Disney Cruise Line fails to promptly report molestation of 11-year-old girl in port

Suspect escorted off ship in the Bahamas, sent back to India

Author: Tony Pipitone, Investigative Reporter, tpipitone@clickorlando.com
Lauren Sweeney, Special Projects Producer, lsweeney@clickorlando.com
Published On: May 21 2013 12:01:00 PM EDT
PORT CANAVERAL, Fla. -

More than two hours before the Disney Dream left port here last August, a Disney Cruise Line crewmember was captured on ship surveillance video molesting an 11-year-old girl in an elevator – a crime Disney Cruise Line said it believes it must by law report immediately.

But a Local 6 investigation reveals the incident was not reported until the next day, long after the ship had slipped out of port, enabling the 33-year-old suspect to evade investigation and prosecution by Florida authorities.

Disney Cruise Line at first claimed last week it did report the crime while the ship was still in port on Aug. 5. Then, after being told by Local 6 and Port Canaveral police that was not true, the cruise line changed its account.

Company officials then claimed employees did not know until the next day that a crime was committed. All they knew on Aug. 5, they claim, was that the child was made to feel “uncomfortable,” according to statements by the cruise line to both Local 6 and the Port Canaveral police.

But, based on surveillance video and a confidential Disney Cruise Line security incident report obtained by Local 6, that also appears to be false.

The report reveals cruise line security began its investigation of the molestation – which it called an “inappropriate sexual act” -- at 3:22 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5.

The child promptly told security the man had repeatedly grabbed her breast through her clothes and forcibly kissed her on the mouth as he cornered her in an elevator on the Disney Dream.

She “began to cry,” the report stated, as she relayed how the crew member “went like this,” grabbing her breast, and “then went like this,” demonstrating a second groping before “he kiss me here and he put mouth on my mouth.”

Such an attack, even through clothing, is under Florida law a lewd or lascivious molestation of a child under 12, a felony punishable by 25 years to life in prison.

Port Canaveral police chief Joseph Hellebrand said his department can investigate and refer for prosecution such crimes on ships. Anything that occurs within 1,000 feet of its shoreline, as this incident did with the Dream tied to dock, is at least in part port jurisdiction, Hellebrand said.

But Port Canaveral police were prevented from investigating because Disney Cruise Line, or DCL, did not report the crime immediately, as Hellebrand said they should.

Had DCL done so, the chief said, “We would have sent an officer aboard the ship, we would have notified the (on-call) detective, we would have interviewed the family, the victim, the suspect,” and, if warranted, arrested the dining room server.

Disney Cruise Line’s actions prevented that from happening, though a DCL spokeswoman told Local 6 Monday it “took proper action” in handling the case.

Again, they claim they did not know a crime occurred until after the ship left port.

But the company’s own confidential incident report provides more evidence that is not true.

Eight minutes after the molestation -- and two hours before the ship departed -- the victim and her grandmother emerged from the elevator at 3:03 p.m. and headed toward the guest services counter, where they reported the incident. Security was contacted and initiated the investigation at 3:22 p.m., followed promptly by the child relaying the criminal allegations to a cruise security officer.

At 3:57 p.m., the 11-year-old from Brazil led the officer to the spot where she encountered the suspect and “appeared to be uncomfortable when she walked me to the elevator where (the crew member) touched and kissed her,” the officer wrote in her report.

The security officer then retrieved and reviewed the video of the elevator lobby outside the car where the attack occurred and confirmed the actions of a uniformed crew member were consistent with the 11-year-old’s retelling of the story.

At 4:48 p.m., the video was shown to a dining manager, who identified the suspect by name and position, a dining room server from India.

At 5:02 p.m., the Disney Dream left its berth at Port Canaveral, as if nothing criminal had occurred.

The suspect continued to roam the ship until 7:50 p.m., when he was called to the security office and, under questioning, denied molesting the girl, according to the DCL report. He was then “removed from the floor” and, apparently, kept from encountering children.

After another unsuccessful attempt to get him to confess on Aug. 6, he was questioned after the ship arrived in Nassau on Aug. 7 by Bahamian authorities, who assumed jurisdiction of the investigation because the Disney Dream is flagged in the Bahamas.

In a statement to Bahamas Police, the suspect, Milton Braganza, finally admitted “I touched her on her right breast with my left hand.”

But by then – two days into a five-day Disney cruise – the victim’s grandmother had decided she did not want the crime investigated. DCL would not say if it refunded any or all of the family’s cruise expenses.

Had Florida law enforcement immediately been informed of the potential life felony and found probable cause, Hellebrand said the suspect would have been arrested, regardless of a victim’s grandmother’s wishes.

But the rules are different in the Bahamas.

The suspect was removed from the ship and taken to an airport, where Disney arranged for his passage back to India, his home country. The company said it paid his expenses, honoring a standard contract provision to cover transportation costs of employees returned to their home nations.

Federal law generally requires cruise lines to report certain crimes to the FBI “as soon as possible.” Sexual contact with a minor, even touching of breasts through clothes, is one of those crimes. But there are exceptions to the law when neither the suspect nor victim is a U.S. citizen, or when the ship is in state waters. It appears both exceptions applied in this case.

There are also often overlapping jurisdictional issues in cruise crimes, depending on the nationalities of the parties involved, the location of the ship, the ports its departs from and arrives at, and the country whose flag it sails under.

The Disney Dream is flagged in the Bahamas, so that county can assert jurisdiction even when the ship is in an American port, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. But so can federal and state or local authorities – again, depending on the circumstances.

Regardless of the law, DCL said last week its policy is to report all crimes as soon as possible to various authorities, including port police.

When DCL did notify Port Canaveral police of the crime, on Aug. 6, chief Hellebrand said the department assigned a detective to meet the ship when it returned on Friday Aug. 10, assuming the victim and suspect would be made available.

But Disney Cruise Line and Bahamian authorities had other plans.

“We would want to investigate that crime because it occurred here, regardless of whether somebody else took over that investigation,” Hellebrand said.

Asked if he would have given the suspect a ride to the airport and put him on a plane to India, the chief replied, “No. We would not have.”