Unsolved crimes on cruise ships leave families with many questions, few answers

Photo by Free-Photos/Pixabay

By Bilin Lin
BU News Service

To many, an ocean cruise sounds like a dream. There’s plenty on offer to entice travelers, with days spent relaxing on deck and nights enjoyed with live entertainment, cocktails and casinos.

It sounds like the perfect vacation, but it might also be the perfect place to commit crimes—and get away with them.

“If you want to murder somebody, take them on a cruise because you are never gonna get caught,” declared Jamie Barnett, speaking from the experience of herself and families like her.

She is not joking. 

Barnett’s daughter Ashley died on a Carnival Cruise from an overdose of methadone while traveling with her boyfriend and two other couples in 2005. 

The cause of death shocked Barnett, since the 25-year-old was opposed to drug use. Indeed, an autopsy found no traces of drugs in her hair follicles, a sign that would indicate chronic use. The case, taken over by the FBI, remains unsolved.

Her death – and the lack of resolution – is not an isolated incident.

According to CruiseJunkie.com, a website run by Canadian sociologist Ross Klein, more than 300 people went overboard while on cruises between 1995 and 2019. More than a third of those who were reported missing, while others were reported as suicides and jumps. Family members fear some of the missing were kidnapped or murdered. However, arrests and convictions rarely follow such events.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, two U.S. citizens disappeared while on cruises during the three month period from July 1, 2019, and Sept. 30, 2019. Records also show 35 allegations of sexual assault, two cases of aggravated assault, five thefts of more than $10,000 and two attempts of sabotage reported to the FBI.

The actual number of crimes committed could be higher since the data only accounts for crimes involving U.S. nationals.

Barnett and several others founded a nonprofit organization, the International Cruise Victims, after her daughter’s death. Since it began in 2006, the ICV has gained over 200 members in over 30 countries.

“The cruise lines don’t want any of these stories getting out there. They do their best to keep everything quiet and to minimize any foul play that could possibly have existed,” Barnett said, adding that the cruise lines fear bad publicity and potential loss of clients. “They clean the cabin before the FBI can get there and investigate, leaving very little evidence behind.” 

Gorge Allen Smith IV, 26, was on Royal Caribbean International’s cruise ship Brilliance of the Seas on a honeymoon with his new wife Jennifer Hagel Smith. He vanished after spending one night drinking with four men whom he had met on the cruise. His wife had left the gathering after an argument, according to CBS News.

CBS reported the four men claimed Smith was drunk, so they took him back to the room and left together afterward. Neighbors, however, said they only saw three men leaving, and they heard voices of two males arguing and furniture moving.

That was the last time Smith was seen alive, according to reports.

A bloodstain was discovered on the ship deck under Smith’s room and small marks of blood were found on the bed sheet.

Turkish police opened an investigation and soon concluded that Smith accidentally went overboard.

The room where Smith and his wife stayed was then cleaned by staff on board, who said Turkish police permitted them to do so, according to an article in the New York Times.

By the time the FBI stepped in, two days later, there was little evidence left. Smith’s family have said they don’t believe his disappearance was an accident.

In an email, Royal Caribbean declined to comment.

The cruise ship Costa Pacifica. Photo by neufal54/Pixabay

Because there is no law enforcement on board ships, cruise lines employ security staff. When a crime occurs during a cruise, victims report it to the staff members, who then report to the captain of the ship. The captain will then report it to the country where ship is registered. That country will then decide if they are going to do anything. 

Martin J. Davies, a professor of maritime law at Tulane University, believes the whole process is problematic.

“If someone does report, for example, a sexual assault, to one of these security officers, the security officer is supposed to tell the master of the ship,” Davies said. “But if they do anything about it, then the cruise line is going to worry that it’s going to have civil liability for not preventing the assault. So an awful lot of stuff just doesn’t get reported because there’s no independent law enforcement.”

The family of Amy Lynn Bradley have said they think the 23-year-old might have been found if the cruise ship treated this matter seriously. Instead, the cruise line didn’t want to make a fuss, according to Bradley’s mom, Iva Bradley.

The Bradley family was on the Royal Caribbean International’s cruise ship Rhapsody of the Seas for a family trip traveling from Aruba to Curacao. 

Iva Bradley said her daughter left the room in the early morning on March 24, 1998, according to a statement on the ICV’s website. 

When Bradley couldn’t be found, her family immediately reached out to the crew, asked the ship to secure its exits when docking, and requested that Amy’s picture be shown to the passengers on board.

The cruise ship refused both requests, saying it would “cause disturbance to other guests,” and only searched common areas and restrooms, according to Iva Bradley.

The family said Bradley got unwanted attention from some of the crew members. They also saw people on board who were not passengers on the cruise while docked in Aruba.

