Murder on the Emerald Princess: Tragedy, a Little Mystery, No Comedy

This is not a review.  Not a theatre review, anyway.

I can’t get it off my mind. Maybe by trying to sort it out in writing, I can put things in perspective and stop thinking about it.

My husband, like so many men, has that gene that allows him to compartmentalize in three steps: 1. Is there a threat to me or mine? Nope.  2. Is there anything I can do about it? Nuh-uh.  3. Is there a ballgame on? Yes!

I can’t do that. The memory of what we heard, what we now know, what the F.B.I. reported, and the hysteria of what was essentially ‘fake news’ that filled the void before the real news was known keeps spinning around like a centrifuge in a bad dream. And then there is the intruding imaginings of what SHE went through, the terror of her children, the passengers that burst into the room. Things that can be known, things that I want to know, and things that will never be known.

Here are some facts.

My husband and I had stateroom B723 starboard side of Deck 11 on the Emerald Princess that left Port of Seattle for an Alaskan cruise on Sunday, July 23. It’s a week cruise, and we would return on the 30th.  The Manzanares family had two adjoining rooms on the port side, Deck 9, Rms. D726 and D728. They were on an anniversary cruise – 18 years. Their three daughters were with them. We were told an older couple with them was Mrs. Manzanares’ parents.

On Tuesday, July 25, we docked at Ketchikan in the early morning and re-boarded at 2:30. At exactly 9 p.m. (I looked at my watch) an urgent call came from the bridge over the loudspeaker for the entire ship. “All medical and security personnel report immediately to Deck 9, port side, room 726.”  There was no mistaking it for a hoax. About a minute later, the same announcement was made with the same urgency. We were in our room, and that was the last we heard.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, there was a “Sherlock Holmes Musical Murder Mystery – The Tale of the Murdered Master Mariner at Midnight on a Misty Monday etc. etc.” scheduled in the Deck 7 Explorer’s Lounge. It was to begin at 9:15 p.m.  This would matter only because some passengers claimed they thought the announcement was part of the planned theatrics.

What comes back to me about that night is the silence. Not dead air silence, but the quiet of night in the middle of black water lapping against the ship. A movie called “The Zookeeper’s Wife” was playing on the screen “under the stars” on the open deck 16, and from our private balcony we could hear a woman’s voice, low and modulated, talking softly on and on.  It seemed to cover the whole ship. I couldn’t understand a word, but it added to the strangeness of the evening, as we knew something had gone wrong but didn’t know what. Over 4,500 people on board, and that’s all I could hear.

We awoke Wednesday, July 26 to silence and fog, the thickest fog I have ever seen. From our balcony, we could hear only the occasional laps of water as the ship glided through ghostly greyness and chill; large charcoal shapes veiled in white fog showed that we were near the Tracy Arm Fjord.

We were standing there, early, when the Captain’s voice came over the loudspeaker. He was straight-forward and somber. He told us that the night before, “a 39 year-old Utah woman died in a domestic dispute on the 9th deck.” He told us that we would not be able to make the tour of Tracy Arm Fjord because we had to get to Juneau where police and F.B.I. were waiting. We would not be allowed to leave the ship until they gave us clearance.

For the rest of that day until 5 p.m. (not 8:30 as some reported) we remained on the ship. The shops and casino were closed, as we were in port, so people milled about, and rides in the elevators were adventures in rumor and scraps of information.

What happened?

Kenneth Manzanares allegedly murdered his wife, Kristy. High school sweethearts, parents of three daughters, “the perfect family” said a neighbor. She was 39, a successful employee at  Sotheby’s International Realty in St. George, Utah; he had a variety of jobs including auto and insurance sales and bail bondsman.  There had been a bankruptcy filing in 2010. No criminal records, no calls of domestic violence in the home. He beat her to death and she died of blunt force head trauma.

A few things we heard in the elevators turned out to be true. One daughter ran hysterically out of the room to get help.  A male passenger identified only as D.H. (and no doubt others) got in to find Manzanares with blood on his hands and shirt, his wife lying in her blood on the floor. He said, “She would not stop laughing at me.” But as many passengers told police later, they heard screaming and a loud terrible argument. Not laughter.

He tried to drag her body to their balcony, clearly intending to throw her over. The passenger grabbed her legs and prevented it. Then Manzanares attempted to jump overboard, but was also prevented. When handcuffed by security, he said “My life is over.”

The F.B.I. called for all passengers on the 8th, 9th, and 10th decks, portside, in the 700 block of staterooms for interviews, and eventually the picture emerged.  Kristy’s body and the rest of the family were taken off board at Juneau; Manzanares has been charged with murder and remains in Juneau for trial.

When we were finally allowed to disembark, news media were waiting at the dock. One young woman who was quoted by Fox News said that the security call was to “the 9th and 14th decks” – and it scared her “because I was on the 14th deck.” There was NO call to the 14th deck. She said that Manzanares had tried to jump off the 7th deck, failed, and went to the 9th deck. This doesn’t even make sense. She said, “people were running up and down the halls covered in blood!” Dramatic, yes. But seriously – I’m sure ship personnel were doing quite a bit of hustling, but covered in blood? She wasn’t even there.  Nevertheless, this breathless account was reported and repeated until more reliable sources – the police – put out their findings. She also claimed that the Captain had told us a Utah woman “had been killed by her husband.” He did not say that. She had been, of course, but the Captain did not say it.

Second hand family sources are now saying that Manzanares was being a complete toad at dinner, and that Kristy said she wanted a divorce. We won’t know unless he pleads ‘not guilty’ and reliable witnesses are brought to the trial. If he pleads guilty, the story goes with him.

I keep going back to that first impulse after he knew she was dead – throw her body overboard – even though there were witnesses. Had there been no witness, who doesn’t believe that he would have claimed they had an argument and she threw herself (or fell) overboard?  And how did the argument itself escalate to the point that it became physical?  And what in the world did he use? (My husband and I looked around our cabin trying to figure that one out.)

One thing is clear to me: it’s all about HIM. “She wouldn’t stop laughing at ME!”  “MY life is over.” Well, so is Kristy’s life, for real. And the three children have now lost both parents and, in one evening, any semblance of a normal home and upbringing. And what about her parents? But no, it’s all about him. And a nightmare for everyone.

And a nightmare for Princess Cruises PR.  That evening, we received a statement from Princess Cruises that every passenger would receive a $150 credit on their bill – about half a million dollars just for the unpleasantness. And a 25% credit toward another cruise with them booked before 2018.  I emphasize that nothing they did or didn’t do could have prevented this. They were efficient and professional from beginning to end.

There’s no happy ending to this drama. The world is full of stupid, selfish people who can’t control themselves and sometimes those people get on cruise ships.  We would take Princess again, but the artificial, closed environment of a cruise works only for healthy relationships. If your marriage is in trouble, forget the cruise. See a counselor instead.

Maggie Lawrence is a theatre reviewer for The Culpeper Times and a retired CCHS English and drama teacher