Cruise Cover-up?

ByABC News
January 7, 2009, 4:10 PM

Jan. 26, 2006 — -- When 40-year-old Merrian Carver went missing on the second day of a seven-day Alaskan Royal Caribbean cruise, the crew didn't respond as one might expect. In fact, the crew acted as though nothing had happened.

Merrian, a former investment banker who loved to write poetry, was divorced and decided to take a cruise in August 2004. Merrian lived in Cambridge, Mass., and her 13-year-old daughter was staying with her ex-husband in England.

No one even knew Merrian had gone away, until her father, Kendall Carver, received a frantic call from his granddaughter.

"She said: 'Do you know where my mother is? I've been calling her, and I haven't gotten a response,'" Carver told "Primetime."

After several days of unreturned phone calls, Carver and his wife, Carol, filed a missing-person report. Weeks later, police learned their daughter had purchased the cruise ticket.

But when Kendall Carver called the cruise line -- three weeks after the ship had docked in Vancouver, British Columbia, officials confirmed that Merrian had boarded the ship, but they weren't sure whether she had gotten off.

"In effect, Merrian vanished from the Earth," he said.

"It seemed like kind of a rather basic thing. If you put 2,000 people on a ship, you ought to know if 2,000 people got off the ship. They didn't know that. They couldn't tell us that," Carver said.

He became more alarmed when he said the cruise line casually explained that Merrian had stopped using her room after the second night, and that her belongings had remained in her cabin after everyone else had gotten off the ship.

Carver couldn't believe what he heard next: Royal Caribbean explained that it had given Merrian's clothes to charity and locked up her purse.

"They got rid of most of her stuff," he said. "A gold wristwatch, all her clothes were gone, vanished."

And most shocking of all, they told no one she was missing -- not the police, not the family.

"She was gone," Carver said. "And the purse had her name, Social Security number and everything. They just put it in storage, did nothing."

Retired and living in Phoenix, Kendall Carver, the former head of an insurance company, went back into CEO mode and launched the type of counteroffensive the cruise line probably hadn't expected. Eventually, he would spend more than $75,000 trying to find out what happened to his daughter.

First, he hired one of the word's largest private-detective agencies.

"We wanted to talk to somebody on that boat that had seen Merrian," Carver said. "Now that seemed like a pretty reasonable request."

Tim Schmolder was the San Francisco private eye dispatched to find out what had happened to Merrian. Schmolder started asking questions, and while he said Royal Caribbean provided some answers, he said it also set up some roadblocks to his investigation.

According to Schmolder, his requests for interviews with passengers or crew were denied, as was his access to the ship's video camera system. He said cruise officials also limited the amount of time he could spend on the ship.

After a few hours, Schmolder left the ship without a single clue as to how Merrian might have disappeared.

"My report became, you know, kind of empty of content," he said. "But full of questions -- questions as to why access wasn't allowed, questions as to why the cabin attendant wasn't available, questions as to why I couldn't interview the security manager for the camera system. Question, after question, after question: Why? Why? Why?"

What was behind the silence? Did the cruise line not know or was it simply not telling? For four months, the Carvers were in limbo, waiting for answers, until, finally, they took legal action.

They demanded Royal Caribbean produce a list of other passengers from the Boston area, where their daughter had lived, in case there was a friend or someone who might know about Merrian.

Carver said that the subpoenas produced a list of the ship's 2,000 passengers, with no contact information, and a poor-quality picture of Merrian getting on the ship.

But the worst news was yet to come. When the Carvers' attorneys forced Royal Caribbean to make the cabin attendant, Domingo Monteiro, available for a deposition, Carver was crushed by what he heard.

"Domingo said he reported Merrian missing daily, and to his boss," Carver said. "And that at the end of the cruise, Merrian's things are in the room where they'd been for five days. He asked his boss, should we report this? The boss says no. He says, 'I'll take care of it. Just put all of her belongings in a bag. Put them in my locker and I'll take care of it.'"

Next they learned that since the Carvers started complaining, Royal Caribbean had held an internal hearing and fired Monteiro's boss. But for the three months that the Carvers had been asking questions, the cruise line had never shared that information with them.

"All along the way they've been lying to us, and leading us down a path. And I say it's tough to lose a daughter, let alone be dealing with a cover-up," Carver said.

Carver said that Royal Caribbean's own documents offer evidence of cover-up. One memo shows that months earlier, company officials knew Monteiro had reported suspicious circumstances to his supervisor.

Not only that, it seemed the company took great pains to make sure that "Domingo did not speak with anybody." Carver said that one memo showed Royal Caribbean checked with 14 different employees to make sure the cabin attendant didn't speak with outside sources.

Jeffrey Maltzman, Royal Caribbean's attorney, said the memos showed no evidence of a cover-up. "What the company was trying to do was find out if he [Domingo] had talked to anybody," Maltzman said.

"If you look at the document, nowhere does it say: 'Don't talk to someone if they call you,'" he added.

That does not make the Carvers feel any better. "I still am upset," Carver said. "I mean, that was probably one of the worst days of my life, to figure out that they knew Merrian was missing. If only they had done something during that cruise, when she was reported missing daily, we would have known."

Royal Caribbean further infuriated the family when it issued a press release stating that Merrian "appears to have committed suicide on our ship."

Maltzman told "Primetime" that it was not the cruise line's responsibility to say what happened to Merrian. "They don't have the expertise," Maltzman said. "That's law enforcement's job."

Royal Caribbean put out the statement about suicide "because that's what the family has told us they believe happened," said Maltzman.

Carver said that is not true. While he concedes it's a possibility Merrian may have committed suicide, he said Royal Caribbean's handling of the case would prevent the family from ever knowing the truth.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., learned about Carver's case after one of his constituents complained about a similar incident.

"Merrian Carver's case just ignites me because I think of the arrogance of the industry, the cruelty of this industry," Shays said. "In the end, they acted like she was a nonperson."

Shays became so concerned about the cruise-line industry that he called a congressional hearing to look into its practices. He said he was unimpressed when Royal Caribbean's director of security expressed words of sympathy for the Carvers during the hearing.

"It would be better if you cooperated with the family," Shays said at the hearing. "And didn't make them have to seek this information the way they sought it -- having to spend literally tens of thousands of dollars. So your actions would speak more loudly than your statement, frankly, and your actions appear not to support your sorrow."

Merrian's last gift to her father was a picture frame that plays a recorded message that says: "Hi Daddy, this is Merrian. Hope you're having a great day."

It is a message that haunts the Carvers, who worry that they'll never really know how or why their daughter disappeared.