Carnival? Try Criminal

What happens when a female passenger is assaulted on a cruise ship? Not much.

In 1993 a 31-year-old Minnesota woman hired Eriksen to sue Carnival and a waiter named Hitesh Panchal in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. She claimed the 28-year-old native of Bombay, India, had sneaked into her cabin on the Festivale while she was getting dressed in the bathroom on May 6, 1992. According to a report the woman filed with Barbados police, "I then asked him what he was doing in here. He pinned my back against the closet and then started kissing me. I told him, 'Don't,' and he continued kissing me. The next thing I knew ... my pants were down."

Nothing came of the Barbados cops' investigation, and neither the woman nor Carnival contacted the FBI. Although the company sent the waiter back to India, it recalled him to work on the Jubilee. A process server found Panchal at the dock in Los Angeles in 1993.

Carnival's lawyers continued to protect Panchal. They filed a motion arguing the Indian couldn't be sued in U.S. court because American laws do not apply to him; not only is he a foreigner, the company argued, but the alleged crime took place in Barbados on a ship registered in Panama. The move was successful. Although Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Kroll denied Carnival's motion to dismiss, the Fourth District Court of Appeal overruled the decision and dismissed the case against Panchal. To Eriksen and his client, it seemed Carnival would do anything to help this man. Although the suit against Carnival remained, the company later settled the case for an undisclosed amount.

Carnival president Bob Dickinson is proud no employee has been successfully prosecuted for rape
AP/Wide World Photo
Carnival president Bob Dickinson is proud no employee has been successfully prosecuted for rape

Eriksen also sued Carnival on behalf of a passenger who accused cabin steward Oscar Costley of entering her room during the night of April 5, 1990. The alleged victim claimed Costley climbed on top of her while she was sleeping and fondled her. Both the woman and her roommate assert they scared away the steward by screaming. Costley apparently used a pass key to open the locked door.

Perhaps most alarming, the woman says she complained to ship security but nothing happened. In the initial draft of the complaint, Eriksen referred to the suspect anonymously because Carnival refused to divulge the steward's name. When the company finally identified Costley, Eriksen learned he had been sent back to his native Honduras.

Carnival's vice president of public relations Tim Gallagher vigorously denies the company does anything improper or illegal. He questions the credibility and motivation of critics like Fox, Eriksen, and Harris, maintaining the cruise line follows the letter of the law as well as a carefully delineated set of investigative procedures. Trained personnel study all allegations of wrongdoing and, if a victim wants to report a crime, the findings are turned over to authorities. If fired employees are foreign, by law Carnival must send them home immediately.

Several company officials including Gallagher and Carnival lawyer Curtis Mase challenged Harris's attacks, arguing the former security chief has it out for the company because he is dissatisfied with the settlement of his lawsuit. "Charles Harris is a disgruntled former employee who professes to be an expert on Carnival," Mase says. "I don't think he's much of an expert on anything." Mase says he is working on a lawsuit in which Harris purports to know about the Mexican tour buses used by cruise lines. He has virtually no knowledge of the buses, Mase contends. "He has no credibility," Gallagher adds dismissively.

Gallagher also contests several of Harris's comments about company policy. Among the misstatements, Gallagher says, is the assertion that the former security chief was not allowed to contact the FBI. "That's misleading," Gallagher offers. "Incidents get reported by the home office, not by the chief of security." He also questioned Harris's allegation that Carnival higher-ups were given incomplete descriptions of alleged crimes at sea. "That's not true. The captain can't stop reports from getting to the office."

"I'm not disgruntled," Harris counters. "I don't go headhunting for Carnival." And, he adds, no judge has ever challenged his credibility as an expert witness.

The events that would put the world's largest cruise line in the cross hairs of the U.S. Attorney's Office began the night of August 12, 1998, as the Imagination sailed from Miami to the Caribbean. New Times culled details of the incident from depositions of Carnival executives and internal memos. The events, never before reported in the media, are crucial to understanding both the way Carnival executives handle victims' complaints and the federal grand jury probe. Were mistakes and miscommunication merely the result of incompetence? Or do the executives' confusing answers to lawyers' questions mask an attempt to help a suspected rapist flee justice? The jury is still out.

The voyage on Imagination was to be the last on-duty trip for Jane Doe, the ship's head nurse, a petite 27-year-old from New England who had been with Carnival for three years. Several weeks before, she decided it was time to move on and accepted a job at a hospital up north.

During the first evening at sea, she took time off to minister to her injured right knee. As she reclined in her cabin, Yurij Senes, a 29-year-old, bushy-haired, bespectacled ship's engineer from Italy, tapped on her door. Jane says Senes already had professed his attraction, but she told him she wasn't interested. Nonetheless the two had become friends, often playing video games in his cabin. She let him in.

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