CRUISE LINES: Missing cruise cases spur calls for scrutiny

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

BY AMY MARTINEZ
[email protected]
February 12, 2006

CRUISE LINES
Missing cruise cases spur calls for scrutiny

Watching the news, you’d think cruise-ship passengers getting lost at sea was an epidemic:

Irish teenager Lynsey O’Brien, lost near Mexico last month.

Canadian Jill Begora, missing off the Bahamas in December.

Connecticut honeymooner George Smith, presumably overboard in the Mediterranean last summer.

But is this really a growing problem resulting from poor safety practices, or something else?

The cruise lines say people need not worry — the crime rate on ships is very low. They say 15 people have disappeared from their ships in the past two years, out of more than 20 million people who took cruises during that time period. And most, they say, were the result of suicide, not foul play, as is suspected with Smith.

But families of missing passengers say that while more people than ever are taking cruises, no law enforcement agency tracks crime on cruise ships, and the cruise ships are reluctant to talk about it. They say that makes it difficult to know just how safe cruise ships are.

“If somebody’s going to visit a foreign country, they can go on the Internet and find out about crime in that country,” said Brett Rivkind, a Miami lawyer who helped organize a new group devoted to cruise-crime victims and their families. “But they can’t do that with the cruise ships.”

Publicity over the Smith disappearance — which has the FBI investigating the possibility of murder — is prompting Congress to take a closer look at cruise safety.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican whose constituency includes the Smith family, is organizing a hearing on the issue for March, his second in three months. Shays said he’s concerned that crimes on cruise ships are more common than statistics from the FBI suggest.

“I think we need honest statistics, and I think the way we get honest statistics is if we require it under law, with penalties if they don’t give it to us,” Shays said in a recent phone interview. “I want to know how big the problem is.”

Tracking crime on cruise ships is complicated by the fact that most carry foreign flags and have operators that are incorporated in other countries such as Liberia and Panama, Shays said.

‘PRETTY SAFE’

But the cruise lines disagree that more scrutiny is needed, especially when the same is not being proposed for hotels and other vacation destinations. They say cruising is about as safe a vacation as anyone can take.

“I think that once a thorough investigation is conducted by Congress, they’ll come to the conclusion that, hey, cruise ships are pretty safe,” said Bill Wright, senior vice president of fleet operations at Royal Caribbean International, the Miami-based cruise line that’s at the center of the Smith tragedy.

The FBI investigated 10 cruise-ship disappearances from 2000 to 2005. That’s fewer than the number of missing in just the past two years, a distinction probably explained by the fact that the FBI didn’t have jurisdiction in every case, said Chris Swecker, assistant director of the agency’s criminal investigations division.

The publicity over missing passengers also has raised questions about how the cruise lines report crimes to law enforcement. Because most ships are foreign-flagged and sail outside U.S. territorial waters, “jurisdictional and bureaucratic tangles” can arise and impede criminal investigations, Shays said at a December hearing. “Passengers cannot assume the protection of U.S. laws,” he said.

The FBI investigates cases involving American citizens aboard ships departing or arriving at U.S. ports — though it might investigate others, Swecker said. He added that he’s encouraging cruise industry leaders to “err in favor of over-reporting.”

“If it involves a U.S. citizen, our contention is that it should be reported to us and then we’ll sort it out,” he said.

The cruise lines say they notify the appropriate authorities about all crimes and already lean toward overreporting. “Anytime there’s a question of whether or not to report, we report,” said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, an Arlington, Va., trade group.

John DiPaolo, an FBI agent who oversees criminal investigations at South Florida’s seaports, agrees. He said the cruise lines contact his office about criminal incidents even when the FBI might not have jurisdiction.

“We have very open lines of communication,” DiPaolo said. ‘We’ve never had an instance where I went to them and said, ‘Hey, you should have reported that to us.’ ”

DOWNPLAYING CASES

But James Walker, a Miami lawyer who represents Smith’s wife, said he’s concerned that the cruise lines don’t report missing passenger cases right away, and then when they do, they downplay the possibility of foul play to avoid negative publicity.

He said cruise ships should be required to carry a federal security force, so that an independent team of investigators could take over when crimes occur.

“The cruise lines do not want bad things to happen to their passengers,” said Charles Lipcon, a Miami lawyer who’s suing Carnival Cruise Lines on behalf of a 37-year-old Wisconsin woman who disappeared in December 2004 near the Mexican coast. He supports the idea of a federal security force.

“But when something goes wrong, they take it as a bad press kind of thing — let’s hide the ball and hopefully people won’t hear about it,” Lipcon said.

Another point of contention is whether cruise ships have enough surveillance cameras. Families of missing passengers say more are needed to prevent crimes and aid investigations.

Kim Petersen, president of Fort Lauderdale consulting firm SeaSecure, estimates cruise lines have spent tens of millions of dollars on security for their ships. As a result, he said, people are 20 to 30 times safer on a cruise ship than in the average American city.

“No one has to take a cruise, and the moment the public believes cruising to be a risky enterprise, the cruise lines will suffer,” said Petersen, who provides consulting services to the cruise lines. He was head of security for Princess Cruises during the 1990s and doesn’t “remember ever being denied funding for a security upgrade.”

Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines believes its ships already are “pretty well covered,” said spokesman Tim Gallagher. He added that some passengers might reject more surveillance cameras as an invasion of their privacy.

“We walk a very fine line,” he said. “We have to respect a certain amount of privacy for our guests, who are on vacation.”

But Shannon Nowlan, whose brother Chris Caldwell disappeared from the Carnival Fascination in July 2004, said she wishes a camera had captured him going overboard. Then, she said, she could feel some “closure.” Caldwell’s body was never found.

“There’s no question in my mind that he’s gone. But there are times when I’m walking down the street and I see someone who looks like him. For a split second, I think, is that him?” said Nowlan, a stay-at-home mom living in Atlanta. “It’s very difficult, and it always will be.”