Murders at sea may be the stuff of seafarers tales but they do happen. When three mysterious deaths occur in just a few weeks aboard a ship under the command of a self-confessed gun-runner and allegedly physically abusive master intent on preventing complaints by his crew from reaching the authorities, it is inevitable that the possibility of murder will be taken seriously.
Like any other random event, accidents can and do happen in clusters that suggest a pattern, even when there is no common link between them. Such may be so in the case of the fatalities aboard Sage Sagittarius, a Panama-flagged bulker of 73,430 gross tonnes built in 2001. It will be up to a New South Wales Coroners Court to determine whether the deaths need further investigation by police authorities.
Prior to the deaths, the vessel’s master, Venancio Salas, ran a sideline selling guns to the crew, which they would be expected to buy from brochures for more than $600. Weapons would be delivered to crew members’ homes in the Philippines when their contracts ended.
For one man, Jessie Martinez, who worked in the mess under chief cook Cesar Llanto, it was not a happy ship. He was being bullied because he was gay and Captain Salas was among his tormentors. Martinez also claimed that he was forced to work overtime for free. It was his first contract at sea.
Martinez sought Llanto’s support, who promised to speak to the master about the bullying. Egged on by an oiler, Raul Vercede, Martinez decided to write a letter of complaint to the Australian authorities and the ITF. Llanto was not in support of the complaint.
On 30 August 2012 as Sage Sagittarius approached the Australian coast and the opportunity to send the complaint got closer, Martinez changed his mind, but he was worried that Vercede would inform the authorities of the complaint and went to the ship’s bridge to inform the master and chief officer. Llanto also spoke to the master on the bridge.
An audio of that recording should have been stored on the ship’s voyage data recorder, VDR. Master Salas told the inquest that he could not remember doing anything to the VDR.
That day Llanto disappeared and is assumed to have gone overboard. His body has never been found despite search and rescue efforts.
Executives for NYK expressed concern: “NYK Tokyo has organised crisis management to fix this incident because there is a few possibility of murder,” wrote one in an email. NYK dispatched Kosaku Monji, a safety superintendent, to board the ship, make inquiries and to try and settle a rattled crew.
Salas told the crew to throw away any gun brochures they had.
A maritime accident investigator from Australia’s Transport Safety Bureau became suspicious and alerted law enforcement agencies.
Australian Federal Police, AFP, boarded the vessel at Port Kembla, New South Wales. It was assumed that the ‘murder’ email was an error in translation.
Martinez and Vercede, together with three other crew members, departed the ship at Port Kembla and were flown out of Australia.
Chief engineer Hector Collado was scheduled to leave the vessel at Newcastle and he was worried. He told his wife that he was being targeted and followed. In his final conversations, he said he was fearful and afraid and asked to be picked up at Manila airport with a different car than usual. He had been helping the deceased Llanto with a problem, he told them.
The AFP had just a few hours to interview the crew and collect forensics samples before the ship departed for Newcastle where they would continue the investigation. One man they thought knew more than he had already told them was Hector Collado.
They did not get that opportunity to further interview Mr. Collado.
As the vessel busied itself taking on pilots and organising for the arrival in Newcastle, the engine room crew heard a bang and found Collado on the engine room floor having fallen 11 metres.
Again the AFP, and this time the New South Wales Police, had limited time to do their work.
Forensics personnel found a trail of blood leading to the rail over which Collado had fallen. An autopsy confirmed that Collado had a cut to the back of his head, sustained before he fell.
There was a new crew waiting at Newcastle and most of Sage Sagittarius‘s officers and crew were flown to the Philippines, leaving a largely new group to take the vessel to Japan. The vessel left for Japan with a cargo of coal and superintendent Kosaku Monji still aboard.
On the morning of 6 October while the vessel was discharging cargo, Monji was found dead. He had apparently tried to fix noisy feeder conveyor rollers and had been caught and dragged into the equipment. An investigation published in 2013 concluded:
“It is probable that the accident occurred because (Monji) was trapped in the roller while lubricating the Roller in the feeder conveyor passage after being informed that the roller were making an abnormal noise again, as the Roller were to be lubricated every three hours after SI managed to stop the previous abnormal noise in the feeder conveyor by lubricating the Roller without stopping the operation of No.1 while the vessel was unloading coals from the cargo holds by operating No.1 at Kudamatsu Coal Transshipment Terminal i n Tokuyama – Kudamatsu Port.”
Monji’s death was not in the jurisdiction of the New South Wales Coroners Court.
The court completed hearings on 19 February and its findings are awaited. It may decide the deaths were accident or misadventure, unlawful killing, suicide or an open verdict.
The story of the Sage Sagittarius is far from over.