Cruise industry's dark waters

Times Staff Writer

Kimberly Edwards boarded Majesty of the Seas for her 40th birthday expecting a vacation to remember.

But three days into the five-day Bahamas cruise that was a gift from her fiance, a drunk passenger followed Edwards into a women's bathroom and sexually assaulted her, groping her through thin stretch pants, she said.

To Royal Caribbean, the incident was not something it needed to share with congressional staff members investigating reports that cruise ships had become floating targets for criminals.

Executives in the $32-billion industry insist that their ships are safe and that they take all the necessary steps to safeguard their passengers. Edwards and others say that crime aboard cruise liners is becoming more common but that the incidents often go unresolved. As the number of people taking vacations at sea grows by about 8% each year, passing the 12-million mark worldwide last year, safety on liners is coming under increasing scrutiny by tourists and lawmakers.

Testifying under oath before a House subcommittee, industry executives said that from 2003 to 2005, 178 passengers on North American cruises reported being sexually assaulted, 24 people went missing and four others were robbed.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the world's second-largest cruise operator after Carnival Corp., accounted for 66 of the 178 reports of sexual assaults. But internal company records turned over as part of a civil lawsuit -- and obtained by The Times -- revealed that at least 273 people told Royal Caribbean that they had been the victims of sexual assault, battery, harassment and inappropriate touching during a shorter time period.

Whether Royal Caribbean should have reported these numbers to lawmakers remains in dispute. Industry representatives, including people from Royal Caribbean and Carnival, say they testified honestly before Congress, reporting the most serious sex crimes, using federal laws as a guide.

"The statistics ... were 100% accurate," said Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival.

The industry has downplayed the crime threat.

"The way they normally operate is to protect their legal and economic interest first and foremost," said Ross Klein, a professor at the school of social work at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's, Canada, who has written three books critical of the industry after taking 30 cruises.

At least 17 people fell overboard or simply disappeared while on cruises throughout the world in 2006, according to news reports and Klein's research. Hundreds more reported being victims of crimes.

One case, the disappearance of Connecticut honeymooner George Smith IV in July 2005, remained talk show fodder for months and prompted his congressman, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), to summon cruise line representatives to answer safety questions.

Industry executives say cruise lines hire their own security personnel as well as firefighters, doctors and nurses. X-ray machines and metal detectors screen passengers and baggage. Security cameras also monitor shipboard activities, they say.

"A person on a cruise is many times safer than a person on land in the United States," Royal Caribbean spokesman Michael Sheehan said.

But the congressional hearings and interviews with cruise experts revealed that there was little agreement on which laws apply when passengers become crime victims in international waters. No single agency tracks cruise crime data. U.S. courts have ruled that cruise lines have no legal duty to investigate crimes.

Victims and their relatives have banded together to push for more regulation of the industry. A year-old organization, International Cruise Victims, boasts hundreds of members from nine countries. Websites document "sick ships," missing passengers, violations of labor practices and other problems.

"I don't think they've ever had to deal with anything like this," said Bree Smith, George Smith's sister. "They've managed to cover up and go on with their profit making."

Smith's wife, Jennifer Hagel Smith, settled her suit against Royal Caribbean. A suit filed by other family members is pending. The company has said it responded promptly and compassionately and cooperated fully with investigators.

Shays has sponsored legislation that would require the operators of liners calling at U.S. ports to report crimes involving U.S. citizens to the Department of Homeland Security within four hours or face fines up to $250,000. The proposed legislation, which also would require that crime reports be posted on the Internet, is likely to be reintroduced soon. The industry says that it already reports crimes and that a new law is unnecessary.

At several points in the hearings, when cruise line representatives extolled their safety statistics, Shays seemed skeptical. "I do not think we have all of the statistics," he told representatives of major cruise lines.

Shays' concerns later proved valid, said James Walker, a Miami attorney who handles only cases against cruise lines.

Walker received Royal Caribbean's spreadsheets showing the 273 reports from passengers who said they were victims of sexual assault, battery, harassment and inappropriate touching.

The company released the report in a pending lawsuit involving 12-year-old twin girls who alleged that a crew member molested them.

Royal Caribbean has filed court documents denying responsibility.

The cruise line handed over the internal records requested by Walker after a judge threatened to fine it $1,000 a day if it failed to comply.

"They redefined things and in the process, magically, poof, what used to be a crime no longer existed," Walker said. "Then they served up these numbers and thought they could get away with it."

Florida court order

A Florida court in November ordered Carnival to produce similar records in a case involving a teenager who said two men lured her to their cabin while she was intoxicated and raped her.

Carnival denied the allegations. It paid an undisclosed sum to settle the case without admitting liability.

Shays said that congressional staff members would study the new documents to determine whether Royal Caribbean gave an accurate portrayal of safety on its cruise ships.

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) said in a recent interview that she wanted cruise lines to explain the discrepancy in the statistics and would consider calling another hearing. She plans to cosponsor a new version of Shays' bill.

"Quite frankly, I'm concerned. I see families going on cruises, little kids ... young women. I think we have to get to the truth of the matter," she said.

Lawrence Kaye, an attorney representing the trade group Cruise Lines International Assn., said the cruise companies compiled their statistics by defining sexual assault "as broadly as we thought it could be defined."

"For people to claim we hid something, I can tell you now, is grossly unfair," Kaye said.

The trade group said it relied on four federal laws that define certain sex crimes. For reports to be included on the list, most victims had to be threatened with violence or to experience actual or attempted penetration.

