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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 fifteen 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 passengers, 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 interests, 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 nineteen 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 were not interviewed, valuable evidence was not gathered, the crime scene wasn't 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 Bob 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?" says 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."