Homesick Woman Guilty of High-Seas Terror Hoax
By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2003; Page A01
LOS ANGELES, May 16 -- Kelley Marie Ferguson never wanted to take a stupid cruise. A week at sea with her parents? Away from her boyfriend? How boring. As soon as the ship set sail, she felt trapped and miserable.
Then she had an idea.
Ship stewards found the poorly worded notes in two bathrooms. One threatened to "kill all Americanos abord" if the ocean liner made its scheduled stop in Hawaii. "Give this warning to El Capt ion to save all lives," another said. "Do take this serious he sent me from far away land for mission I will complete if port on American soil."
It was only a prank. But it has become another parable of life in a time of terrorist fear.
Ferguson, 20, pleaded guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court in Honolulu to making the phony threats last month. Investigators said she had hoped the notes would hasten the cruise ship's return to Mexico and get her back home to Orange County, and the boyfriend her parents loathe, more quickly. But her plan backfired.
After receiving the threats, the captain immediately dropped anchor off Oahu. Then more than 100 federal and local agents scrambled aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and sped across rough seas in the middle of the night to reach the apparently endangered ship. They deployed 40 bomb-sniffing dogs on every deck. They tested food for poison. They interrogated almost all of the 1,700 passengers and 700 crew members on board.
The swift and massive emergency response, federal authorities said, never would have occurred in a nation not still haunted by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They said it cost the Coast Guard and law enforcement agencies more than $300,000.
Investigators found nothing that seemed alarming or suspicious -- except their encounter with Ferguson. She had called attention to herself during the security sweep by telling them that she had seen someone plant the threatening notes in the bathrooms.
They questioned her awhile longer. Then her story fell apart. Prosecutors and her attorney said she soon confessed.
"She never wanted to go on the cruise. She wanted to see her boyfriend. She wanted to go home," federal public defender Loretta Faymonville, who is representing Ferguson, said in a telephone interview from Honolulu today. "She thought this would cause the cruise ship to turn back to Ensenada. It was extremely foolish and she knows that now."
Ferguson has spent weeks behind bars. Her parents, apparently tired of her antics, said after her arrest that they would not post bail even if a judge granted it.
"She promises not to do it again -- but yeah, right," her mother, Debra Ferguson, a nurse, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. She said the family felt terrible that so many vacationers on board the cruise ship had been frightened and delayed. She also called her daughter a "brat."
Ferguson's arrest ruined a family trip that apparently had been in the works for two years. Her father, Tim Ferguson, who owns an auto repair shop in Orange County, has told reporters that he wanted to take Kelley and his three other daughters on the cruise from Mexico to Hawaii as a kind of last hurrah before they all left the nest. The family lives in the quiet middle-class suburb of Laguna Hills.
Even before the cruise, Kelley Ferguson apparently had been giving her parents fits. She is their youngest child. She had received citations for loitering in recent years, and they were none too pleased with her taste in men. Her boyfriend has been arrested on drug and theft charges. During one stint in jail, he apparently called Ferguson collect at home so often that her parents got stuck with a $1,500 phone bill.
Ferguson had another surprise for them when she pleaded guilty. She said she was pregnant.
Ferguson had been charged with two felony counts of issuing false threats to kill passengers on a vehicle of mass transportation. As part of her plea, prosecutors dropped one count. She still could face as much as 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. But under sentencing guidelines, it is likely that she will receive no more than two years.
Ferguson was ordered freed on $5,000 bail and placed under house arrest in her parents' custody. She is forbidden to have any contact with her boyfriend.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson said from Honolulu today that even though prosecutors do not believe Ferguson should be treated like "an al Qaeda member," she should nevertheless receive serious punishment.
"We have to send a message," he said, "that when you make this kind of threat, you are going to prison and you are going to serve some time."
Special correspondent Kimberly Edds contributed to this report.