Hired to Fight Pirates, but Doomed by Boredom
MV Maersk Alabama leaves Mombasa, Kenya, April 21, 2009 after pirate attack took her captain hostage. ( Photo license
(New York Times) - The night before their lifeless bodies were found inside a cabin on a cargo ship, Jeffrey Reynolds and Mark Kennedy enjoyed the night life here, at tourist haunts called Le Rendez Vous and the Pirates Arms.
The two, both former members of the Navy SEALs working as ship guards, later visited two casinos, playing blackjack and drinking vodka and tequila with sailors from New Zealand. When the second casino shut its doors at 3 a.m., surveillance images show that the pair bumped into two women and departed with them down a dark corridor.
It was in Mr. Kennedy’s cabin, more than 12 hours later, that a ship security officer discovered the two men on Feb. 18. Mr. Reynolds was slumped on the bed, and Mr. Kennedy was lying face up on the floor, a syringe in his left hand, brown heroin powder in the room, according to police reports. It was unclear how long they had been dead.
The larger mystery was how two men in their 40s who had endured the grueling work of Navy SEALs — one of them surviving multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — ended up dying together in the cramped quarters of the Maersk Alabama, a ship made famous by a 2009 pirate hijacking that was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie “Captain Phillips.”
While veterans, especially those returning from war zones, have shown a high prevalence of substance abuse and other risky behaviors, friends, family and acquaintances of the two men said they seemed to have adjusted well to civilian life after years in the military. They were known as much for their zest for life as their hulking physiques.
Still, long days at sea guarding against piracy — a threat that has receded significantly in recent years — were a stark contrast to their past lives in an elite military unit. Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Kennedy worked for a private security company, Trident Group, protecting the Maersk Alabama’s crew and cargo from attacks. Boredom, both men had told friends, was the real enemy on the open sea.
People who knew the men expressed shock that either would have used heroin, and former crew members on the Maersk said drug use was prohibited. When Jeremy White, a former Navy reservist and workout partner of Mr. Kennedy — so clean cut and chiseled that he was nicknamed Captain America — was asked about possible drug use by his friend, he said, “There’s no way you can do their job and that.”
On Monday, the police on this Indian Ocean island said that autopsies showed the official cause of death for both men was respiratory failure and possible heart attacks. “The police preliminary investigation report includes suspicion of drug use, as indicated by the presence of a syringe and traces of heroin, which were found in the cabin,” said Jean Toussaint, a police spokesman.
Urine, stomach contents and blood are all being sent to a forensic laboratory on the island of Mauritius, about 1,000 miles away, for further analysis, Mr. Toussaint said.
“Curse of the Maersk Alabama Strikes Again,” read the headline across the front page of a newspaper here, referring to the piracy during which the ship’s captain was held hostage in a lifeboat. Since that happened, the Maersk Alabama has twice rebuffed pirate attacks, in part because the ship now deploys armed guards like Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Reynolds.
Some of the ship’s former crew members have sued Maersk, the Danish shipping company, claiming there was insufficient onboard security at the time of the hijacking.
A collection of more than a hundred small islands, the Seychelles are about 1,000 miles east of Kenya. With a population of about 91,000, they are famous for their luxurious beaches, drawing visitors including Prince William and the former Kate Middleton for their honeymoon.
But the islands are also struggling with one of the world’s highest rates of injectable drug use, about 2.3 percent of the population, according to the United Nations 2013 World Drug Report. The night life in Port of Victoria features a mix of cruisegoers in flip-flops and burly, tattooed sailors lounging in bars with thumping music. Casinos ding with slot machines. Prostitutes gather in the shadows outside.
A recent crackdown on drugs has had some unintended consequences. “The product is becoming harder to get,” said Raymond St. Ange, a security consultant for the Seychelles minister of home affairs. “What’s available is being cut with something else.”
Liam Quinn, the deputy chief officer of the National Drug Enforcement Agency in the Seychelles, said the purity of the heroin analyzed by the agency varied between 40 percent and a much weaker 10 percent. The substances used to cut the drug are usually not harmful, he added, though the contents of the drug cocktails are difficult to predict. But several local residents who were interviewed and asked not to be named said that dangerous pesticides had turned up in some drug mixtures.
The Maersk Alabama and its 24-man crew berthed in the Seychelles at midday on Feb. 17, en route from Salalah, Oman. The ship was scheduled to leave the Seychelles the next night but was delayed after the bodies were discovered.
