Caribbean cruises have an incredibly enduring popularity. When it comes to travelling in style and luxury, there is no comparison to the allure that cruises offer. Who wouldn’t want to spend their days meandering through azure blue waters, clear skies, and quaint, charming tropical islands while indulging in luxury aboard vast ships that offer the finest amenities and are more like floating cities than boats? Statistics seem to agree. In 2015, 14.91 million people went on cruises in North America alone, most of those in the Caribbean. With so many people flocking to enjoy tropical paradise aboard these luxurious cruise ships, one might expect that this is a safe, sunny, and opulent way to travel, but there is a dark underbelly that lies in direct contrast to the white sand beaches, palm trees, and blue skies. There seems to be a disturbing trend for people to suddenly go missing without a trace aboard cruises, most noticeably in the Caribbean, and it is not just an isolated few. Since 1995, hundreds of people have boarded cruise ships on their way to paradise and never returned, most often while at sea and seeming to vanish into thin air, leaving behind confusion, little evidence and few clues as to what happened to them. They are simply gone, and very few of these disappearances are ever solved, leaving nothing but unanswered questions and a dark pall over the cruise industry at large.
Perhaps one of the most well-known and well publicized mysterious Caribbean cruise ship disappearances is that of 23 year-old Amy Lynn Bradley, who disappeared without a trace aboard the Royal Caribbean International cruise ship Rhapsody of the Seas while it was on a trip from Puerto Rico to the island of Curaçao, located in the southern Caribbean Sea in the former Netherlands Antilles. Amy was a bright, outgoing young woman who had just finished college and was on a Caribbean cruise vacation with her mother, father and younger brother. Amy had joined the cruise rather reluctantly, as although she was a trained lifeguard and strong swimmer, she had always been afraid of the open ocean, but had been ultimately persuaded to go on the trip by her family. Even with these reservations, once aboard Amy quickly found herself enjoying the cruise, and on March 23, 1998, on the third night of their trip, as the ship was docked in Curaçao, she and her family attended a dinner party on the upper deck and she stayed with her brother partying after hours, not returning to their cabin until 3:40 AM. At 5:30 AM, after having initially fallen asleep on her room’s balcony, Amy woke up, changed clothes and stepped out with her cigarettes and a lighter, obviously planning to return shortly because she did not put on shoes. Her family would never see her again.
When Amy failed to return to the cabin, her understandably worried family urged the ship to page her over the ships speaker system, but they refused on the grounds that it was too early in the morning to use the loudspeakers. The crew also refused the family’s pleas to back the ship away from the dock or to secure the gangways to prevent any potential kidnapper from whisking Amy away. It was not until around 8 AM that the page was finally carried out, but by that time most of the passengers had already disembarked for the day. Since Amy had still not returned to her cabin, the captain ordered a thorough search of the ship, scouring all 10 decks and 999 rooms of the massive ship in search of the missing young woman, but there was no sign of her. It was as if she had just vanished into thin air. Even then, the Captain of the cruise would not post pictures of Amy or inform the ship’s passengers of her disappearance, as he felt the news would upset the other guests. All in all, the cruise line was extremely uncooperative during the entire process and adamantly denied any responsibility for the family’s missing daughter.
Things got weirder the following day, when the FBI informed the family that cruise security had in fact only done a cursory search of the common areas and the restrooms, and not a thorough room by room search as had been claimed. The concerned family returned to the ship and was met with who was described as the ship’s “risk management agent,” who turned out to be in actuality the cruise line’s attorney representing the company in any legal action taken by Amy’s family against them. The FBI stepped in and engaged in several interviews with this attorney during which the family was not allowed to be present, yet the attorney attended all of the the family’s meetings with the FBI. This secrecy, lack of cooperation, dishonesty, and even hostility shown by the cruise line was extremely discouraging to Amy’s family, yet with the help of the FBI they soldiered on.
As the investigation continued, several witnesses came forward and some light was shed upon what had happened to Amy after leaving her room and possible clues to what had happened to her trickled in. One witness by the name of Crystal Roberts claimed to have seen Amy shortly after she left her cabin with a bass player named Alister Douglas and known as “Yellow,” who was in the band Blue Orchid, which had been playing at the dinner party the night before, and who other witnesses claimed had been flirting with her at the party. Video footage from the party even shows them slow dancing with each other and appearing to hold hands. There are a few things that would transpire during this encounter with Douglas on the morning of Amy’s disappearance that seem highly suspicious. It was claimed that after meeting up with him in the early morning hours, Amy was seen going off with Douglas to another area of the ship and the bass player returned 10 minutes later alone. Additionally, Amy's brother Brad said that the bass player had come to him the morning of the initial search and said he felt bad about his sister, even though the family and security were the only ones who knew of the disappearance at the time. Nevertheless, authorities could find no evidence to directly link the bass player to the disappearance and he was not detained or considered a suspect.