The laws chosen by the industry did not extend to passengers who said they were groped, were subjected to indecent exposure or had crew members enter their rooms without permission to proposition them.

In Edwards' case, a drunk man followed her into the bathroom on the Majesty of the Seas and said he wanted his picture taken with her. She agreed but, according to Edwards, the man shoved his hand into her crotch and grabbed her breasts.

When Edwards and her fiance pointed out the man to the ship's security personnel, they declined to detain him, she said.

"They told me guys get drunk all the time and go into the ladies' room. Just deal with it," said Edwards, who has filed a lawsuit.

Royal Caribbean said crew members witnessed "nothing akin to a sexual assault."

In responding to Edwards' lawsuit, the company said her actions contributed to the incident. The cruise line denied responsibility.

Both Edwards and Royal Caribbean reported the incident to the FBI, but agents told her there was nothing they could do, she said.

An FBI spokeswoman in Miami said agents interviewed Edwards but not the alleged assailant because he declined to be interviewed. The agents presented the case to the U.S. attorney's office, which determined that there was insufficient evidence to file charges, she said.

Although cruise lines voluntarily report some crimes to the FBI, there is no way to confirm that they notify authorities of all crimes. No law enforcement agency staffs the ships. Days can go by before the start of an official investigation into the report of a crime.

Critics have long accused the cruise industry of flying under the regulatory radar screen. Cruise lines operate under "flags of convenience" issued by such countries as Liberia, Panama and the Bahamas. They pay little in U.S. corporate income taxes and do not need to adhere to U.S. labor laws on board ships. Most crew members are of foreign nationality, and they have minimal job security and receive low pay for long hours, industry experts say.

When industry attorney Kaye analyzed Shay's bill, he wrote in an e-mail to the industry group: "Obviously the most problematic issues are making the reported info public."

In an interview, Kaye said the industry, although "not particularly troubled" by publicizing shipboard crime statistics, does not want to publicly identify victims or suspects.

But some victims say one example of how cruise lines minimize bad publicity occurred during a fire aboard Princess Cruises' Star Princess while it was en route to Jamaica in March. Thirteen people suffered injuries when a blaze damaged 300 rooms. Another passenger, Richard Liffridge of Locust Grove, Ga., who was celebrating his 72nd birthday, died of smoke inhalation.

Victoria Liffridge recalled that she and her husband crawled along a passageway filled with thick, black smoke as flames shot above their heads. It was "like being in an oven," she said.

The couple became separated. "The last words I heard him say were, 'Vicky, don't let me die,' " she said.

Victoria Liffridge crawled to safety, only to be told later that her husband had not survived. When she identified his body it was covered in soot from head to toe.

In hundreds of news stories aired and published in the first days after the fire, Princess Cruises initially said that Richard Liffridge died as the result of a heart attack.

It was "a total coverup," Victoria Liffridge said.

Princess Cruises spokeswoman Julie Benson said that the company regretted its inaccurate statement: "It was what we understood from the medical team on board to be the fact," she said, adding that the company corrected the cause of death as soon as executives learned of the error.

Critics acknowledge that the industry has made some progress in responding to crimes and reports of missing people -- but only after a high price was paid.

Royal Caribbean changed its procedures to require exiting guests to swipe their computerized ID cards to track when passengers disembark. The change came after 40-year-old Merrian Carver disappeared during an Alaskan cruise in 2004.

Royal Caribbean did not report her missing to the FBI until five weeks after the cruise ended and a week after being contacted by Carol and Ken Carver, the missing woman's parents.

A room steward reported Carver missing to a supervisor for five consecutive days during the cruise but was ordered to "continue to do your job," according to his deposition in a civil lawsuit filed by her parents.

"They never planned to tell anybody," said Carol Carver. "It was heartless."

Ken Carver said, "It's the ideal place to commit a crime, and that is the last message the cruise industry wants to get out."

At every turn, the Carvers said, the cruise line stymied investigators hired by the family, rarely returning phone calls or e-mails.

Parents seek information

They said they received responses to most of their requests only after Ken Carver spent $75,000 on lawyers and investigators and testified before Congress.

The company fired the supervisor who failed to report Merrian Carver's disappearance, but executives maintain that she committed suicide. They say she bought a last-minute ticket, boarded with few belongings, and had once attempted suicide.

"The sad reality is that in any case where parents lose a child, even an adult child, there is probably nothing we or any company could do that would make the parents feel the company had acted sensitively enough," said Sheehan, the Royal Caribbean spokesman.

Maritime attorney Brett Rivkind, who testified during the congressional hearings and represents George Smith's family in a pending lawsuit, said the industry's explanation rings hollow: "The defense that it's just an honest mistake raises eyebrows when you have a history of an industry that lied to the U.S. government.

"The cruise ship industry is like Las Vegas: What happens on cruise ships stays on cruise ships," Rivkind said.

kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Rough seas

Royal Caribbean's internal documents show 273 reports of sex-related shipboard incidents from 2003 to 2005.

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Number of incidents

Sexual harassment: 99

Sexual assault: 81

Inappropriate touching: 52

Sexual battery: 28

Others: 13

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Cruise lines' share of the North American market

Carnival: 51.6%

Royal Caribbean: 33.2%

Norwegian Cruise Line: 9.6%

Disney Cruise Line: 4.1%

Other: 1.4%

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Note: Carnival includes Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Cunard Line, Costa Crociere and P&O; Cruises. Royal Caribbean operates Celebrity Cruises.

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Sources: Royal Caribbean Cruises, Cruise Lines International Assn.

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