Like so many other tales of cruise-ship crime, Janet Kelly's story begins with a cocktail and ends with a confidentiality agreement. Six years ago, on the last night of a Mexican cruise returning to Los Angeles, the Arizona businesswoman stopped at a poolside bar before dinner. The bartender, who in the days prior had been friendly but not overly flirtatious, handed her a fruity concoction that had an unwanted kick. Kelly, who is convinced that the drink was drugged, says she felt her legs go rubbery and her mind turn to mush as the bartender led her to an employees-only restroom and raped her before she passed out cold.
After flying home the next day, she went to a hospital and was tested for evidence of sexual assault. The FBI, which is the lead agency for investigating incidents involving U.S. citizens on the high seas, took several weeks to interview the bartender, who claimed what happened in that bathroom stall had been consensual. After her criminal case landed in the "he said, she said" file, Kelly sued the cruise line, which promptly fired the bartender for misconduct (even consensual sexcapades between crew members and passengers are officially verboten) and sent him home to Jamaica. Several months later, she discovered through private investigators that he had been hired by another cruise line.
What's unusual about Kelly's story--aside from the rehiring of the bartender, who was booted once again after his new boss learned he had falsified his employment records--is that she is able to tell so much of it. Unlike many other cruise-crime victims, Kelly, 49, settled her lawsuit with an agreement that allows her to talk about her experience, although she can't name the cruise line or the size of the settlement. This week she will testify before a congressional committee as it debates whether there needs to be greater federal oversight of the booming cruise industry, which served 11.2 million passengers last year, up 63% since 2000. Although the vast majority of passengers are American, cruise ships steer around most U.S. laws by registering in foreign countries. Because of murky jurisdiction issues, the companies report crimes to the FBI on a voluntary basis.
In the wake of several recent missing-persons cases aboard cruise ships--at least 28 in the past three years--lawmakers are trying to determine whether those incidents and other crimes at sea get reported accurately, let alone investigated and prosecuted. The politician leading the charge, Congressman Chris Shays, represents the Connecticut district that had been home to hunky honeymooner George Smith, whose mysterious disappearance from a Royal Caribbean cruise in July was initially dismissed by the ship's captain as an accident or suicide, despite signs suggesting foul play. Among the dramatic elements that have emerged in the case: Smith drank absinthe, which may cause hallucinations, a few hours before he vanished in the Mediterranean; a giant bloodstain was found below his balcony; some of his drinking buddies, who deny any wrongdoing, got kicked off the boat a few days later after a female passenger accused them of rape.