There were also some other spooky little details that surfaced. It was later claimed by the family that at the party on March 23, the night before Amy’s disappearance, they had seen a group of individuals who were not passengers come aboard the ship with a dance troupe and proceed to mill about and observe the party while standing near the ship’s railing. The family had felt at the time that it was rather odd that these strangers should be allowed to just freely board the ship and watch a performance along with paying passengers. It was also claimed that three of the ship’s waiters had acted somewhat inappropriately towards Amy during the days leading up to the disappearance, calling her by her first name, flirting with her, and inviting her along to go to shore with them, and Amy herself had at one point mentioned that they gave her the creeps. Even more bizarrely, when Amy and her mother had gone to look at the pictures that had been taken during dinner at the party, which were meant to be posted on a board, all of the photos with Amy in them had been missing. When they asked the person in charge when they would be posted, although the clerk clearly remembered putting the pictures in with the others, he was unable to locate them and instead promised to have them redeveloped the following day. It is unclear just what connection these strange details have to the disappearance, if any, but they certainly give the case a rather creepy and menacing quality.
So what happened to Amy Bradley? Over the years the case has become steeped in mystery and intrigue, and spurred a wide variety of speculation and theories. It was suggested at the time that she may have run away or even committed suicide by jumping over the ship’s railing, but this did not make much sense because she was a happy, well-adjusted young woman who by all accounts loved her family dearly. She had also recently just adopted a bulldog which she was planning to go pick up after the cruise, as well as acquired a new job that she was to start upon her return. On top of all of this, Amy had taken along 15 rolls of film with her on the trip because she had intended to make a collage for her coffee table back home, and she had also written numerous postcards to friends expressing how much she was looking forward to getting back and telling them all about the cruise. A subsequent detailed FBI investigation into Amy’s background, including many interviews with family, friends, co-workers, and even classmates and professors from the college she had attended, further showed that she was not a good candidate for a runaway since she did not meet their “runaway profile” in any way and there was absolutely no indication of her having a desire to leave, nor was there any evidence at all that she would have wanted to harm herself or commit suicide.
It was also suggested that she may have gotten caught up in some kind of illegal activity or had witnessed a crime and was silenced, but Amy was a law abiding citizen with a clean criminal record and had spent most of her time aboard the cruise in the presence of family members. Murder is a possibility that has often been bandied about, but there is no evidence of this, no suspect, and no clear motive for why anyone would want to kill the friendly, cheerful vacationing young woman. The cruise ship company itself, Royal Caribbean International, officially stated that Amy had merely accidentally fallen over a railing and drowned, perhaps while drunk after the party, but not only is there no evidence of this at all, but sea conditions were calm, Amy was a lifeguard and a very proficient swimmer, and the ship was docked very close to land at the time of the disappearance, making it seem unlikely that she would drown. In addition, although there are many cases of cruise ship passengers going overboard, the majority of these were probably from recklessly climbing atop them or suicides. The railings of cruise ships are designed so that the sometimes thousands of passengers on board don’t go stumbling over them to their deaths, being typically at least 3.5 feet high and quite hard to accidentally fall over even when intoxicated.
Adding to the mystery of the case are the various rather unsettling alleged sightings of Amy that have popped up from time to time since her bizarre disappearance. In 1998, two Canadian tourists claimed to have seen Amy walking along a beach in Curaçao flanked by two men, and when the missing woman heard them speaking English she allegedly tried to approach them, after which the two men with her grabbed her and guided her into a nearby café. The couple was able to describe very distinctive tattoos that Amy was known to have, including a Tasmanian Devil spinning a basketball on her shoulder, a sun on her lower back, and a Gecko on her navel, in addition to a navel ring. These details, which the eyewitnesses could not have possibly otherwise known, have led many to believe that the sighting was authentic.
Amy was allegedly sighted yet again in 2005 in a department store in Bridgetown, Barbados under equally disturbing circumstances. On this occasion, eyewitness Judy Mawer reported that she had been in a restroom stall when she overheard some men come into the women’s room and apparently threaten a woman in another stall, shouting “a deal is coming through, you need to obey to not mess it up!” before leaving. After a few minutes, Mawer cautiously exited the stall and found a very distraught and panicked looking woman in her 30s hunched over the restroom sink, who told her that she was from Virginia and that her name was Amy. Moments later, the men returned and practically dragged the woman violently from the restroom. The terrified Mawer, not knowing what to do, fled the scene and reported her experience to the authorities. She would later provide the FBI with a description of the two men, which was made into a sketch and circulated to no avail. The men depicted in the sketches have never been found, nor has any further information on Amy’s potential whereabouts, and this would be the last report of anyone seeing her.
