Assail on the Fun Ship
After four days of looping around the Caribbean, the Carnival Cruise Lines ship Fascination eased into its berth at Port Canaveral, Florida, on the morning of July 23, 1998. Legions of flushed, sunburned tourists descended the gangplank, luxuriating, no doubt, in the last few hours of their tropical escape before returning north and west into America's belly. Long after the last sun-drunk vacationer sped off in a shuttle bus to the hotel, Mary lingered in her cabin as the fog of sedatives gradually wore off.
For most of the journey, Mary had been a virtual prisoner. She rarely ventured outside, ordering all her meals from room service. Throughout the day she swallowed tranquilizers prescribed by the ship's doctor.
This was not what she had anticipated.
The recently widowed housewife from Georgia had invited her daughter-in-law Janice (both women's names have been changed for this story) on the $1200 vacation following a tragic year. First Mary's husband of 15 years suffered a fatal heart attack during the spring. Six weeks later her father died. Then, on July 1, Janice had a miscarriage. Both women hoped the sea air and unbroken horizon would provide a salty balm.
Instead their journey mutated into a fear-filled odyssey.
On the night the ship left port, a cabin steward named Juan Arietta carried the women's bags to their room. He questioned Janice about Mary. "He asked if she was married and did I think she liked him," Janice recalls. "He kind of gave me the creeps." Later Arietta returned and knocked. He said he needed some papers signed so the women could use the room's safe. Janice left to explore the ship.
Then, Mary claims in her lawsuit, Arietta made his intentions known. Violently. She asserts the eight-year Carnival employee, whom the company says had a spotless record, pushed her down on one of the beds and raped her. She reported the incident immediately to ship personnel, who questioned Arietta. He denied the charge. The vessel was not outfitted with a rape kit, which includes tools to preserve evidence and is commonly used for examining victims, so the ship's doctor performed a pelvic exam.
The next day the Fascination docked in Freeport, Bahamas. Officers handed Mary and Janice a bag containing the only evidence they had collected: the dress and underwear Mary had worn the night before. They hadn't interviewed any passenger, nor had they removed the sheets from Mary's bed. A taxi took the two women to a doctor's office, where they waited for hours without seeing a doctor. Finally the cabbie drove the women to a hospital, where a physician did a second exam. Hospital workers kept the bundle of clothes.
Ship authorities clearly weren't looking out for Mary's best interest, Janice maintains, especially when they prescribed the downers. "They did it to keep her quiet, so she wouldn't go around upsetting people on the ship," adds the young woman, who was 19 years old at the time. "I knew what they were doing."
When Mary and Janice walked off the ship in Florida, they were led to a trailer, where FBI agent Cliff Botyos and his partner awaited them. The investigators listened to the women's stories and determined the outlook was not promising. Potential witnesses had not been interviewed, valuable evidence had not been gathered, the crime scene hadn't been secured, and the clothing had been left behind in a foreign land. The lawmen decided they had no choice but to drop their probe. (Eighteen months later Bahamian authorities still have not released the results of the rape test.)
Carnival, meanwhile, flew Arietta back to Costa Rica. His superiors termed the trip "medical leave."
Later that year Mary sued the cruise company in Palm Beach Circuit Court, accusing it of negligence and "spoilation of evidence." She alleged Carnival intentionally flubbed the investigation. "This sort of incompetence happens so often, it implies to me there's almost a conscious pattern of indifference, if not concealment," says her Lake Worth lawyer, Michael Eriksen, who has handled nearly a dozen sexual-assault cases against cruise lines. "It's a criminal-investigation system that's almost calculated to fail."
Carnival executives emphatically insist they do everything in their power to cooperate with authorities, especially when crew members are suspects. "We don't want to give even the slightest appearance that we're covering things up or not interested in full disclosure and justice in each of these cases," Carnival president Robert Dickinson said during a deposition in a recent civil lawsuit. In that case a ship's nurse accused an engineer of sodomizing her during a 1998 voyage. Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Steve Levine ordered Carnival to disclose more than 100 allegations of sexual impropriety by crew members -- from gropings to rapes -- that had occurred during the past five years. Responding to those numbers, Dickinson proudly noted, "[T]here was not one criminal investigation or one criminal trial that resulted in a guilty verdict in any of these allegations."
