A Deadly Cruise

If you want to murder someone, you might consider inviting him or her on a cruise with you. With little law enforcement oversight and a fear of negative publicity, cruise ship officials often prefer to look the other way and ignore unpleasantness on one of their vessels. Cruise ship officers have even been accused of covering up murder scenes or pretending missing passengers never existed.

Until the Covid-19 pandemic, cruise ships played an essential role in the tourism industry in Alaska. Not only did cruise ships boost the economy of a handful of port towns in the state, but overland excursion packages tied to the cruise ships provided money to many interior regions of Alaska. While cruise ships are not the best way to visit the state’s wild, remote regions, they do offer a comfortable, easy way to get a feel for the 49th state. Many people think cruise ships provide a much safer way to travel, but do they?

Many modern cruise ships carry 3000 to 4000 passengers, and when you board the vessel, you know nothing about most of your fellow travelers or the ship’s crew. The cruise staff works hard to maintain the illusion of a safe onboard environment. Passengers who would never consider walking through city streets in the middle of the night think nothing of wandering the narrow corridors of a cruise ship at 3:00 in the morning. Cruise ships offer a party atmosphere, and many travelers consume alcohol at an alarming rate, clouding their judgment and lowering their inhibitions. There is no doubt that some crime will occur in such an environment. Still, in their effort to portray the perfect holiday, cruise officials often cover up petty misdemeanors, and they sometimes even try to hide more serious offenses.

In 2004, Merrian Carver, an investment banker from the Boston area, decided to book a cruise to Alaska. She didn’t inform her family of her travel plans when she boarded the Celebrity Cruise ship Mercury on August 27 for a weeklong cruise to Southeastern Alaska. Three days into the voyage, Carver’s cabin attendant, Domingo Monteiro, told his supervisor that he had not seen Carver in two days, and she hadn’t used her cabin since the day after the cruise began. Monteiro feared Carver was no longer on the ship. Since meticulous records indicated Carver never disembarked at any of the ports of call and the staff could not find her on the boat, they should have alerted authorities of her disappearance. Instead, though, Domingo’s supervisor told him to say nothing and to continue putting fresh chocolates on Carver’s pillow every night. At the end of the trip, the supervisor placed Carver’s belongings in storage. No one from the ship notified Carver’s family or the authorities.

On September 7, 2004, when Merrian Carver’s family could not locate her, they reported her missing. After Merrian’s father, Kendall Carver, learned of her vacation plans, he called the cruise line. Cruise officials told Mr. Carver that Merrian boarded the Mercury, but she disappeared, leaving her belongings in her room. According to a Celebrity official, the company donated Merrian’s things, including her purse, to charity.

Kendall Carver issued a subpoena to Celebrity Cruise’s board of directors demanding documents about Merrian. He soon learned that the crew was aware of her disappearance. Domingo Monteiro said he tried to report her missing, but his boss told him to keep quiet and said he would take care of the issue. When Carver demanded the security tapes from the cruise ship, the company told him they erased the tapes every twelve days. Carver knew they normally erased the tapes every 30 days, and the recordings from his daughter’s cruise should still be available. Was Merrian Carver’s fate recorded on the security tapes, and if so, why did the ship’s staff erase the evidence? What happened to Merrian Carver? In 2013, authorities found human remains on Merry Island in Canada. They believe the remains were those of Merrian Carver.

After his shocking experience with the cruise ship industry’s lack of accountability, Kendall Carver helped form the International Cruise Victims (ICV) organization to help other cruise-crime victims understand their rights and how to seek justice.

The FBI is the lead agency for investigating incidents involving U.S. citizens on the high seas. The FBI usually won’t look into onboard thefts of less than $10,000, though. The FBI does investigate more serious cruise ship crimes, but by the time cruise authorities notify the FBI of a murder or a passenger disappearance, the ship’s staff has often destroyed evidence and cleaned the crime scene, leaving little or no sign of a crime.

A woman named Janet Kelly experienced a nightmare cruise to Mexico a few years ago. Janet stopped at a poolside bar for a fruity drink before dinner. After only a few sips of the drink, Janet felt her legs go rubbery, and she could not think clearly. She believes the bartender drugged her cocktail. The bartender led her to the restroom and raped her before she passed out. Kelly sued the cruise line, and the bartender admitted to the sexual encounter but said it was consensual. The company fired the bartender, but he soon found a job on another cruise ship. Kelly settled her case. As part of her agreement, though, she cannot name the cruise line or the ship.

News agencies worldwide covered the tragic story of the disappearance of George Smith from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship M.S. Brilliance of the Seas in July 2005. George, a Connecticut resident, was on his honeymoon on a Mediterranean cruise  when he suddenly vanished from the ship one night. Despite obvious signs of foul play, the captain of the M.S. Brilliance of the Seas dismissed Smith’s disappearance as an accident or a suicide. Blood in Smith’s cabin and a large bloodstain below his balcony suggest he was injured or murdered in his cabin and then tossed overboard. Before his disappearance, passengers saw Smith in the company of three gregarious men who suddenly befriended the intoxicated honeymooner. A few days after Smith disappeared, cruise officials kicked these same men off the ship after a female passenger accused them of rape.

Smith’s bride offered little information about what could have happened to her husband. When the FBI finally took over the investigation, they stated they believed a person or persons robbed and murdered George Smith and tossed him overboard. By the time the FBI began investigating the incident, much of the evidence had been destroyed and the crime scene meticulously cleaned. In June 2006, Royal Caribbean settled with Smith’s wife for $1.1 million.

In 2013, the Cruise Lines International Association developed a passenger’s bill of rights to protect cruise passengers. In the same year, George Smith’s parents backed, and the U.S. Congress passed, the Cruise Ship Protection Act. This bill is supposed to allow for greater transparency when crimes are committed on cruise ships and provide more federal protection for passengers’ rights.

A heinous murder occurred on The Emerald Princess cruise ship on July 25, 2017, as the ship sailed near Juneau, Alaska. In this case, though, abundant evidence left no doubt who murdered Kristy Manzanares.

Kenneth and Kristy Manzanares from St. George, Utah, decided to celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary with a family cruise to Alaska. Joining them on the cruise were their three daughters, ranging in age from 13 to 22 years, and several members of Kristy’s family. According to relatives, Kristy and Kenneth were high school sweethearts, and up until the fateful day of July 25, 2017, the couple displayed few signs of marital strife.

Something was wrong with Kenneth during dinner on July 25. One source said Kenneth acted terribly during the meal. When the couple returned to their stateroom, Kristy reportedly told Kenneth she wanted a divorce and demanded he leave the ship when they docked in Juneau and fly home to Utah. Kenneth snapped and told his oldest daughter and a minor child to leave the room.

As soon as she left the room, the daughter heard her mother scream. She tried to reenter the room, but her father refused to open the door. The daughter ran into the adjacent cabin and out onto the balcony, where she could see into her parents’ room. She watched in horror as her father beat her mother repeatedly in the head with his closed fist.

The daughter ran for help and returned with Kristy’s two brothers and Kristy’s father. The brothers and father gained access to Kenneth and Kristy’s room just as Kenneth was dragging his wife to the balcony. One of the brothers pulled Kristy back into the room and called for help. Security officers and medical personnel arrived at 9:03 pm and attempted to administer lifesaving measures, but Kristy, 39, was already dead, killed by blunt force trauma to her head and face. When asked why he killed his wife, Kenneth Manzanares reportedly replied, “She would not stop laughing at me.”

Kenneth Manzanares was splattered with his wife’s blood, and authorities quickly charged him with first-degree murder. In February 2020, Manzanares agreed to a plea deal for second-degree murder. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the judge has not yet sentenced him.

We will probably never know what happened between Kenneth and Kristy Manzanares. Was the cruise meant to rekindle the flames of a stressed marriage? If so, placing an already frayed marriage and extended family in the environment of a cruise ship seems like a bad idea. I’m sure Kenneth Manzanares regrets the vacation.

A cruise can be a great way to relax. You only need to unpack once, and you don’t have to worry about getting yourself from one place to the next. Be aware, though; cruise ships are not magical places free of crime. Take your good judgment with you onto the ship.

Robin Barefield lives in the wilderness on Kodiak Island where she and her husband own a remote lodge. She has a master’s degree in fish and wildlife biology and is a wildlife viewing and fishing guide. Robin has published three novels, Big Game, Murder Over Kodiak, and The Fisherman’s Daughter. She draws on her love and appreciation of the Alaska wilderness as well as her scientific background when writing.