators would need permission from the owners to search within the buildings.

A flurry of thefts, including cash and a key to a vehicle, were reported on the island after April 8. Hirao’s fingerprints were found in two of the cases.