Story transcripts

Ships of Shame

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producer: Gareth Harvey

They are sold to us as floating pleasure domes - luxury hotels on the sea - where every day is perfect and the party never stops.

But scratch the surface of the cruise ship industry and the truth isn't so dazzling.

Behind the pina coladas and the smiles lies a murky world of sexual assault, drugs and violence, even murder.

Incredibly, one passenger goes missing overboard every two weeks.

Now, you'd think the big cruise companies would be desperate to get their industry shipshape.

You couldn't be more wrong.

Full transcript:

ALLISON LANGDON: On a balmy Brisbane afternoon, the Pacific Sun sets sail – the very picture of pleasure that the cruise ship industry likes to portray. You can see them all up on the railing there – come on, give them a wave! The 1,800 passengers onboard are looking forward to a three-day break from the worries of everyday life – but they’re oblivious to the risks they could be sailing into.

JEFF: Oh yeah, they’ll be fired up. Band will be playing, the drinks would be flowing. It could be a fantastic cruise or it could turn into a nightmare.

ALLISON LANGDON: Jeff Dobjeckie has seen that nightmare first-hand. The former P&O security guard spent 10 years mopping up the mayhem on cruises and he gave evidence at the inquest into Australia’s most notorious cruise ship death – that of Dianne Brimble.

JEFF: When you’ve got lots of alcohol and people on a holiday enjoying themselves, having a good time, there’s always that chance of something going wrong or someone doing something stupid.

ALLISON LANGDON: What sort of crimes did you have to deal with?

JEFF: Intoxication, domestic violence, man overboards, sexual assaults, there were fights all the time in the nightclubs and in the bars, deaths.

ALLISON LANGDON: When the Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy in January, 32 people were left dead and the sinister underbelly of this glamorous world was exposed – again. This $30 billion industry is largely controlled by just three global companies – and we travelled from Brisbane to Britain and the Bahamas to investigate them. What the thousands of people on this ship – and the millions who take cruises every year – aren’t told is that if they fall victim to crime on board they can expect little help from the cruise companies and virtually nothing from any police force. The fact is, a ship on the high seas is as good as lawless.

MIKE: I don’t think an hour doesn’t go without thinking of her.

ALLISON LANGDON: Mike and Ann Coriam’s daughter Rebecca vanished from a cruise ship in March last year. The 24-year-old had been working as a children’s supervisor onboard Disney Wonder.

MIKE: We got the phone call on the Tuesday night at 10:45pm from Disney to say that Rebecca was missing at sea.

ALLISON LANGDON: How do you deal with a phone call like that?

MIKE: Still very painful isn’t it? Still think about it every day. It was awful. It was a nightmare, really. That was the start of it.

ALLISON LANGDON: Rebecca was captured on the ship’s security cameras at 6:00am, making a phone call. She walked around the corner and was never seen again. A lone sandal on the level six deck is all that was ever found. Did you get the sense from Disney that solving Rebecca’s disappearance was a priority?

MIKE: To be honest, I think they were going through the motions with us.

ALLISON LANGDON: Rebecca is one of 200 cruise ship passengers to be lost overboard in the past decade – an astonishing rate of roughly one every fortnight. But what’s even more incredible is the way these disappearances are investigated. Rebecca’s case wasn’t handled by police in the US or the UK, but the place where the vessel was registered – in the Bahamas.

MIKE: this is not a proper investigation at all. It really isn’t, you know – it’s just case of they do what they have to do and that’s it. Gloss over it and that’s it.

ALLISON LANGDON: A single Bahamian police officer was sent to LA for one day to investigate Rebecca’s disappearance. He spent just a few hours onboard the ship, collected no forensic evidence and spoke to none of the passengers or crew. The Coriams were promised a police report within two or three weeks – that was nearly a year ago.

MICHAEL: It is not true that the Disney Corporation wanted this to go away.

ALLISON LANGDON: We approached the US-based cruise company Disney for an interview. They refused, and referred us to this man – Michael Crye, hired gun and the spokesman behind whom the cruise companies hide.

ALLISON LANGDON: Disney had an option in the Rebecca Coriam case to go to the FBI, go to Scotland Yard, and they instead chose a lone police officer from the Royal Bahamas Police Force to investigate the disappearance, potentially murder, of one of their employees.

MICHAEL: My understanding of the Rebecca Coriam case is that the United Kingdom was notified, that the Bahamas –

ALLISON LANGDON: The Coriam family says they were not.

