JusT Cogens

Amy Lynn Bradley: The Murky Waters of Maritime Jurisdiction (Part I)


By Kylie Mathews

International law is usually discussed in the broad context of sovereignty, states and conflict. Consider, however, for a moment, an ordinary American family caught in a net weaved by international maritime law, domestic law and jurisdiction complications.

If I say the words “cruise ship”, the image that comes to mind is usually a white cruise ship sailing on crystal blue waters. The vacation on a cruise ship to a tropical island is very firm in the American dream. Worldwide, 34% of the cruises that leave port each year tour through the Caribbean. The Caribbean islands exemplify the word tropical, attracting millions of tourists to the region each year.

However, beneath the veneer of postcard perfect views, those same islands are hot spots for some of the world’s worst transnational crimes, including drug trafficking, human trafficking, and money laundering. Prostitution is illegal in most of the Caribbean. The exception is the Netherlands Antilles, a handful of islands which are constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Here, it is legal for foreign women to work in prostitution, and the industry is theoretically monitored by the government. However, the US Department of State estimates the level of government monitoring is low, and of the hundreds of foreign women working in prostitution on the islands, at least some proportion of these individuals were trafficked (2) and other nationals, especially India and China, are susceptible to slavery and indentured servitude.

In 1998, 23-year-old Amy Lynn Bradley embarked on a Caribbean cruise with her brother, father and mother. The ship, Rhapsody of the Seas, was owned by the then Florida-based Royal Caribbean. The trip had been gifted to her father by the insurance company he worked at. (If my boss is reading this, clearly my free cruise trip just got lost in the mail, right?)

In the early hours of March 23rd, the cruise ship was headed towards Curacao (pronounced “Queue-ra-zo”), an island in the Netherlands Antilles. Amy’s parents retired to the family’s shared room, while her and her brother went to attend a party. Numerous witnesses saw Amy there in the company of locals from Aruba, the island the Rhapsody had been moored at earlier that day. At 3am, Amy and her brother retired to the family’s room. At 5am, her father woke briefly and saw her asleep on the sun lounger on the deck outside their room. When he woke up again at 6am, she was gone.

The Bradley family searched the ship for her several hours, but when they found no trace of her they alerted the crew. The captain refused the Bradley’s request to make an announcement over the cruise ship’s PA system, for fear of upsetting the other passengers. The crew conducted a preliminary search of the ship and told the Bradley family they had also checked the cabins of people she had been seen with last night, but did not find her. The Bradleys later found out this was untrue, and the crew had only made a cursory check of common areas and toilets.

By this point, the Bradleys were getting desperate. They requested that the ship not dock at the next scheduled port at Curacao until she had been found.

This request was refused.

Passengers were paged hours later, after the Rhapsody had been moored at Curacao and thousands of passengers and crew had left the ship. As time continued to pass and it became clear Amy was missing, the crew began to insist she had fallen overboard. However, from the outset her family knew something much more ominous had happened. They were convinced Amy had been abducted.

Taken is the happily ever after version of an abduction, where Liam Neeson tracks cross-country and recues his daughter field on the power of sheer determination. If determination alone was enough, the Bradley family would have found Amy that day. Instead, their life had become a horror movie that was just beginning.

The question is, what could the Bradleys do in this situation? They contacted the domestic US authorities and the FBI responded. To a layman, the situation should have been cut and dry. Amy was a US citizen who had gone missing on a cruise ship owned by a US company.  But, like all things related to international law, it’s complicated.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably heard the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas mentioned just once or twice. Signed in 1982, UNCLOS formally enshrined principles of the high seas which most countries had been following for decades, if not centuries. For example, UNCLOS codifies the establishment of 12 nautical miles as the demarcation of territorial waters. It was, in fact, a territorial rule that many sovereign nations adopted pre-UNCLOS.

If the Rhapsody had been within the 12 nautical mile zone when Amy either fell overboard, or was kidnapped, the case was technically under the jurisdiction of the local police on Curacao. However, if the Rhapsody had been outside this 12 nautical mile limit when the incident occurred, it was governed by international law.

Under UNCLOS, ships on international waters are governed by the maritime laws of the country their ship is registered with. If you recall, the cruise company who owned Rhapsody, Royal Caribbean, was located in Florida.

