FBI files tell of brutal attacks on the high seas amid fear crime is underreported

By M.L. Nestel and Deborah Hastings
The Daily

Some 12.3 million passengers sailed on U.S. cruise ships in 2011 — but there were only 16 serious crimes reported as investigated and cleared by the FBI last year, igniting concern on Capitol Hill that attacks and sexual assaults on the high seas are vastly underreported.

The cases investigated by the bureau included several horrifying sexual assault allegations, according to a summary of FBI files obtained exclusively by The Daily:

  • In March 2011, a Carnival Cruise Lines passenger said she had been sexually assaulted. “The passenger alleged that the crew member gave her tablets and raped her,” an FBI summary of the case says. “She could not remember anything due to intoxication and the tablets. She tested positive for [date-rape drugs] THC and BZO. The crew member denied the allegation. She did not want to pursue the matter or press charges.”
  • Another Carnival passenger said she was victimized that same month. “The female passenger alleged that an unknown male passenger urinated on her while she was sleeping. Several days later, she further alleged the same subject sexually assaulted her.”
  • In February, a Royal Caribbean International crew member said he had been raped. “The male victim crew member alleged he was sexually assaulted by another crew member in the cabin. The victim reported he was passed out drunk and woke up in extreme pain in his anus, with the subject attempting to hide his private part.”

The small number of incidents reported by the FBI in 2011 are less than half the number reported a year earlier. In an even sharper contrast, 363 complaints were recorded in a nine-month period ending in 2008, according to documents. Those disparities both puzzle and anger members of Congress and victims’ advocates, who helped pass last year’s Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act. The measure is designed to improve onboard safety by requiring, among other things, that cruise operators beef up their reporting of suspected criminal acts.

Cruise lines were required to report to the FBI for investigation serious crimes involving U.S. citizens on the high seas, such as cases of theft over $10,000, sexual assault, assault with serious injury, and suspicious deaths.

“With only three crimes reported by the FBI in the second half of 2011, and 16 for the entire year, it is unclear at this point whether the reporting provisions of the law are being properly executed,” Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., wrote to the FBI last week.

Matsui, the act’s co-sponsor, asked Congress to examine whether the new law is being upheld during hearings next month on cruise ship safety. The hearings were prompted by the Jan. 13 Italian luxury liner disaster that killed at least 17 people and generated intense scrutiny into safety measures practiced by an estimated $29.4 billion-a-year global industry.

Activist Kendall Carver, whose 40-year-old daughter, Merrian, was lost at sea on a 2004 cruise from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., told The Daily that cruise lines and the FBI aren’t reporting every criminal accusation from passengers, but rather cherry-picking which incidents to investigate.

“They are literally deciding which cases to go after … And if they don’t close the file, there is no crime,” Carver said.

He and other advocates said there has been no explanation for the glaring drop in reported crimes.

Cruise line officials deny underreporting criminal acts committed at sea, saying the low numbers from 2011 simply represent low crime.

“There aren’t that many crimes being committed,” said Charlie Mandigo, a former FBI agent and current director of safety for Seattle-based Holland America Line, owned by Carnival Corp., which also owns the cruise line that sailed the doomed Costa Concordia ocean liner. “Just because cruise lines have a good record doesn’t mean there are crimes on the ships,” said Mandigo.

Even when onboard tragedies are reported and investigated, some families feel doubly victimized.

Louise Horton, 70, lost her daughter, Mindy Jordan, on a 2008 Norwegian Dawn cruise to the Caribbean. The 46-year-old nurse was traveling with her boyfriend, Jorge Caputo, who Horton claimed was physically abusive. Jordan fell overboard about four hours after departing New York City. Horton says investigators never pursued her contentions that her daughter’s boyfriend may have been involved in her death.

“I felt that the FBI wanted to get rid of [the case] as fast as possible,” she said.

The FBI declined to comment specifically on cruise cases but denied any wrongdoing. Norwegian Cruise Lines has said surveillance video showed Jordan fell overboard while alone in her room, apparently while trying to climb from one balcony to another.

“I think [crimes] are tremendously underreported,” said maritime lawyer Charles R. Lipcon. “I think the cruise lines have set up their own criteria … The problem is, if the cruise line doesn’t believe what happened constitutes a crime, they don’t report it.”

Lawyer Jim Walker, who used to represent cruise lines and now sues them on behalf of passengers and their families, says the FBI is reluctant to pursue onboard cases for a variety of reasons — including overlapping jurisdictions and crime scenes that aren’t properly maintained, meaning there can often be a scarcity of admissable trial evidence.

“Those are the type of shenanigans we see in these cases,” Walker said.

For their part, the maritime industry steadfastly defends cruise lines, saying they strive to uphold high standards.

“In general, these things are run like precision machines. They run like the Navy,” said J. Kevin Lally, a consultant and marine insurance specialist. “The cruise lines are so conscious that their reputation is made on a person-to-person basis on that ship.”

But, he added, onboard problems are often caused by passengers themselves. “When people get onboard a cruise ship they start drinking and they don’t stop. It’s a fraternity party at sea for grown-ups … These passengers get bloody stoned.”