MICHAEL: That the Bahamas were notified, that the United States government was notified.

ALLISON LANGDON: See, I would say that everything you just put to me is not true.

MICHAEL: Well, you know, I have been called a liar before but not based upon the information and belief that I put forward which I believe is true.

ALLISON LANGDON: Back on the Pacific Sun, dawn paints its way across the Pacific Ocean – it’s a tranquil start to day two. But what passengers don’t know is that if a crime is committed out on the high seas, it won’t necessarily be investigated by Australian police. That’s because the Pacific Sun is registered 16,000km away – in Malta. Do you think they have any idea that if something goes wrong on board that ship, that a police officer from a third world country is going to be sent over to investigate?

MICHAEL: I don’t know whether they know that or not.

ALLISON LANGDON: Nothing has rocked the Australian cruise ship industry so violently as the death of Diane Brimble in 2002. Less than 24 hours after boarding the P&O Pacific Sky, the 42-year-old mother of three was dead. She’d been drugged, her naked body found in the cabin of four men. Incredibly, there wasn’t one conviction.

JEFF: It was just a complete shemozzle, complete shemozzle. The crime scene was tampered with. No-one should have been allowed into that cabin whatsoever. That was a crime scene. 10 years later, Jeff Dobjeckie believes nothing has really changed. When a crime is committed, do the cruise ship companies investigated properly?

No, far from it, far from it. They want to push that under the carpet and get on with the business – they don’t want to tarnish their reputations.

ALLISON LANGDON: Out of all the crimes you saw, how many convictions?

JEFF: Never. Never Allison – never seen one conviction.

ALLISON LANGDON: It sounds like being on a cruise ship is the perfect place to commit a crime.

JEFF: You could probably get away with it Allison, you could probably get away with it.

TINA: So I was just in my room alone, just resting.

ALLISON LANGDON: January 1, last year. Tina and her mother Andy are on a 17-day Australian cruise on the Royal Caribbean ship, Rhapsody of the Seas. The 15-year-old is taking a nap alone in her cabin.

TINA: I heard the door open. The guy was wearing a crew uniform. The door closed behind him and that’s when I kind of almost froze.

ALLISON LANGDON: What followed was a nightmarish sexual assault – not by another passenger, but by a crew member.

TINA: Pretty much the entire time I was crying and closing my eyes and trying to think that nothing was really happening.

ALLISON LANGDON: Pretty tough to listen to Andy, how do you feel when you hear that?

ANDY: It affects me all the time. I just feel like I never let my guard down with my raising my kids.

ALLISON LANGDON: Royal Caribbean provided next to no help in trying to find Tina’s alleged attacker – and the company refused to talk to us.

ALLISON LANGDON: What happened to Tina – does that shock you?

JEFF: No that doesn’t shock me at all because these crew members have access to these cabins – whether it be from cabin stewards to the bar staff, doing mini bars. They have access to these areas.

ALLISON LANGDON: Until now, the global nature of the cruise ship industry – its many jurisdictions and ambiguous borders – has made it difficult to control. But Ken Carver is one man taking up the fight. You’ve taken on a very powerful industry.

KEN: I’m not intimidated by anybody. There needs to be independent security on a cruise ship. What city in the world – if they’ve got 300 people or 1,000 – doesn’t have an independent policeman so that if a crime occurs, action is taken? Every place except on a cruise ship.

ALLISON LANGDON: The reason for Ken Carver’s crusade is the mysterious disappearance of his daughter, Merrian, while she was on a cruise to Alaska in 2004.

Even though the crew noted she was missing – nothing was done, no-one was told and, at the end of the voyage, Merrian’s belongings were simply thrown away.

KEN: That was the worst day of my life, when I realised from the beginning that they knew and had lied to us and covered everything up. Why would somebody cover up? We’re not looking for a piece of lost baggage, we’re looking for our daughter.

ALLISON LANGDON: For Ken and for the Coriams, the ultimate hope is that those who go on cruises get the same protection at sea as they would on land so that

other families don’t have to endure the endless churn of questions they must face every day. Do you think you’ll ever find out what happened to Rebecca?

ANN: Hopefully we’ll find out one day because you don’t just disappear, do you, off a ship, without anybody seeing anything?

KEN: Somebody, somewhere on that ship knows something. We know that, don’t we?

ANN: Yep.

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