More ominous evidence comes in the form of online photos that were found in 2004 and 2005 on a prostitution website of a mostly naked woman in sexually suggestive poses, who highly resembled Amy and seemed to suggest that she had been sold into sexual slavery. Another witness report from 1999 further bolstered this possibility by claiming to have sighted the missing young woman at a brothel in Curaçao. In this sighting, an American sailor claimed that he had gone to a brothel in Curaçao and while he was there a woman had approached him and introduced herself as Amy Bradley, after which she had pleaded for him to help her. The sailor claimed that two men then came to rather forcefully escort the distressed looking woman upstairs, after which he decided it was best to be on his way. Embarrassed and fearing that he would get into trouble for visiting a brothel, the sailor, who had no idea of who the woman was at the time, would keep the story under wraps for a few months until he heard of the missing Amy Bradley and decided to come forward with his sighting, but by that time the brothel had burnt down in a fire under mysterious circumstances. This dark possibility that Amy had been entangled in the dark web of sexual slavery would perhaps not be too farfetched, as the Caribbean has become rather notorious for human trafficking, a fact further illustrated by a chilling, sobering statement from Steve Reeves, the editor of a cruise line trade publication, who said:
There's rumor and legend surrounding slavery in the southern Caribbean. It's not uncommon knowledge in the maritime community that young white women are considered to be very desirable to foreign procurers.
There have even been rumors that some unsavory elements within the cruise ship industry may make clandestine deals with these traffickers, pointing out candidates, giving information on potential targets, or even arranging for the criminals to board in exchange for large payments. This would certainly cast a rather menacing shadow on the details revolving around Amy’s interactions with the bass player Yellow, as well as the inappropriate invitations to go ashore made by the ship's waiters and the strangers who had come aboard during the party the night before the disappearance. Whether the company had any hand in the disappearance or not, is this the answer to the riddle? Was Amy Bradley kidnapped, ripped away from her family and happy life to be subsequently sold into a life of sexual slavery? The mysterious, haunting photos and sightings to this effect seem to at least suggest so, but so far there is no concrete evidence to show that this is the case. However, this sinister, disturbing possibility is certainly there, and Amy’s own mother has further added to the theory, saying:
Amy would have been a trophy. Amy would have been someone that, I believe, could have been picked out and fingered to move off of that ship. She could have been held and hidden. She could have been possibly drugged and taken from that ship.
Despite intensive investigation, heavy publicity in the media including the shows America’s Most Wanted, Vanished, and Dr. Phil, as well as numerous news outlets and magazines, a $250,000 reward offered for any information leading to Amy’s safe return, as well as a $50,000 reward for information pinpointing her verifiable location, the case of the disappearance of Amy Lynn Bradley remains unsolved and there is shockingly little evidence and very few leads to go on. What happened to Amy Bradley? There are so many enigmas and questions still swirling about her case. Was she murdered or the victim of some crime syndicate? Did she run away from home or commit suicide? Did she just merely fall overboard and drown? Or was she sold into sexual slavery, and if so who was behind it? Also, why would such a prosperous cruise line as Royal Caribbean International lie about the extent of their search for the missing young woman and then proceed to offer so little cooperation, especially for such a high profile cruise company which earned 8.7 billion dollars in 2015 alone? Was the company just trying to wash their hands of the whole mess and its potential bad publicity, or were they perhaps even involved in some way and trying to cover their tracks or initiate a cover-up? At this point, the fact is no one really knows the answers to any of these questions, and in the absence of any further leads or evidence, it seems likely to remain that way for some time. The mystery of Amy Bradley’s disappearance remains largely just as impenetrable and baffling now as it was when she first vanished.
Sadly, although one of the most well-known and extensively covered, Amy’s case is not an isolated one, and she joins the ranks of hundreds of others who have vanished aboard cruise ships in the Caribbean, just as perplexing and often under circumstances that are just as mysterious and which also remain unsolved. Why are so many people disappearing aboard cruise ships in the Caribbean? What forces are at work here and is there any link between any of them, and indeed to the case of Amy Bradley? It is something to ponder the next time you find yourself on a cruise ship basking in the tropical sun and looking out across that inviting azure water, something to cast a shadow of uncertainty over the sun soaked paradise and make you wonder whether you could be next.