A vessel has to follow the maritime law of the country by which it is registered. This includes infrastructure and safety standards, minimum wage laws, citizenship laws for workers, and a range of other red tape. The US has some of the strictest infrastructure and work standards in the world, so to cut costs cruise vessels often register with other countries. In this case, Royal Caribbean had registered Rhapsody with Norway.

Whilst it was made as a business decision, there were huge jurisdiction consequences. FBI investigators could not simply board the Rhapsody in Curacao, because it was not within US waters. Even though the company which owned the vessel was American, US authorities required the permission of the country under which the vessel was registered.

To contact Curacao authorities and the FBI, the Bradley family had to depart the Rhapsody. In 1998, the US government had no power to prevent the ship from moving, to board the ship or to ensure a search to was conducted to federal standards. It was only a few days between Amy’s disappearance and the FBI’s arrival, but any sort of crime scene on the ship had long been destroyed. The perpetrator – and Amy – were long gone.

Many theories exist about what happened to Amy. At the time, the crew’s allegation was that she had gone overboard, either by accident whilst intoxicated or with the intention of suiciding. However, Amy was a strong swimmer who had previously competed, and worked as a lifeguard. The ship had been relatively close to the island and the waters were warm. The extensive Coast Guard search which occurred in the days after her disappearance would have turned up some evidence of her, had this been the case. However, it failed to find any trace of her alive or dead, and the FBI later ruled suicide out as a possibility.

Amy is not the only young woman to disappear under these circumstances. In 2004, Merrian Carver went missing on the third day of her cruise. Despite crew noticing her disappearance, the company never reported it, and it took authorities several weeks to trace her to the cruise ship. She was never found. In 2005, 18-year-old Natalee Hollaway disappeared from her cruise. She was last sighted on Aruba, the island Amy had visited prior to her disappearance 7 years earlier. 

When a person goes missing in their home country or even overseas, a crime scene is declared, an investigation launched, and the relevant authorities are on the case. But in the case of Amy and others like it, it can be unclear to whom is even responsible for such an investigation. The capabilities of the FBI are very limited, and often these disappearances remain unsolved. There are many theories about what happened to Amy. One theory common to her case, as well as that of Merrian Carver and Natalie Holloway, is that the women were abducted with the intention of trafficking them into prostitution.

Rumours have been rife with mentions of Amy over the years, very few from credible sources. One is from a US Marine, who claims he saw her in a brothel in 1999. Recently, images were sent to the Bradleys of a woman resembling Amy, posted on a website advertising sex workers. FBI facial recognition experts have concluded that the woman in the image could be Amy nearly 20 years on from her disappearance.

International law, in the most broad sense, is often written to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens, and to combat multilateral issues like human trafficking. Unfortunately, in Amy’s cases and in others, tricky legal technicalities inhibited the search to find her.

I will leave you with a quote from Amy’s mother, Iva Bradley:

“I just want people to know that when girls disappear outside of the country, they’re disappearing for a reason… sex trafficking is so alive and well, it would absolutely blow you away. We believe with every fibre in our being that someone took her and we want her back.”

Kylie Mathews is a post-graduate student from the University of Western Australia who lives out her childhood dreams of being a forensic scientist by Googling true crime cases. 



1. http://casefilepodcast.com/case-59-amy-lynn-bradley

2. http://www.internationalcruisevictims.org/LatestMemberStories/Merrian_Carver.html

3. http://www.oxygen.com/the-disappearance-of-natalee-holloway/blogs/human-bone-fragments-found-in-aruba-do-not-belong-to

4.  https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2008/105388.htm

5.  http://www.oxygen.com/blogs/amy-lynn-bradley-what-really-happened-to-the-23-year-old-who-vanished-on-a-family-cruise-ship

6. http://www.lauthmissingpersons.com/after-thirteen-years-mystery-still-surrounds-disappearance-of-amy-lynn-bradley/

7. https://people.howstuffworks.com/cruise-ship-law.htm

8. http://www.cruiselawnews.com/2017/03/articles/disappearances-1/fbi-releases-new-video-regarding-amy-lynn-bradley-who-disappeared-from-rhapsody-of-the-seas/

Image: View of Piscadera Bay fort from Hilton Curaçao glass elevator, 25 January 2010 by Miguelpalm