That's a telling statement. Despite 22 accusations of forcible rape, not one person was successfully prosecuted. While Dickinson may boast of the record, lawyers who have confronted Carnival say the reason is less than admirable; the company thwarts investigations to protect itself from civil lawsuits and damaging publicity. "How do you expect to get a conviction when you're starting four or five days late, the evidence is cold, and suspects disappear?" asks Charles Harris, a former chief of security for Carnival, who has testified against the company in numerous cases. The faulty investigations, he adds, are "by design. If they wanted [these cases probed], they could do it."
Carnival's behavior has recently caught the attention of law-enforcement agents and legislators from Washington, D.C., to South Florida. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami convened a grand jury in October 1999 to study whether the company obstructed justice in the nurse's 1998 rape case, court documents show. One chief area of inquiry: Did Carnival executives purposely usher the suspect out of the country before FBI agents could interview him? (The executives contend the episode was the result of miscommunication.) The grand jury subpoenaed the nurse, several Carnival employees, and at least two former employees, among others. If the grand jury finds sufficient cause, the company could be criminally indicted.
Also this past October, Congress' Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee held hearings on passenger safety aboard cruise ships. That gathering was prompted by news accounts of fires, mechanical breakdowns, and sexual assaults. (The rape claims were first detailed in The New York Times and the Miami Daily Business Review.)
Wayne Gilchrest, the Republican representative from Maryland who chairs the subcommittee, argues the industry needs more supervision. "We should have annual oversight hearings," he says, to ensure the safety of U.S. passengers. Before a Senate subcommittee the same month, Republican presidential candidate John McCain warned a cruise line trade organization: "You've got a credibility problem right now."
Resentment against the cruise industry has been simmering for years. Carnival, like the other major lines, doesn't answer to American authorities. Its ships are registered in countries other than the United States, primarily Liberia and Panama. Such a strategy has benefits besides avoiding law-enforcement oversight. Carnival pays no tax. Foreign registry also allows the company to dodge U.S. labor laws.
When a crime occurs onboard, it's often unclear who should investigate. A U.S. citizen who is victimized in international waters can contact the FBI. If the ship is in port or just off the coast at the time, the local police force has jurisdiction. Indeed, according to lawyers who have sued the cruise giant and according to ex-employees contacted by New Times, the company routinely tries to dissuade victims from reporting such unpleasant incidents.
In five lawsuits against Carnival reviewed by New Times, reporters turned up behavior that cruise patrons might find alarming. The company helped at least five employees accused of rape to leave the country, fought to keep a waiter accused of attacking a Minnesota woman from being sued, fired nurse Cathy Wieland after she cooperated with the FBI, and so bungled the gathering of evidence in Mary's case that lawmen had no choice but to cut short their investigation.
Authorities should have stepped in long ago, cruise line critics argue. "The U.S. government has the power to reform things," attorney Michael Eriksen says. "U.S. passengers are the lifeblood of the cruise lines. [Congress] can simply pass a law that if a crew member commits a crime against a passenger on a ship, they automatically accede to U.S. law as a condition of employment." Whether Congress will act "depends whether the will and conscience of our elected representatives can withstand the lobbying efforts of the cruise industry," notes Miami attorney Gary Fox, who represented the nurse who claims she was attacked.
If Carnival has become a leviathan, Charles Harris is its Captain Ahab. Unlike Melville's hero, though, Harris has found that throwing barbs at the massive white ships and their owners requires little sacrifice. In fact it pays quite well. Since leaving his job as security chief on the Jubilee in 1993, Harris has worked as an expert witness at a rate of $95 per hour in 38 cases filed against not only Carnival but also Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.; Norwegian Cruise Line; Princess Cruises; and Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, Ltd.
Harris is an imposing, six-foot-three-inch, 47-year-old Texan, who is one-eighth Native American. The son of a horse trainer and the grandson of ranchers, he grew up in the rural western part of the Lone Star State. Early on, he recalls, a local sheriff's influence helped steer his interests from horses to police work. While studying law enforcement at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, during the late '70s, Harris moonlighted as a state corrections officer. Then he spent nine years as a sheriff's deputy in two Texas counties, while doing postgraduate work in criminal justice. (In 1997 he finished correspondence courses at LaSalle University, in Lafayette, Louisiana, and earned a Ph.D.)
