Jason Rappe disappeared during a Holland America cruise on Nov. 29, somewhere between St. Thomas and the Bahamas. NBC 6's Diana Gonzalez reports.
A Caribbean cruise departing from Fort Lauderdale can be an ideal getaway. Tina and Jason Rappe flew in from Oregon for a weeklong vacation on board Holland America's Eurodam right after Thanksgiving.
"They were just having a blast and one night they were hanging out at one of the bars. He got up apparently to go to the restroom, we don't know," said Eric Rappe, Jason's brother.
That was Nov. 29, the last time Jason Rappe was seen alive, somewhere between St. Thomas and the Bahamas.
The ship made it back to Port Everglades without him. Homicide detectives from the Broward Sheriff's Office were called to investigate this disappearance at sea.
"Right now it's been reported as a missing person presumed deceased," said sheriff’s office homicide Det. Kevin Forsberg.
Surveillance video was given to family members by Holland America. It clearly shows Rappe walking on Deck 10. The next camera angle is about 100 yards away, according to Forsberg.
"What you see on the second camera appears to be a dark figure, which we can presume is Mr. Rappe, and it appears that that figure goes up on the railing and then overboard," Forsberg said .
There's a third camera angle from the back of the ship at water level.
"It does appear to be a figure in the water and the wave pattern changes, but I couldn't make a determination that that was the victim waving," Forsberg said.
After Tina Rappe reported her husband missing, the ship kept moving while a search was conducted. The coast guard was notified and the ship turned around more than three hours later according to the detective.
The cruise lines international association emailed NBC 6 a statement regarding missing persons reports.
This is an excerpt: "In the vast majority of cases, the person ends up being found on the ship after a coordinated search. When that is unsuccessful or if there is evidence that a person went overboard, ships turn around and work directly with government search and rescue personnel and other vessels to try and find the person."
The FBI has jurisdiction over disappearances and crimes on cruise ships at sea, but can defer to local agencies. Two days after Rappe's disappearance, ship security handed over its case to the sheriff's office.
"So we want to make sure we cover everything on the ship and do everything we need to do that day because obviously the ship is coming in that day and it sets sail that same day," Forsberg said.
In the last 18 months he's investigated three similar cases. Who is keeping track of the number of passengers and crew members that go overboard? On the website cruisejunkie.com com there's a chart showing 198 since 2000. The site is run by Canadian sociology professor Ross Klein, who has testified before Congress.
"I would say the numbers are accurate as the lowest possible number because I only have listed those that I'm aware of,” he said. “There are certainly, I'm sure other cases that never come to my attention or to the media's attention."
Jim Walker is a maritime attorney in Miami and cruise law blogger. Jason Rappe is one of half a dozen overboard cases he's handled.
"All cruise lines are foreign corporations ... And as a consequence of that, there's no true federal oversight by anyone here in the United States like the FAA has oversight of the U.S. commercial aviation industry," said Walker.
Congress did pass the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010. It mandates a numerical accounting of missing persons and alleged crimes. The Coast Guard posts those quarterly statistics on it's website. It shows no missing persons during the period Rappe disappeared.
"The problem was that changes were made to that legislation," Walker said. “Only cases that are reported to the FBI and then closed by the FBI have to be disclosed on that database ."
In the Rappe case and others, there was no FBI investigation, so it won't be reported. His brother is outraged and is now working with the International Cruise Victim's Association.
"There's absolutely nothing wrong with going on vacation on a cruise. We want everybody to go on cruises we want everybody to have fun but we want everybody to come home," said Eric Rappe.
A total of 20 million people took a cruise last year. In 2010, Congress issued this finding: "It is not known precisely how often crimes occur on cruise vessels or exactly how many people have disappeared during ocean voyages."
"Three years later since 2010 we're actually in a worse position than we were when the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act was passed," Klein said.
Jason Rappe will remain a missing person unless his family in Oregon files a petition in Broward County to have him officially declared deceased.
Holland America released the following statement:
“We understand that the family continues to seek answers about Mr. Rappe's disappearance and they have engaged an attorney to assist them in that process. We have a policy against commenting publicly on pending or potential litigation, but we have offered and remain willing to sit with the Rappe’s in an open exchange of information regarding this sad event.”
When asked if all their cruise ships are equipped with a system that detects or sounds an alarm when someone goes overboard, the director of public relations Erik Elvegord did not provide a reply beyond the statement.