Assail on the Fun Ship

Carnival doesn't just neglect passengers who claim to be victims of sexual assault. It attempts to shut them up.

Worse was yet to come. On occasion crimes would be covered up, he laments. In three years with Carnival, Harris investigated allegations of assault, robbery, drug dealing, and, of course, rape. He submitted reports to the ship's captain or the staff captain (the officer in charge of personnel). The cases rarely made it off the bridge. "Nothing could happen onboard that ship without the captain's approval," Harris recounts. "He could close an investigation for reasons that had nothing to do with the merits of the case and often did!" The company paid the captains bonuses for each successful trip, Harris adds, so there was little incentive to be forthright.

Notifying land-based authorities of crimes was verboten, even though any victim on a cruise is entitled to help from American law enforcement. "In the time I was with Carnival, I was never allowed to contact the FBI," Harris asserts. "When a crime occurs, these [victims] don't know they have the right to contact the FBI. They aren't told. [Carnival] just wants it to go away. That's why everything ends up in civil court."

During the summer of 1991, Harris remembers, a large insurance firm rented the ship for a company outing. During the event a 12-year-old girl reported a man in uniform fondled her on the elevator. "So we started an investigation to find out who he is," Harris recounts. By the time Harris identified the suspect, the ship had arrived in port. "We never got to interview him. I told the staff captain, and the guy disappeared." The captain gave the girl's family a cabin upgrade and other perks, such as private tours of the bridge and private dinners.

Lawyer Gary Fox forced Carnival to reveal that dozens of crew members had been accused of sexual misconduct during the past five years
Steve Satterwhite
Lawyer Gary Fox forced Carnival to reveal that dozens of crew members had been accused of sexual misconduct during the past five years

In the early '90s, Carnival began aggressively marketing cruises to middle-income families. The company's pitchmen emphasized affordable stays, casual dining, fun, and gambling. To make this work, they began ordering new megaships, each with a minimum capacity of 2000.

This led to a surge in sexual harassment and general rowdiness onboard, Harris says. In 1992, for instance, he confronted about 40 obstreperous college students on spring break and a near riot occurred. In 1993 Harris tripped on an extension cord while chasing a drunk down some stairs and badly twisted his knee. When Carnival declined to pay all his medical expenses, he sued. The security chief and the company settled a few months later. Terms are confidential. "They have no loyalty to their employees," he says.

Harris subsequently opened a private security consulting firm, which he runs today. He also is an elected constable in Midland County, Texas.

All eight security chiefs hired by Joe Fields have left the company, replaced in nearly every instance by a foreign national with little or no law-enforcement experience. John Manuel, chief of security aboard the Fascination when Mary says she was raped, is a former hotel guard from India. José Buelto, the head of security aboard the Imagination, is a former ship's carpenter and teacher from Honduras. "Corporate doesn't want an aggressive law-enforcement team," Harris asserts.

Harris talks nostalgically about investigations he conducted at Carnival. Some of his most exciting work, it seems, was done in the ships' narrow corridors and on the airy decks. Moreover his tales offer a glimpse of the frequency and variety of crimes aboard cruise ships. Harris did not keep reports on the incidents, and the company declines to release crime statistics or reports, so New Times could not verify his recollections.

In 1991 Harris and his staff discovered counterfeit $100 bills had shown up in the ship's coffers. Harris contends he was zeroing in on a suspect when the captain discouraged him from pursuing the matter, and the case was dropped. Neither the captain nor Carnival ever contacted U.S. authorities. Later, Harris claims, he discovered crew members were smuggling marijuana and even detained one of the lawbreakers. But the captain released the suspect and sent him home. When Harris encountered the drug smuggler in an elevator, the man threatened him. "He told me, 'I'm gonna kill y'all.'"

It is difficult to determine the level of such crime onboard Carnival's ships. The company argues that theft, assault, and the like are infrequent but declines to elaborate. Harris and several lawyers interviewed for this story say crime is more common than most tourists would expect. Although Carnival vowed this past July, in the wake of a high-profile rape case filed by lawyer Gary Fox, to release internal reports to the FBI, the bureau could not determine whether such reports had been submitted despite several requests from New Times.

While it's unclear whether Fox's case forced any general disclosure of crime statistics, there have been other repercussions. When Judge Steve Levine compelled the company to turn over a list of 108 incidents of allegedly improper sexual conduct by crew members, it made headlines across the nation. Less publicized was the fact that, in nearly every instance, the accused employee was terminated and spirited out of the country. (In the only incident that made it to trial, the jury deadlocked, and the alleged assailant was freed.)

Lawyer Michael Eriksen, who has sued Carnival and other cruise lines about a dozen times in the past ten years, says the records confirm a pattern he has observed. "Typically when the cruise line assists these people out of the country, they know they are suspects in a criminal act," he asserts.

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