In the late '80s Harris segued from police to private security work, taking a job with a company that provided protection for executives. While in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm, he met Carnival's then-director of security Joe Fields, who offered a tantalizing description of life at sea. Although the $24,000 per year pay was low, the job would offer travel to tropical islands and more. And there would be opportunity for advancement, Fields said. He planned a reorganization that would add a chief of security on each ship. Harris was hooked.
Fields hired Harris in 1991. Soon after the Texan signed on with Carnival, he recalls meeting other new hires with law-enforcement backgrounds. Before sending them to their ships, the security director provided his new staff with training in investigating crimes, antiterrorism tactics, and accident inquiry. Then Harris was assigned as chief of security aboard the Jubilee, which docked in Los Angeles. The glamour of the new job soon dulled, he says, when he realized his force was understaffed and underpaid. He would supervise five or six security guards, who were mostly from South and Central America and spoke little English. Their training consisted of a 40-hour course, and they earned about $400 per month, he says.
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.
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.
In 1993 a 31-year-old Minnesota woman hired Eriksen to sue Carnival and a waiter named Hitesh Panchal in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. She claimed the 28-year-old native of Bombay, India, had sneaked into her cabin on the Festivale while she was getting dressed in the bathroom on May 6, 1992. According to a report the woman filed with Barbados police, "I then asked him what he was doing in here. He pinned my back against the closet and then started kissing me. I told him, 'Don't,' and he continued kissing me. The next thing I knew my pants were down."
Nothing came of the Barbados cops' investigation, and neither the woman nor Carnival contacted the FBI. Although the company sent the waiter back to India, it recalled him to work on the Jubilee. A process server found Panchal at the dock in Los Angeles in 1993.
Carnival's lawyers continued to protect Panchal. They filed a motion arguing the Indian couldn't be sued in U.S. court because American laws do not apply to him; not only is he a foreigner, the company argued, but the alleged crime took place in Barbados on a ship registered in Panama. The move was successful. Although Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Kroll denied Carnival's motion to dismiss, the Fourth District Court of Appeal overruled the decision and dismissed the case against Panchal. To Eriksen and his client, it seemed Carnival would do anything to help this man. Although the suit against Carnival remained, the company later settled the case for an undisclosed amount.
Eriksen also sued Carnival on behalf of a passenger who accused cabin steward Oscar Costley of entering her room during the night of April 5, 1990. The alleged victim claimed Costley climbed on top of her while she was sleeping and fondled her. Both the woman and her roommate assert they scared away the steward by screaming. Costley apparently used a pass key to open the locked door.
Perhaps most alarming, the woman says she complained to ship security but nothing happened. In the initial draft of the complaint, Eriksen referred to the suspect anonymously because Carnival refused to divulge the steward's name. When the company finally identified Costley, Eriksen learned he had been sent back to his native Honduras.
Carnival's vice president of public relations Tim Gallagher vigorously denies the company does anything improper or illegal. He questions the credibility and motivation of critics like Fox, Eriksen, and Harris, maintaining the cruise line follows the letter of the law as well as a carefully delineated set of investigative procedures. Trained personnel study all allegations of wrongdoing, and if a victim wants to report a crime, the findings are turned over to authorities. If fired employees are foreign, by law Carnival must send them home immediately.
Several company officials, including Gallagher and Carnival lawyer Curtis Mase, challenged Harris' attacks, arguing the former security chief has it in for the company because he is dissatisfied with the settlement of his lawsuit. "Charles Harris is a disgruntled former employee who professes to be an expert on Carnival," Mase says. "I don't think he's much of an expert on anything." Mase says he is working on a lawsuit in which Harris purports to know about the Mexican tour buses used by cruise lines. He has virtually no knowledge of the buses, Mase contends.
"He has no credibility," Gallagher adds.
Gallagher also contests several of Harris' comments about company policy. Among the misstatements, Gallagher says, is the assertion that the former security chief was not allowed to contact the FBI. "That's misleading," Gallagher offers. "Incidents get reported by the home office, not by the chief of security." He also questioned Harris' allegation that Carnival higher-ups were given incomplete descriptions of alleged crimes at sea. "That's not true. The captain can't stop reports from getting to the office."
