6 May 2018

Murder at Sea - Death on the Sage Sagittarius

The mysterious death of one sailor on a bulk carrier may be regarded as unfortunate; the death of three sailors in the space of five weeks - the last of whom was onboard to ensure crew safety following the first two deaths - points to something much more sinister. Was there a serial killer on the MV Sage Sagittarius, taking advantage of the legal cover provided by the confusion of jurisdictions and international waters to get away with murder?

"Death ship" the MV Sage Sagittarius

The international jumble of the MV Sage Sagittarius reflects the realities of modern shipping. The vessel was owned and operated by Japanese companies, under a Panamanian flag of convenience, and staffed by a Filipino crew chiefly to carry coal between the port of Newcastle and Japan. In mid 2012, the ship was on a typical run from Japan to load coal in Newcastle with 25 crew under the command of Captain Venancio Salas Junior.

Ascertaining exactly what happened on the voyage has proved difficult, with surviving sailors refusing to speak with investigators and allegations of harassment, bullying and illegal gun sales. What is clear is that 26 year old Messman, Jesse Martinez, on his first voyage on the vessel, was the victim of a sustained campaign of homophobic bullying. Mr Martinez was forced to drink alcohol, molested on a dance floor, forced to participate in a mock wedding with another crew member, and shoved, punched, and hit in the back of the head by Captain Salas. These assaults were witnessed by other crew members and later admitted by Captain Salas. Mr Martinez was also forced to sign letters admitting he was slow, a gossip and liar, and beginning forgiveness  for the difficulties he'd caused the crew as a result of his "deficiencies".

And whilst all of this was going on, Captain Salas was selling firearms and gun licenses to the crew, supplied by connections he had in Manila, as well as trading alcohol for fresh tuna caught on the voyage, contrary to company policy. The NSW Coroner concluded Captain Salas ran illegal activity on the ship and maintained a culture of bullying and intimidation.

Mr Martinez complained about the Captain's bullying to some fellow crew members who advised him to call the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) as soon as the ship was within phone signal range of the Australian coast. However, the Captain made it clear to Martinez that if he pursued his complaints, he would get a poor rating which would prevent him working on other vessels.

Jesse Martinez's supervisor, Cesar Llanto, the ship's Chief Cook, attempted to protect him from the worst of the bullying, accompanying him to meetings with the Captain. Mr Llanto, 42, had 20 years experience as a merchant mariner and was married with two children.

At 8am on 30 August 2012, whilst the ship was in international waters of the Coral Sea whilst en route to Newcastle, Cesar Llanto went missing, and is presumed to have gone overboard; no trace of him was ever found. Mr Llanto worked his normal morning breakfast shift in the kitchen; his demeanour was described as happy, no different from normal. The ship was in rough seas, but nothing that would adversely affect a vessel of its size. Mr Llanto was last seen heading for the bridge; something he would never normally do at that time, but he was, according to one report, summoned by Captain Salas.

And he was never seen again. His absence was noticed by 8:30am, and at 9:30am Captain Salas gave orders for a thorough search of the ship. When this failed to find any sign of Mr Llanto, Captain Salas radioed AMSA and put out a distress call to other vessels in the region using the VHF radio. When 30 hours of searching failed to find Mr Llanto, the ship proceeded to Newcastle. During this time, Jesse Martinez reported he was forbidden from speaking with any other crew.

Meanwhile AMSA noted suspicions of foul play in the cook's disappearance and the ship's Japanese owners, NYK, arranged for specialised security personnel and investigators to board the vessel, including Japanese man Kosaku Monji. Investigtors found the ship's data recorder had been wiped for the period of time when Mr Llanto went missing - a deletion regarded as unlikely to have been an accident - and several crew members, including one noted to have played a "stand over" role in the bullying of Jesse Martinez, left the ship and were flown to Manila. 

On 14 September, Chief Engineer Hector Collado, 55, second in command of the vessel, died after falling 11.5 metres from the 2nd to the 4th deck as the ship was preparing to dock in Newcastle. Crew members reported that Mr Collado was deeply affected by the disappearance of Mr Llanto, his demeanour changing from mostly happy, before the disappearance, to deeply disturbed afterward.

There is conflicting evidence concerning the precise nature of the fall; according to the captain, as the ship's engineer Mr Collado should have been in the engine control room whilst the ship was docking, not on the deck. The forensic pathologist noted multiple injuries during the autopsy, including multiple fractures, bruising and a head laceration. A trail of blood was found on the ship leading from the engine room to the railing on the second deck from which Mr Collado fell. Mr Collado was otherwise in good health at the time of his death. The Coroner found on the balance of probabilities that Mr Collado died as a result of foul play, whilst not being able to rule out the possibility of accident or misadventure.

Finally, there was the death of Kosaku Monji, a Japanese citizen and employee of the ship's owners NYK, tasked with investigating conditions onboard the Sage Sagittarius in light of the disappearance of Cesar Llanto and death of Hector Collado. He joined the ship in Newcastle four days after the death of Mr Collado, and remained onboard, with the all-Filipino crew and one other person, departing for the return journey to Japan on 17 September 2012, arriving in Kudamatsu, Japan on 3 October. On 6 October, as the vessel was unloading its cargo of coal, Mr Monji was found crushed to death between a conveyor belt and loading roller on the ship.

The Japanese Coast Guard, after an investigation, found that Mr Monji's death was accidental. However, they were not aware of the earlier deaths on the ship at this time.

So now what? The excellent, thorough NSW Coroner's report notes the multiple difficulties in investigating crimes at sea; the varying nationalities of crew, ships and owners; that crew are far from home and feel under pressure; and varying jurisdictions. These three deaths cannot be investigated as a single crime, because they have occurred in 3 different jurisdictions; Japan, International Waters, and NSW. There's no chance of an Interpol investigation; contrary to widespread belief, Interpol is basically an international clearing house, not an investigating agency (I plan a future post on this issue). But there's more than enough spooky stuff here to be going on with.

Inquest into the disappearance and suspected death of Cesar LLANTO and death of Hector COLLADO:

Sage Sagittarius inquest: 'death ship' crewmen were victims of foul play, coroner finds: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/may/31/sage-sagittarius-inquest-death-ship-crewmen-were-victims-of-foul-play-coroner-finds

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