Cruise Ship Crimes – Suspicious Deaths

While reports of assault, theft and sexual assault are common on cruise ships, homicide and suspicious deaths occur less frequently.

The term suspicious death refers to death that is unexpected, and that cannot be explained medically. Usually, the term is used in relationship with suspected criminal activity or suicide.

Suspicious Death Statistics

In 2016, there have been four suspicious deaths. All four cases involved the death of passengers. The situation was the same in 2015 when four passengers once again died under suspicious circumstances.

In 2014, there was a total of six suspicious cruise line deaths. All individuals killed were passengers. According to the US Department of Transportation, the number of people who died under suspicious circumstances in 2013 was two. These individuals were cruise line passengers.

Of all the passengers who were killed in 2016, two were traveling with Carnival Cruise Lines, one person was aboard a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship, and one person was traveling with Royal Caribbean.

The suspicious deaths that occurred in 2015 involved three Carnival Cruise Lines passengers and one Norwegian Cruise Lines passenger.

Finally, the statistics for 2014 suggest that two people died suspiciously aboard a Princess Cruises ship, one lost their life aboard a Celebration Cruise Line ship, one aboard a Royal Caribbean ship, one was a Holland America Cruise Lines passenger, and one chose the services of Norwegian Cruise Lines.

Applicable US Laws

Cruise lines operating in the US have to follow a number of important regulations aimed at offering protection to both passengers and crew members. One of these regulations is the US Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010.

The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act makes it obligatory for all companies in the field to make crime statistics public. This is the main reason why the US Department of Transportation publishes detailed crime reports that provide information about the kind of offense and the cruise ship on which it has occurred.

All cruise line crime stats can also be accessed on the United States Coast Guard website.

US Code Title 46, chapter 35 § 3507 also features provisions aimed at enhancing cruise ship safety. For a start, vessel owners are required to have video recording equipment for crime surveillance. Law enforcement officials should be granted access to such records in the case of a crime being committed.

Finally, the code also envisions having a security guide made available to all passengers. The aim of this guide is to establish procedures for medical emergencies, as well as criminal offenses. Also, the guide should also list the jurisdictional authority that is applicable in the case of a homicide, a suspicious death, a kidnapping or assault.

The guide gives information about the appropriate law enforcement authorities for reportable crimes that occur in US territorial waters, on the high seas or in a country that is going to be visited during the cruise.

Whenever a crime like a suspicious death occurs in US territorial waters or on the high seas, FBI is the entity that has investigatory authority. The nationality of the perpetrator and the victim will also have to be taken into consideration, however. FBI’s jurisdiction is outlined in Section 7 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code. According to the section, FBI will be the investigatory authority whenever:

  • The ship is a US-owned vessel, regardless of the flag under which it sails (this law applies regardless of the nationality of the victim and the perpetrator)
  • The offense was committed either by or against a US national
  • The crime occurred in US territorial sea – 12 miles from the coast (regardless of the ownership of the vessel or the nationality of perpetrator and victim)
  • Either the victim or the perpetrator is a US national on a cruise ship that either departed from a harbor in the US or is expected to arrive at one

International Laws and Jurisdiction

Maritime law could be murky because jurisdiction may be difficult to determine. A few common provisions apply to such situations, however.

Whenever a suspicious death occurs within 12 miles from the coast of any country, the respective national laws will apply. The same applies to internal waters like bays and ports.

Whenever a crime occurs in the contiguous zone (12 to 24 nautical miles from the coast), a country will have limited jurisdiction. This means that it has the right to prevent fiscal and customs infringements. In cases like criminal offenses, the territorial jurisdiction of a country could potentially be extended to the contiguous zone.

A crime that occurs in international waters will usually be examined under the laws of the country under which flag the cruise ship is sailing.

In the News

A few instances of suspicious deaths on cruise ships have generated a lot of media interest and attention.

Some of the newest occurrences of suspicious death haven’t been featured in Department of Transportation reports for 2017. In July, a woman died under suspicious circumstances aboard a Princess Cruise ship in Alaska.

FBI announced that it’s currently carrying out an investigation pertaining to the suspicious death of Kristy Manzanares, aged 39. The woman died after a domestic dispute that was witnessed by some of the 3,400 passengers and 1,100 crew members of the Emerald Princess. The ship was set to take a scenic tour around Tracy Arm Fjord when the crime was reported, and FBI introduced a lockdown to interview anyone who may have information or suspected of the crime.

The death occurred aboard a Sydney-based liner operated by Carnival Australia. Since the death occurred in US territorial waters off the coast of Alaska, FBI would be the entity that has jurisdiction over the investigation.

One of the most prominent and spoken-about cases occurred in July 2005. George Smith IV was on his honeymoon. The young couple had chosen a Royal Caribbean cruise aboard Brilliance of the Seas. The man eventually disappeared, and his family members were all convinced that he was thrown overboard.

FBI carried an extensive investigation into the disappearance of Smith. It was eventually closed in the first month of 2015 because the bureau didn’t find enough evidence of a homicide. Because of inconclusive evidence, it was possible for his death to be the result of an accident rather than a deliberate homicide attempt, FBI concluded.

According to report Smith’s disappearance occurred after a night of heavy drinking. The ship’s captain was quoted as saying that the death was likely an accident. Smith’s family insisted on it being a homicide and even offered an award of 100,000 dollars for anyone who would come forward with information.

Another instance of suspicious death occurred in 2013 when a 62-year-old Royal Caribbean passenger was found dead by her husband in their cabin. The couple was traveling from Baltimore to Florida and the Bahamas.

FBI waited for the ship upon its return to Baltimore, and this was when the investigation was launched. Initially, the FBI refrained from releasing the cause of death. Eventually, investigators concluded that the woman had died of natural causes – hypertensive cardiovascular disease. During the course of the investigation, FBI detained a number of passengers and interviewed them in connection with the suspicious death.

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