"I'm not disgruntled," Harris counters. "I don't go headhunting for Carnival." And, he adds, no judge has ever challenged his credibility as an expert witness.
The events that would put the world's largest cruise line in the cross hairs of the U.S. Attorney's Office began the night of August 12, 1998, as the Imagination sailed from Miami to the Caribbean. New Times culled details of the incident from depositions of Carnival executives and internal memos. The events, never before reported in the media, are crucial to understanding both the way Carnival executives handle victims' complaints and the federal grand jury probe. Were mistakes and miscommunication merely the result of incompetence? Or do the executives' confusing answers to lawyers' questions mask an attempt to help a suspected rapist flee justice? The jury is still out.
The voyage on Imagination was to be the last on-duty trip for Jane (not her real name), the ship's head nurse, a petite 27-year-old from New England who had been with Carnival for three years. Several weeks earlier she had decided it was time to move on and accepted a job at a hospital up north.
During the first evening at sea, she took time off to minister to her injured right knee. As she reclined in her cabin, Yurij Senes, a 29-year-old, bushy-haired, bespectacled ship's engineer from Italy, tapped on her door. Jane says Senes had already professed his attraction to her, but she told him she wasn't interested. Nonetheless the two had become friends, often playing video games in his cabin. She let him in.
"He came over around 9:30 p.m.," Jane wrote in a statement for the Imagination's security department describing that night's events. "He was very nice, bringing me soda and getting ice for my knee. I was unable to bend my knee at all, and was very uncomfortable. We were watching TV and talking. He had brought a bottle of wine with him and he drank the whole bottle as the night progressed." Senes said he had to work at 5 a.m. in the engine room and begged to be allowed to sleep in her cabin until his shift began. There would be no hanky-panky, she said. He promised to be good. "He was nice and respectful to me and acted like a gentleman, so I felt I had no reason to fear him," she wrote. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt, Jane prepared to go to sleep. Because of her injured knee, she allowed Senes to help her climb into bed. As he tucked her in, he tried to kiss her. "I told him to just leave if he couldn't keep his hands to himself," she wrote. Senes apologized and said "he just wanted to be near me." She allowed him to stay.
At 4 a.m. he got up to go to work. Before leaving he asked her for a kiss. He was insistent, she stated. She allowed one kiss, hoping that would get rid of him. Then he wanted another one. He began groping her. She told him to stop. "He kept saying he likes me very much, he needed me, and 'wanted to feel my skin' . He did not stop; he kept touching me and pulling at my clothes. He turned me over, even though I told him he was hurting me . I constantly said, 'Stop, I don't want to do this. Just go away.'" Senes held her down, she wrote, covered her mouth with one hand, and sodomized her. "It only lasted a few minutes," she recalled. By then she was crying hysterically. He tried to comfort her and made her give him a kiss before leaving for work.
Jane was hysterical throughout the morning. At 8:30 a.m. she went to the infirmary to talk to a fellow nurse and friend, Cathy Wieland, but couldn't find her. Jane returned to her room, then walked again to the infirmary at 11 a.m., to no avail. Eventually she found Wieland, who convinced her to tell the ship's officers of the rape. By 2 p.m. Jane was recounting the episode for the ship's chief of security, José Buelto. A little later, to prove her story, she lured Senes to an empty cabin and secretly turned on the intercom. Buelto, Wieland, and staff captain Vito Giacalone listened in.
"She asked him, 'Why did you do this when I kept telling you no?'" Wieland says. "His exact words were, 'Because I am an egoist.'"
There's a debate about what happened next. Carnival attorney Curtis Mase contends Jane hesitated, asking Buelto to wait before contacting law-enforcement agencies. "Carnival had wanted her to go to the authorities," Mase says. "Carnival at all times was convincing her to proceed reporting this to authorities." Company lawyers advised Jane's superiors to do nothing without the victim's consent, he says.
But Fox and Wieland dispute Mase's account. "That's complete bullshit," Fox says; he argues the company attempted to discourage her reporting the crime by stalling.
