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Cruise ship crime `low priority'

The handling of a rape allegation reflects lines' laxness and the FBI's limits, critics say.

March 26, 2007|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

After Laurie Dishman reported to Royal Caribbean crew members that she had been raped by a security guard, she recalled, the purser and the head security officer sat on her bed -- the alleged crime scene -- and suggested that she learn to "control her drinking."

The ship's doctor, she said, handed her two gray garbage bags and told her to "collect the evidence" in her cabin herself.

"In no way while I was on the ship did I feel like they were taking care of what happened," Dishman said in an interview, recounting that night 13 months ago as Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas cruised the Pacific en route to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. "Nothing was professional."

The 36-year-old Sacramento resident -- who is suing Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., alleging negligence -- is expected to be one of the key witnesses Tuesday in Washington before a House subcommittee examining crimes on cruise ships.

Accounts such as hers have put cruise operators and the FBI on the defensive.

Royal Caribbean, which disputes Dishman's contentions, says millions of Americans vacation on cruises without incident each year, giving the industry an enviable safety record. And the FBI, which investigates some crimes involving Americans on cruise ships, cites insufficient evidence or resources as impediments to pursuing certain cases.

But passenger safety advocates, led by the group International Cruise Victims and by Dishman's congresswoman, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), say her case highlights concerns that the $32-billion industry takes a lax approach to crime.

Critics accuse the industry of having downplayed the number of sexual assaults in testimony at a previous congressional hearing. Further, they say that investigations can be shoddy or incomplete and that few crimes aboard cruise ships lead to arrest or prosecution.

"It's a very low priority," Charles Lipcon, a Miami-based maritime attorney who represents plaintiffs in lawsuits against the cruise industry, said of the FBI's approach to cruise crimes. "I call them 'pretend investigations.' They pretend to investigate and nothing happens."

FBI officials declined to comment in detail until after Tuesday's hearing, the first called by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

But they reiterated the bureau's commitment to "addressing piracy and serious criminal acts of violence" and working with the cruise industry and other law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute crimes.

Representatives of Miami-based Royal Caribbean told The Times that evidence collection in Dishman's case was "inconsistent" with company policy.

They said Royal Caribbean cooperated with the FBI and later terminated the suspect, who told authorities it was a case of consensual sex.

Sex crimes -- regardless of where they take place -- are difficult to prosecute. Cases often rest on one person's word against the other's. Witnesses are rare.

On cruise ships, alcohol frequently plays a role. In addition, foreign crew members can be difficult to locate for questioning if they are terminated for violating company policies or reach the end of their contracts before inquiries are completed.

Even when cases might have sufficient evidence, the FBI and federal prosecutors are more likely to devote resources to fighting terrorism, bank robberies and political corruption.

"You have limited resources and you put those in your highest priority," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former federal prosecutor.

"If you're in California, at the top of the list is going to be immigration, terrorism, political corruption and narcotics.... Sometimes there's also the mentality that the victim can sue in civil court. It doesn't leave the victim without remedies," Levenson said.

Lawrence Kaye, an attorney who represents the cruise industry, said the companies "very much" wanted the FBI involved in investigating crimes because employees lack expertise in forensic investigation.

In Dishman's case, a cruise security guard -- who she said had harassed her in the ship's bar that night and asked for her cabin number -- allegedly forced his way into her room after she answered the door on the first night of the cruise, pushed her back onto her bed and raped her. Dishman said she told him no and tried to push him away.

Dishman said she had five drinks over several hours, including a glass of wine at dinner, but did not believe she was drunk. When she woke up the next morning, her pants were off and she had bruise marks around her neck, she said.

The suspect, who told his employer and law enforcement authorities that the sex was consensual, was fired for violating the company's policy on fraternizing with guests. He continued to do his job for a week after the incident.

Dishman and her attorney, James Walker, say authorities failed to devote sufficient time to investigating her claims.

The FBI interviewed the accused crew member Feb. 26, 2006, the day the ship returned to port in San Pedro. A letter from the bureau to Dishman indicates that the U.S. attorney's office decided not to prosecute the case the same day FBI agents boarded the ship. An FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles cited insufficient evidence in the case.

The bureau did decide to give the suspect a lie detector test a few days later, but by then he had been fired and sent home to Trinidad and Tobago, according to court records.

Dishman said she met, at her request, with officials at the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office to try to persuade them to file charges. They advised her to write to members of Congress and to pursue civil action against the cruise line.

"I know we have terrorism and we have all these things going on in the world," Dishman said. "But I'm the victim here and I'm an American, and they're telling me there is nothing they can do for me. I don't understand."

kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

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