3 in cruise ship crew tried to smuggle heroin, cocaine into city, officials say

Three Royal Caribbean employees named in criminal complaint

December 29, 2010|By Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun

On a frigid morning this month, customs agents lay in wait as the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Enchantment of the Seas arrived in Baltimore.

Along with tourists fresh from a 12-day excursion to the Caribbean, agents were expecting the arrival of crew members attempting to smuggle drugs into the United States.

As soon as the vessel docked Dec. 18, agents pulled aside crew member Gavin Excell, 35, suspected by the ship's security officer of bringing drugs aboard. Customs agents say they found 700 grams of heroin and 300 grams of cocaine wrapped in duct tape and hidden in his waistband and shoes.

A criminal complaint filed Tuesday accuses Excell and two other cruise line employees — John Swart Garth and Kishurn Neptune, both 27 — of picking up more than a kilogram of heroin and 500 grams of cocaine in the Dominican Republic when the cruise ship stopped there Dec. 10, with the intention of delivering it to associates in Baltimore.

In a statement, Royal Caribbean International said it maintains a "strict zero tolerance policy regarding illegal drugs on its ships." The company said it "cooperated fully with authorities during this investigation and will continue providing any assistance necessary to prosecute these individuals to the fullest extent of the law."

Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean, could not immediately confirm whether the three men had been fired.

Marketed toward vacationing families, the Enchantment of the Seas began operating out of Baltimore last summer and features luxury amenities, six whirlpools, a rock-climbing wall and a solarium. The ship can accommodate 2,252 guests, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation.

According to the court filing, Garth and Neptune worked in the ship's galley, or kitchen, an area largely out of view of passengers.

Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the cruise ship terminal, said safety at the Baltimore port has been improved, earning a near-perfect security assessment from the Coast Guard the past three years.

"It's always a concern whenever you have a case like this occur, whether it happens on land or in sea," Scher said. "But certainly when you've got a ship such as the Enchantment that is linked to the port of Baltimore, it's a concern."

According to an affidavit written by an agent from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and filed Tuesday in federal court, Excell told authorities he had picked up the drugs with Garth and Neptune from a Jamaican in the Dominican Republic and had been instructed to hand them over to a man named "Tony" at the Port Covington Walmart near the Cruise Maryland Terminal.

On the morning of Dec. 18, authorities said they saw Garth getting into and out of a black GMC Envoy with Virginia license plates outside the Walmart. Garth later told customs agents that he had been paid $4,000 to deliver three packages of drugs to Loxly Johnson, 48, and Shenika Graves, 34, who were inside the vehicle.

Johnson, a Jamaican citizen and legal resident of the United States, was stopped by customs agents on Hanover Street after leaving the Walmart lot. According to documents, agents found $8,000 in his car. Other agents approached Graves, who was still at the Walmart. In her purse, according to the affidavit, were three packages containing 700 grams of heroin and 300 grams of cocaine, also wrapped in duct tape.

Johnson and Graves face the same charges as the three crew members: conspiring to import drugs into the country.

Excell, a Jamaican citizen, is in federal custody in Baltimore and an arraignment is scheduled Jan. 7, said his attorney, Chris Purpura. He said his client will plead not guilty.

Johnson, also known as Desmond Williams, is in federal custody, said Joseph L. Evans, an assistant federal public defender. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has lodged an immigration detainer against Johnson, Evans said.

Graves' attorney, Thomas L. Crowe, said his client is a "solid citizen" and pleaded not guilty to the charges.

"She has absolutely no criminal record," Crowe said. "She's never been accused of being involved in anything like this. She maintains her innocence."

Graves has been released, Crowe said, and is in Virginia with family.

Garth and Neptune were in federal custody Wednesday but had not been indicted, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore.

A task force of immigration and customs agents, police from Baltimore city and county, and the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, was responsible for the investigation and arrests, said Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office.

Industry experts said the arrests display the effective partnership in place between cruise lines and federal law enforcement.

Michael Crye, executive vice president of the Cruise Line International Association, a trade group, said cruise companies have formal agreements with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security so security staff can report any incidents or suspicions regarding passengers or crew.

"The fact that the system seemed to work properly in this case is a good indication that the ship was maintaining its vigilance and doing the right thing," he said.

Cruise lines typically screen passengers, crew and their belongings when they get on and off the ship, but do not conduct a thorough search of each person boarding, Crye said.

In October 2008, a British citizen was caught trying to smuggle 20 kilograms of cocaine into Britain as a passenger on a cruise ship that sailed from St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Last August, he was sentenced to 101/2 years in prison, according to news reports.

jtorbati@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jtorbati

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