Cruise ship death spotlights murky waters of fatalities at sea

Cruise ship passenger Katherine Kennedy was found dead in her cabin earlier this week, casting a spotlight on a murky maritime justice system.

When 64-year-old Katherine Kennedy was found dead under suspicious conditions in her cabin on the Enchantment of the Seas Royal Caribbean cruise liner, the ship was already on its way back to its Baltimore base. Once the liner docked, the FBI boarded and collected the body, along with any evidence, and left. By the following day the Enchantment was already back at sea.

When Royal Caribbean was contacted about the death, it released a statement, saying in part, "On March 24, 2013, the guest was found by her husband deceased in their cabin. As is our standard procedure, both the FBI and local law enforcement were notified." Earlier today, the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s office determined that Kennedy died of heart disease.

While the death turned out to be from natural causes, the flurry of attention around it was the latest in a long line of cruise liner hardships that have made headlines.

In February, passengers on Carnival line’s Triumph were stranded in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico for a week, with no running water, little food and problematic sewage conditions. Last year’s Costa Concordia disaster was far more serious, with 32 people killed after the ship ran aground. Unconfirmed reports say a passenger went overboard on the Coral Princess this past weekend, but Princess Cruises did not respond to requests for confirmation.

According to David Peikin of the Cruise Lines International Association, between 2003 and 2012 there were 59 fatalities resulting from ships’ operations, out of 239 million passengers who sailed.

That number does not include people who went overboard or who died of natural causes. Most cruise passengers are older, so heart attacks are not uncommon.

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Ross Klein, a professor of sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, chronicles the cruise industry at his website, Cruise Junkie, and writes about the industry for a variety of publications. He says that while there aren’t many murders onboard ships, when they do occur, the wheels of justice grind slowly.

In the case of one passenger, Lonnie Kocontes, Klein says that his ex-wife, Micki Kanesaki — who was also his cabin mate — vanished from the ship in 2006. "It took until just this past month for him to be charged with her murder." 

Kocontes was arrested in the death of Kanesaki, who the Associated Press reported "plunged onto the Mediterranean on May 26, 2006, off the Island Escape, which was sailing between Sicily and Naples, according to the FBI. Her body washed ashore the next day in Calabria in southwest Italy."

In the recent cruise ship death, a local Baltimore CBS affiliate spoke with a passenger named Terri, who was onboard the Enchantment of the Seas at the time of Kennedy's death.

"They padlocked the door and there was a guard standing in front of it," she told reporter Derek Valcourt. Passengers, she said, were kept in the dark about what had happened and were left to speculate. "Rumors spread rapidly," she said. "First we heard it was a murder-suicide. They tried to keep it hush-hush on the cruise — I’m sure they didn’t want people panicking."

While the FBI has jurisdiction over murders committed on the high seas, until the ship docks, unarmed security guards do as much as they can to contain the situation.

"There’s nobody on board qualified to do a criminal investigation," says Klein, "so they seal the scene until they can bring someone on from land."

If the ship is still a couple days out of port, “they have medical personnel take possession of the body and put it in the ship morgue where it’s held until they get to a port that could take the body.”

According to Klein, nearly every ship has a morgue, capable of holding two to three bodies. And if there are more than three? “They go in the refrigerator.”

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Jim Walker, author of the website, Cruise Law News and a lawyer specializing in maritime law, criticizes what he sees as the cozy relationship between the FBI and the cruise industry. "This is going to make me sound paranoid," Walker says. "But Gary Bald, the director of security at Royal Caribbean, was one of the senior directors of the FBI for 28 years. He has relationships with all the FBI guys."

Special Agent Rich Wolf of the Baltimore FBI says that the rules for keeping a ship that’s also a crime scene from sailing out are murky. "We would hope that the Royal Caribbean authorities — or any cruise company — would recognize the importance of our investigation and hopefully cooperate without legal injunctions." Wolf adds that Royal Caribbean has been fully cooperative with the investigation.

While Kennedy’s death was ultimately found to be a by-product of illness, not foul play, it still sheds light on the unusual procedures crimes at sea go through. So the moral is: it’s buyer beware. "The FBI doesn’t have the resources to act like a real watchdog agency over all the crimes that happen on cruise ships," says Walker. "So only a small number of these cases actually get prosecuted."

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