Ex-Disney Cruise officer: I was ordered not to report molestation
New Disney policy requires captain's staff to consult security before departure
PORT CANAVERAL, Fla. – When Dawn Taplin saw news reports of police arresting Disney Cruise Line cabin steward Ahmed Sofyan two weeks ago on suspicion of molesting a 13-year-old girl on board the ship, she gasped.
[WATCH: Local 6's original report]
"I just happened to blurt out, 'Wow, they did the right thing'," said Taplin, a former Disney Cruise Line security officer. She was pleased the company immediately reported Sofyan's alleged behavior to U.S. authorities, something that did not occur when she investigated a similar child molestation case on the same ship two years earlier.
In August 2012, an 11-year-old girl reported that a Disney dining server grabbed her breast and kissed her in an elevator on the Disney Dream.
"She was crying. She was still upset," said Taplin, who interviewed the girl shortly after the victim and her grandmother notified Guest Services.
Taplin, a 17-year veteran police officer who had investigated other sex crimes in her prior job at the Palm Bay Police Department, was troubled to watch video of the attack on the ship's surveillance cameras.
"It's not the first time I've cried on cases. But she's literally trying to get away from him. You see her kicking her legs, trying to pull away from him."
The molestation took place at 2:53 p.m., while passengers were still boarding the Disney Dream at Port Canaveral. "We weren't going anywhere for another two hours or so," said Taplin.
After notifying the ship's second-in-command about the molestation, Taplin claims she offered to call her former co-workers at the Port Canaveral Police Department, or her longtime contact with the F.B.I. in Brevard County.
"I was ordered not to make any phone calls, do anything at all. Nothing. Period," said Taplin, believing she would be fired if she disobeyed the instruction. "Just keep your mouth shut," she claims she was told.
"If a crime is committed while you're hooked up anywhere here, it is an American, it is a United States, it is a Florida crime. Period," said Taplin. "And I was ordered not to be making any phone calls to anybody."
The Disney Dream left Port Canaveral at 5:02 p.m. with the victim and the molestation suspect, Milton Braganza, still on board.
"Disney waits on passengers' luggage. And not setting sail on time," said Taplin. "I remember waiting until 6:30 one time on somebody's luggage."
It was not until the next day, after the ship had left U.S. waters, that Disney Cruise Line notified Port Canaveral police, the FBI, and the U.S. Coast Guard. At the time, none of those entities indicated they wished to investigate the matter, according to Disney officials. The company also alerted the Royal Bahamas Police Force, which took over the investigation because the Disney Dream is flagged in the Bahamas.
"In my professional and personal opinion, I think they wanted to get outside the United States limits and get him off the ship in the Bahamas and just leave it alone," said the former Security Officer.
When the ship arrived in Nassau nearly two days after the incident, Braganza admitted to Bahamas Police, "I touched her on her right breast with my left hand."
By then, the victim's grandmother, who is from Brazil, had declined to prosecute. Taplin does not know why the family chose not to cooperate with Bahamas Police.
Braganza, 33, was later taken to an airport, where Disney arranged for his flight back to his home in India. The company said it paid his expenses, honoring a standard contract provision to cover transportation costs of employees returned to their home nations.
"Americans would have caused a ruckus," said Taplin. "Disney wouldn't have gotten away with it if they were Americans."
According to Disney officials, a new policy has been put in place requiring personnel in the ship's bridge to contact the ship's security team and inquire about any issues before leaving port.
"Since our inception, millions of guests have put their trust in Disney Cruise Line to provide safe and secure vacations, and we take that responsibility very seriously," said Disney Cruise Line president Karl Holz in a prepared statement. "We continue to learn from our experiences and make adjustments as required."
About a week after Taplin investigated the molestation, she resigned from Disney Cruise Line, citing her numerous conflicts with the ship's management team. She had been with Disney for about nine months.
Taplin had been working at the Port Canaveral Police Department when Disney Cruise Line hired her to be a Security Officer in November 2011. She was responsible for supervising a team of 8 or 9 security guards on the ships.
"I was the first female security officer at Disney, and the second in the cruise line industry," said Taplin.
But Taplin, 49, says her excitement of sailing on board the Disney Dream was soon spoiled by what she describes as a culture clash between the ship's supervisors and employees like her with prior U.S. law enforcement experience.
"There was always bumping heads," said Taplin.
The former detective said the level of training of the security guards who worked under her was not as tight as she thought it would be. She claims some security guards admitted to being unable to identify drugs and weapons on the security X-ray machines.
"Passengers should have concern," said Taplin.
According to Disney officials, ship security personnel receive approximately 200 hours of security education and training during the first year and ongoing retraining, including courses hosted by government and outside experts. Employees who screen passengers and crew boarding the ships practice techniques similar to those used by the Transportation Security Administration, according to representatives with Cruise Line International Association.
"We have tremendous confidence in our security operations and our security officers, all of whom have significant security-related experience and nearly all of whom have vast law enforcement or military experience," said Disney Cruise Line's president. "We disagree with Dawn Taplin's characterization of our security operation."
"Cruise lines take a number of steps to address passenger security, including the sharing of passenger information with law enforcement prior to a ship's departure from a U.S. port that is checked against criminal databases and terrorism watch lists," said Cruise Lines International Association Public Affairs director David Peikin.
However, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol does not typically share information with the cruise line about other passengers with past criminal records, such as registered sex offenders or violent ex-convicts.
Taplin confirms her security team was never instructed to watch out for any particular passengers on a cruise.
"The crew crime is worse, in my personal opinion, than the passenger crime," said Taplin.
She says she investigated crew members showing up to work intoxicated, getting into fights, and stealing alcohol and personal electronics left behind by passengers.
Disney officials said they have no tolerance for such behavior, which could result in termination. The company points out they conduct random drug and alcohol screening of all crew members.
Following a New Year's Eve party on board the ship, Taplin investigated a crew member who exposed himself to a female crew member.
"This was a rape getting ready to happen," said Taplin.
Disney Cruise Line officials notified Port Canaveral police and the FBI of that January 1, 2012, incident. However, the FBI declined to get involved and the state attorney's office for Brevard and Seminole Counties decided not to prosecute, according to a report.
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