Sage Sagittarius inquest: ‘death ship’ crewmen were victims of foul play, coroner finds

A Filipino chef and an engineer who died in quick succession on a bulk freighter dubbed the “death ship” both met with foul play, a coroner has found.

The coroner also said the evidence “strongly suggests” the ship’s captain, Venancio Salas Jr, either “caused or authorised” the disappearance of the chef or withheld information from the inquest. The coroner noted that she had come to this conclusion despite the fact Salas had cooperated with the inquest by giving evidence on three separate occasions.

Experienced sailor and head chef Cesar Llanto, 42, disappeared from the ship in unusual circumstances in late August 2012, while it sailed along international waters off the Queensland coast.

Two weeks later, when the ship was in Newcastle harbour, engineer Hector Collado, 55, was found dead on board.

The deaths were both considered suspicious but the crew was largely reluctant to provide information to the Australian authorities.

No charges were laid and an 11-day inquest was held in New South Wales.

The inquest heard the ship’s captain was selling guns to the crew and the culture on board was marked by bullying, harassment, silencing and “blacklisting”.

On Wednesday, the deputy state coroner, Sharon Freund, found Llanto had died either after being thrown overboard or killed on the ship and his body then later disposed of “by a person or persons unknown”.

Two weeks later, Collado was struck over the head by a weapon, again by person or persons unknown, and was either then thrown or fell over the handrail outside the ship’s storeroom on the second deck.

A third man, Kosaku Monji, 37, was crushed to death in a conveyer belt in October 2012, while the ship was docked at the Japanese port of Kudamatsu. The coroner’s court had no jurisdiction to make findings on the death of Monji, as it occurred in a Japanese port, but noted that the Japanese coast guard had deemed his death an accident with no suspicious circumstances.

There were tensions on board the shipbefore the deaths, the inquest heard.
It heard that a mess officer, Jessie Martinez, was the subject of bullying and intimidation because of his homosexuality and junior status on the vessel.

But when Llanto joined the ship, the bullying eased. The crew believed Llanto was related to Martinez, and there was evidence that Llanto had acted as the man’s “big brother figure”.

Martinez was assaulted three times by the ship’s captain, the inquest heard, and fellow crew members had told him to complain to the union and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority once the ship was in mobile phone range. Another crew member was preparing to make the complaint on Martinez’s behalf.

The inquest heard Salas became aware of the plot to report him before Llanto’s death.

Audio recordings from the ship’s voyage data recorder (VDR) system were also deliberately deleted on the day of Llanto’s disappearance, the coroner found.

“This fact, in combination with other evidence, suggests strongly to me that Captain Salas caused or authorised the disappearance of Mr Llanto, or that he had knowledge about the circumstances of his disappearance beyond that to which he acknowledged at the inquest,” the coroner wrote.

The disappearance of Llanto caused a climate of fear on board the vessel, the inquest heard.

The second victim, Collado, had expressed fears for his safety. Collado was a potential witness to the circumstances behind the Llanto death, the inquest heard, and Salas had a “particular interest” in speaking with him about changing his statement, the coroner said.

Freund found the two deaths were likely linked. She found there was no direct evidence as to who caused the death of Collado.

“However, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if the [persons] who caused Mr Llanto’s death were not also responsible for Mr Collado’s death,” she wrote.

Sage Sagittarius carried a Panamanian flag, which is a “flag of convenience” allowing the ship owner to operate principally under the regulatory framework of the flagged nation.

Outside the court on Wednesday, Dean Summers, the national co-ordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, said the flag-of-convenience system made workers vulnerable.

The coroner said the inquest highlighted the very significant practical impediments created by a disappearance or a death on board a foreign-flagged vessel.

The AFP and New South Wales police used their best endeavours to investigate the disappearance and deaths, she said.

But their challenges included interviewing members of the crew – all Filipino nationals and most needed an interpreter – who apparently felt intimidated or scared about what had happened.

Her recommendations included considering the establishment of a permanent standing group, with members from at least the AFP, NSW police, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

Such a group would liaise, contact and assist with any investigation of the death or suspicious death on board, or disappearance from, an international vessel in or bound for Australian waters.


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