The possible drug use appeared to be “an isolated incident,” said Kevin Speers, a Maersk Line spokesman. Employees of Trident, the security firm, and Maersk are subject to mandatory drug and alcohol tests. Mr. Speers said Maersk was reviewing personnel records to determine whether drug tests, background checks and training requirements were up-to-date.
Former crew and company officials said that life on board the Maersk Alabama was boring but not atypical for seafarers. The ship has Internet access, televisions, an exercise room and a swimming pool.
“We played cards, we used to telephone people, or you would be by yourself,” said Clifford Lacon, who worked on the ship in 2009. “No drugs.”
Mr. Kennedy, 43, joined the Navy in 1995 and almost immediately began the intensive two-year SEALs training program. He was awarded over a dozen medals and decorations before retiring in 2010, including citations recognizing his service in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He trained as a medic in the Louisiana National Guard from 1988 to 1994.
Mr. Reynolds, 44, enlisted in 1990 and served for 10 years but never saw combat. He received medals for good conduct, spending three years as an instructor of Close Quarter Battle at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and rising to the rank of boatswain’s mate third class before he was honorably discharged in August 2000. Mr. Reynolds spent the majority of his career with the West Coast-based Special Warfare Unit, while Mr. Kennedy was largely with the East Coast Special Warfare Unit, Navy records show.
Mr. White, Mr. Kennedy’s friend, described him as “a perfect physical specimen.” He had grown close to Mr. Kennedy and his wife, Julia, while exercising with him at a gym in Baton Rouge, La.
Brian Beckcom, a Houston lawyer who represents some Maersk crewmen from the 2009 hijacking and said Mr. Kennedy’s widow had sought his advice, concurred. Mr. Kennedy had “tons of medical training,” Mr. Beckcom said, adding that he thought Mr. Kennedy would be wary of using heroin overseas and possibly falling for something tainted or so strong it could lead to overdose or death.
In a quiet cul-de-sac in Fallbrook, Calif., not far from Camp Pendleton, Mr. Reynolds’s neighbors and friends were incredulous about the suspicions of drug use.
“They were church people,” said Paul Bell, a neighbor, about Mr. Reynolds and his former wife, Jill. Monika Connelly, another neighbor, added that when her family hosted neighborhood barbecues, the Reynoldses did not even drink alcohol.
The couple, whose divorce after 11 years of marriage became final in December, had an 11-year old son, Chase, whom Mr. Reynolds often took dirt biking and on soccer trips. Clad in black leather and a black helmet, Mr. Reynolds was often seen riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle through the neighborhood.
Craig Donor, 68, known as Gunny, state captain for the Southern California Patriot Guard Riders, a biker group that provides motorcycle escorts for the remains of soldiers and veterans, said that Mr. Reynolds and his father, Charles, were active members in the group. The senior Mr. Reynolds contacted the group last week, Mr. Donor said, to ask for a ride in honor of his son when his body is returned to California.
For Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Reynolds, the fateful evening in the Seychelles began as the crew headed to Le Rendez Vous, a jungle-themed bar at the center of town with a view of the silver clock tower erected in honor of Queen Victoria.
They moved to a different bar and the first of two casinos, when at 11 p.m. a pair of crewmates left to return to the ship. Continuing their revelry, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Reynolds headed to the Victoria International Casino, where staff members recalled that Mr. Reynolds played blackjack, and Mr. Kennedy flirted with the female staff members.
Workers there described the men as jovial. They had to go out to an A.T.M. for more money, as the rounds of drinks mounted.
Robert Nanty, who works in security at the casino, said Mr. Kennedy “was telling us he speaks a bit of Creole,” though not the local variety, and tried it out. “He was talking with everyone,” Mr. Nanty said.
They were eventually escorted out at 3 a.m. when the casino closed. “I told them, ‘Hey look, we need to close,’ ” Mr. Nanty said. “ ‘You have to leave.’ ” At 6 a.m., the police report noted, they returned to the ship.
Nicholas Kulish reported from Port of Victoria, Seychelles, and Ian Urbina and Mark Mazzetti from Washington. Jeremy Alford contributed reporting from Central, La.; Christopher Drew from New York; and Kristina Rebelo from Fallbrook, Calif. Susan Beachy contributed research from New York, and Kitty Bennett from St. Petersburg, Fla.
A version of this article appears in print on February 26, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition.