When Kristy and Kenneth Manzanares boarded a cruise ship headed to Alaska, it was supposed to be the beginning of a week-long anniversary celebration for the Utah couple with friends and family. Days later, however, Kristy lay dead on the floor of her cabin, blood splattered around the room, and her husband was charged with her killing.
The July 25, 2017 death was one of three homicides or suspicious deaths that year on one of 10 cruise lines operating in U.S. ports, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.
Most cruise-goers will never encounter any kind of crime, but serious offenses do occur on cruise ships—and can seem even more jolting in what’s supposed to be a festive and fun setting.
The fatal trip on the Emerald Princess started out with the Manzanares couple, high-school sweethearts, commemorating 18 years of marriage with their three daughters and extended family, along with 3,400 other passengers.
[Watch episodes of American Justice in the A&E App.]
But two days into the vacation, the couple apparently got into a loud argument, and when authorities entered their cabin around 9 p.m., they found Kristy with a “severe head wound” and “blood was spread throughout the room on multiple surfaces,” according to an affidavit obtained by A&E True Crime. “She would not stop laughing at me,” Kenneth told a witness, according to the FBI in Anchorage.
Kenneth was indicted on murder charges and has pleaded not guilty. He remains in the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau awaiting a May 2019 trial, according to Chloe Martin, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. [Update: The May trial was canceled and as of June 2019, a new trial date has not been set.]
Homicides aren’t the only serious crimes aboard ships. In 2017, federal authorities reported a total of 106 crimes, including 76 sexual assaults, 13 serious assaults, eight thefts of more than $10,000 and two kidnappings, according to DOT numbers, which compiles the figures in quarterly totals.
But advocates believe additional crimes are taking place, and are working to require authorities to collect data on those as well.
“If you counted the crimes on a cruise ship as you counted crimes in cities, you’d have way more,” says Kendall Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association. “Groping, thefts under $10,000, so many other crimes.”
In addition to fighting to expand the list of reportable infractions, Carver also wants to let passengers know they have the right to go directly to the FBI for help, instead of relying solely on ship personnel.
U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui of California says crimes at sea are an unfortunate reality, and she co-authored a bill in 2010 to expand protections to passengers after hearing from victims.
“This issue is very personal to me,” she tells A&E True Crime. “A constituent approached me and shared that she had been a victim of sexual assault on a cruise ship. As I looked into how we could help her and others who are victims of assault at sea, I realized the law at the time did not adequately protect passengers.”
However, Matsui says, “there is certainly more work to do,” noting that new legislation she introduced would improve crime-reporting mechanisms as well as information available to cruisers.
The bill, the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, is still awaiting action in the transportation committee, but “there’s no legitimate reason why this shouldn’t be able to move through Committee,” she says.
But the cruise industry’s trade group, the Cruise Lines International Association, maintains cruising is safe, with far fewer incidents than on land.
“A cruise vacation remains one of the safest forms of travel,” says Brian Salerno, a senior vice president with the association, noting that cruise lines “are subject to strict legal requirements for the reporting of crimes on board.”
Salerno wouldn’t disclose the specifics of security protocols, but says, “cruise lines do have security professionals onboard, some of whom are former law-enforcement officers” but that employing an independent police force wouldn’t make sense, given that its officers “would not have law-enforcement powers or jurisdiction.”
He says cruise lines work with the appropriate law-enforcement authorities, who are “best equipped, and sometimes mandated by law, to address any allegations of serious crime on a cruise ship.”
Carver says cruise lines don’t like to publicize anything untoward on their boats for fear of losing customers, but believes people have a right know all the facts.
He advises passengers to be aware of their surroundings and not forget normal precautions just because they are on vacation.
“A cruise ship is a floating city with thousands of people on board, serving unlimited drinks, with no police,” says Carver, whose daughter Merrian Carver disappeared in 2004 from a Celebrity cruise to Alaska and has never been found. “What do you think is going to happen? It’s not a crime-free area; [passengers] need to use common sense.”
Chloroform: How the ‘Knockout Drug’ Has Been Used to Murder Over the Last 25 Years
What’s It Really Like to Be a Crime-Scene Investigator?
Clues from Beyond the Grave: When Victims Help Solve Their Own Murders