Cruise Ship Crimes in International Waters

Allegations of theft, assault and even murder aboard cruise ships have prompted hearings in Congress over ways to deal with cruise ship crime. Eric Weiner reports on the complications of handling crimes that occur in international waters.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, two families switch racial identities to see life from the other side.

ADAMS: But first, a House panel in Washington today held a second day of hearings on crimes committed aboard cruise ships. The number is still relatively small, but the incidents are increasing in frequency, and some in Congress want something done. NPR's Eric Weiner has the report.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

Cruise lines are in the business of selling fun and indulgence.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Announcer: (In clip from "Black. White.") Our gracious crew is capable of truly remarkable feats of intuition, and they're renowned for remembering your personal preferences. Somehow, they know just when you need an extra pillow, a bit more lemonade, or a towel.

WEINER: The message is clear: cruises are all about escape. Escape from the world of bills and traffic and the boss, and, certainly, escape from crime. But that's not always the case. In the past five years, the F.B.I. has opened more than 300 cases of crimes committed at sea. At least 28 people went missing, simply vanished. Kendall Carver's daughter disappeared from a Royal Caribbean cruise in Alaska.

Mr. KENDALL CARVER: Her belongings were put into a locker, then given to the manager of the hotel, where they were disposed of, and in effect, our daughter disappeared from the face of the earth.

WEINER: Carver says his efforts to find out what happened to his daughter have been met with roadblocks at every turn.

Mr. CARVER: If something happens to you or a loved one on a cruise ship, you are on your own. Don't expect the crew of the ship, our governmental agencies-- which I would include the F.B.I.--onshore, to assist you in your effort. You're on your own.

WEINER: Carver says he spent $75,000 of his own money on lawyers and private detectives, but four years later, he still doesn't know what happened to his daughter. At the Congressional hearing where he testified yesterday, several other witnesses told of crimes unpunished, and they claimed cover-ups on the part of the cruise ship companies. Deborah Schaffer(ph) says her 15-year-old daughter was raped on board a cruise ship. The other voice you hear on the tape is that of Connecticut Congressman Christopher Shays.

Ms. DEBORAH SCHAFFER: They look for ways to weasel out of taking responsibility for helping solve the crime.

Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): Can you give me an example of what you mean?

Ms. SCHAFFER: Well, for instance, when I took my daughter three days in a row, asking for an examination, a rape examination, and they would, the doctor would just sit and stare at me--and sit and stare and stare and stare, and never anything. And, he said to me that I was traumatizing my daughter.

WEINER: Prosecuting crimes committed at sea is extremely difficult. Only 16 percent of all murders and 7 percent of sexual assaults led to convictions or plea bargains, according to F.B.I. statistics. There are a number of reasons why. Crime scenes are often contaminated, since no police are onboard the ships. Who has jurisdiction depends on where the ship happens to be located when the alleged crime is committed.

And if it's in international waters, something called admiralty law applies. It's up to the captain of the ship, for instance, to decide whether to incarcerate someone suspected of committing a crime. If a U.S. citizen is involved, then the F.B.I. does investigate. But many victims say, often too late.

Ms. JANET KELLY: Law enforcement totally failed me. I'm sorry, but it did.

WEINER: That's Janet Kelly, who says she was raped by a bartender onboard a cruise ship. Some in Congress are pushing for tighter regulation of the industry, but the cruise companies are resisting. They acknowledge a few hundred crimes have been committed onboard their ships in recent years, but during that same period, more than 31 million people took cruises. Lawrence Kay, a lawyer who represents many cruise lines, says even the cases of sexual assault, the most common type of crime committed at sea, are extremely rare.

Mr. LAWRENCE KAY (Attorney for cruise lines): When you factor in how many of the incidents involve passengers, it works out to less than four claimed sexual assaults per million carried, which ironically, happens to be the exact same statistical chance of a person being struck by lightning.

WEINER: And, despite concerns about crimes committed at sea, cruises are more popular than ever, with the number of passengers expected to surpass 15 million by the end of the decade. Eric Weiner, NPR News, Miami.

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