Adds Wieland: "I was with her the whole time. They didn't encourage her to report it. They just kept saying, 'What are you going to do? What are you going to do?' I kept telling them that she doesn't need to make a decision right away."
On the day before the Imagination docked, August 14, the company came up with two reasons to fire Senes: He drank wine before work and showed up late. Ostensibly the rape allegations were irrelevant. By the time the ship cleaved the waters off Government Cut, sailing past South Beach to its pier at the Port of Miami, the captain had already signed the termination notice.
Once Senes was fired, his visa automatically expired, and the clock started ticking on his stay in the United States. According to federal rules, Carnival had to send the engineer home immediately, the company contends. But Fox and Wieland argue Carnival should have held Senes or turned him over to authorities.
About 7 a.m. August 15, Carnival corporate security agent Kenneth Bissonette boarded the vessel and interviewed both Jane and Senes. Bissonette handed Jane a letter stating, "We understand that you may have experienced a problem with Mr. Senes Yurij [sic] . Please note that if you intend to make a report to the authorities, Carnival will cooperate fully ." He asked her to sign. She did.
The agent was not helpful, Wieland says. "We had to really press him to make arrangements for her to go ashore and get medical attention," she recalls. "Bissonette said, 'We don't know how we can arrange for this, pay for it, and keep her name out of it.' He kept putting it off."
Jane then made a decision. She told Bissonette she wanted to go to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Rape Treatment Center and meet with the FBI. Although Senes at that point became a suspect in a major felony, Carnival did not put the brakes on plans to deport him. By then Carnival higher-ups were exchanging a flurry of phone calls. After interviewing Jane, Bissonette called Robert Beh, vice president of surveillance and security. Beh in turn called Brendan Corrigan, vice president of operations. Bissonette, Beh, and Corrigan all phoned the Carnival agent who was holding Senes.
Over at the hospital, FBI agents Nesbitt Kuyrkendall and Alexis Carpinteri interviewed Jane. At 2:15 p.m. they called Bissonette and said they wanted to talk to Senes. No problem, Bissonette said. He passed the request on to his superiors.
But the company had already booked Senes a seat on a 5 p.m. British Airways flight back to Italy. Although agents tried to set up a meeting at a U.S. Customs office at the airport, the Carnival employees say they became confused. They held Senes at the departure gate. When the FBI agents didn't arrive, the Carnival guards allowed Senes to board. "[We] had an order from immigration to put him on the plane," Corrigan said during a deposition. "[We] also had an order to make the guy available before the plane left, and as far as I'm concerned [we] did that, but the FBI didn't turn up."
Attorney Gary Fox wonders why Carnival executives didn't order their people to detain Senes. "It's real simple," Fox sighs. "When the VP of operations is involved, all he has to say is 'Keep him there.'"
Wieland met with the FBI and testified before a grand jury considering Senes' case. On September 15, a month after the alleged rape, the Italian engineer was indicted for sodomy. Italian police are holding him pending extradition to the United States, which he is fighting. In November 1998 Carnival declined to renew Wieland's contract. She is suing the company, alleging she was terminated in retaliation for cooperating with the feds. "Oh, [Carnival] likes to cover stuff up all the time," Wieland says.
As The New York Times and other media pummeled the industry and Congress planned hearings this past summer, the International Council of Cruise Lines, a trade group, announced that its members, including Carnival, would voluntarily report all major crimes to the appropriate authority. No longer would they agree to honor victims' requests to withhold information about major crimes. The ships also started carrying rape kits for the first time in the company's history.
Jane Doe settled her case with Carnival for an undisclosed sum this past December. Carnival did not admit to any wrongdoing in the matter. Mary's case is pending. So is Wieland's whistle-blowing complaint. As of press time, there was no word on whether the grand jury had completed its inquiry into Carnival's mishandling of the Senes affair.
The prospect of congressional action still lingers. If lawmakers believe the cruise lines were repeatedly violating U.S. laws, they could limit their access to U.S. ports. "They really need to do something," comments Janice, whose 1998 trip was ruined after her mother-in-law reported being raped. "Things like this are bound to happen every once in a while, and they should treat people good when they do."
Contact Tristram Korten at his e-mail address:
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