The FBI stepped into the investigation the day after the disappearance, but by then the cruise had already stopped in Curacao with people disembarking and coming on board. 

Amy Lynn Bradley remains missing to this day. A picture on the internet of a woman who looked like Amy dressed in an exposing outfit has led to speculation that she may have been abducted and forced into prostitution. The FBI has offered up to $25,000 for information leading to her recovery or arrests and convictions.

Both cases illustrate some of the issues faced by victims and their families when seeking justice or even just answers.

When it comes to crimes on international waters, help can be thousands of miles away. Maritime law dictates once a ship is in international waters 12 nautical miles from the coastline — slightly less than 14 miles — jurisdiction over an investigation falls on the country wherever the ship is registered. 

Many big cruise companies register their ships in countries like Panama, the Bahamas and Bermuda for tax purposes. As a result, evidence and even the victim could be long gone by the time authorities reach the scene of the crime.  

Davies, the Tulane maritime law expert, doesn’t believe cruises’ registration countries, like the Bahamas and Bermuda, really care when a crime happens on the ocean. He noted that there are so many cruises registered under those countries they “would have to have an enormous police force” to designate to crimes committed on cruise lines.

Additionally, when a crime is reported, the ship could be thousands of miles away from the country responsible for investigating it.

Rebecca Coriam, of Chester, England, was a crew member on the cruise ship Disney Wonder. The 24-year-old was last caught on camera looking distressed while on the phone in the crew quarters wearing baggy men’s clothes in the early morning of March 22, 2011.

The police reported Coriam had sex with a male crew member from Central America before she was caught on camera, according to the United Kingdom based publication, the Mirror. According to reports, her family believes there was foul play involved.

When Coriam didn’t show up for work and was nowhere to be found, Bahamian police, who were 1,500 miles away, were called in to investigate.

One Bahamian police officer showed up and followed the correct protocol for investigating a missing person, including collecting forensic evidence and conducting interviews.

Coriam remains missing.

Disney Cruise Line could not be reached for comment.

Photo by MustangJoe/Pixabay

For cases in international waters involving U.S. citizens, the FBI can be brought in to investigate. The U.S. is the only country in the world that has this privilege, according to Davies.

For prosecution, there is also no clear international law establishing which country gets the jurisdiction to do so, Davies said. If the flag country decides to not pursue a case, the U.S. could prosecute the crime.

Davies and Barnett both said the FBI don’t often intercede in cruise crimes, especially the ones that are “less serious,” such as sexual assaults, Davies said.

“The FBI would have to be waiting for the ship when it returned to the U.S. and then detaining the person alleged to have done the effect,” Davies said. “They’ve got, at least what they think, better things to do.”  

Even if the FBI did step in, there might be little to no evidence left at the crime scene. Not only are passengers and crew members coming and going but authorities outside of the country where the ship is registered could also become involved.

“Say [crimes] are on the high seas, and the next stop is a port in Mexico. The ship has to notify the port they are entering in Mexico that a crime scene is entering their port,” Barnett said. “Then they have a right to come on the ship and investigate.”

Barnett explained that this process repeats at every port the ship stops in, rendering the crime scene almost useless.

“There’s no evidence left, whatsoever that is, that would stand up in the court,” Barnett said. “All these people have trampled through the crime scene. And, in most cases, the cruise line will clean it.”

Davies thinks this makes a cruise an ideal place to commit a crime and get away with it.

“You are just much, much more likely to get away with it. It will be hard to find you,” Davies said. “Then the ship’s going to put into some port and you just get off the ship.”

The families of those who died or went missing on the cruise might not even be eligible for compensation.

Cruise lines may be able to avoid compensating families for the death of loved ones because of a century-old law. The Death on the High Seas Act, a bill that passed in 1920, provided compensation to the families of those who died at the sea through a wrongful act, like negligence on behalf of the ship owner. 

In order to receive compensation, however, the recipient has to be financially supported by the family member lost on the ship.

Barnett was not entitled to anything from Carnival Cruise Line; she said it was horrible that the lives of those who died on cruises are “worth nothing.”

The group continues to fight for cruise victims, even traveling to Washington D.C. every year in the hope that new legislation will pass that can better protect passenger and victims’ interests. Ultimately, change has been slow.

ICV pushed for the 2010 federal law that required cruise lines to install peepholes on cabin doors. Other changes that could make cruises safer for passengers and crimes easier to investigate were not adopted until laws required them.

“It took legislation to make them put peepholes and safety latches on doors. It took legislation to make them have rape kits on cruise ships and antiviral medication,” Barnett said. “So many things that you would think would have been voluntarily done.”

Carnival Cruise Line deferred questions to Cruise Lines International Association, and did not respond to further emails.

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