A Murder Mystery Night Aboard A Cruise Masked A Horrific Crime Happening Just Feet Away

On July 23, 2017, some 3,400 passengers boarded The Emerald Princess cruise ship. The vessel left Seattle for its seven-day round trip to Alaska, but it would not complete the voyage. During a murder mystery dinner event a few nights in, a real-life killing took place. The ship was then diverted to the Alaskan city of Juneau to allow an F.B.I. investigation to take place.

The cruise ship traveled along the picturesque Alaskan coastline and during the voyage the tour operator had laid on a wealth of entertainment options for its guests. One of these was a Sherlock Holmes-themed musical murder mystery dinner. When noises could be heard from the real killing that was taking place in one of the ship’s cabins, guests believed it was simply part of the evening’s entertainment.

A passenger named Vic Simpson told TV program Inside Edition that the screams which could be heard from the cabin weren’t taken seriously by the guests. He remarked, “Most people thought it was just part of the dramatic effect of what they were doing.” It was the next morning before most passengers found out what had really happened.

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And what had actually happened on board The Emerald Princess? To answer that question, it is necessary to delve into the story of Kenneth Manzanares, an insurance salesman and his real estate broker wife Kristy. The couple, who lived in St. George, Utah and had been high school sweethearts, were celebrating their 18th anniversary on board the cruise ship.

Kenneth had worked a number of jobs over the years, according to his LinkedIn page. He was once a manager at a company that specialized in folding chairs and tables, and he had been a bail bondsman at Bad Boys Bail Bonds in Utah from 2011 onwards. He had also worked as an advisor in local Utah youth programs.

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Meanwhile, according to her biography on the Summit/Sotheby’s International Realty website (which has since been removed) Kristy had earned a degree in Family and Consumer Science from Southern Utah University. This qualification included a focus on interior design. She obtained her real estate license in 2010, and according to her employer’s website, she provided “constant communication and top-notch customer service.”

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Like her husband, Kristy was involved with local youth programs. Her realtor’s profile revealed that enjoyed “volunteering at local schools” and “cheering on her daughters at soccer games.” It added she was “involved in the Jubilee Of Trees” as a tree designer each year. The profile also said that she was learning to play golf alongside her husband.

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Kristy was vocal on social media about her love for the couple’s three daughters. In one post from 2015 she wrote, “Today I’m thankful for these three girls whom I frequently refer to as my little Beasts. In reality, they are becoming beautiful young women with unique qualities & fun personalities that keep us laughing nonstop.”

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The daughters were with their parents on the cruise, alongside a group of extended family members. However, sources alleged that the cruise was far from relaxing for the Manzanares clan. A family member, who was not on the ship, nonetheless alleged that on the night of the murder mystery event Kenneth and Kristy were experiencing marital strife.

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“He had been acting terrible [sic] all night,” alleged the source to PEOPLE magazine, saying that Kenneth had become angry during a family dinner. Sometime after this, they disclosed, Kristy told Kenneth that she wanted a divorce. The source added that they had not known of the couple experiencing any previous marital troubles, commenting that if they did, “they never showed any of that to anyone else.”

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This source claimed that, upon hearing sounds of screaming coming from Kristy’s cabin, her father and brother broke down the door to gain entry. They reportedly found the room to be soaked in blood and Kristy suffering from a serious head wound. Allegedly, Kenneth was standing over her, also spattered with blood.

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This account of events tallies in a few ways with the official federal arrest affidavit of Kenneth Manzanares. It stated that on July 25, 2017, security and medical personnel working on board The Emerald Princess responded to an incident at the Manzanares’s cabin. They immediately saw that Kenneth had blood on his hands and clothing.

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Kenneth was placed in handcuffs and taken to the next compartment, where he was locked inside. When full entry was gained to the first cabin, they saw Kristy lying on the floor, “covered in blood.” In the affidavit, it was noted that Kristy, “was found with a severe head wound in a room in which blood was spread throughout…on multiple surfaces.”

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Kristy was pronounced dead only 20 minutes after being found. An unnamed witness reportedly tried to get an explanation from Kenneth, asking him what happened to Kristy. Kenneth reportedly replied, “She would not stop laughing at me.” Then, when he was being arrested by the F.B.I., he allegedly said, “My life is over.”

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According to PEOPLE the same witness also alleged that, at one point before security arrived, Kenneth hauled his wife’s body towards the balcony of their cabin. His intention was presumably to throw her body overboard. The witness claimed that he was forced to grab Kristy’s ankles and pull her back into the cabin to prevent this awful act.

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Interestingly, the family source who claimed that Kenneth was angry at dinner and that Kristy had requested a divorce said they didn’t believe Kristy would have been laughing at his expense. They said, “I have my doubts that she was even laughing at him. Because everyone else said they heard fighting and yelling, not laughter.”

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The mystery of exactly why the terrible incident occurred deepened when other witnesses came forward with their accounts of the evening. Charles Rowlen told KTVA, a news station in Alaska, that he and his wife were staying two floors above the Manzanares’ cabin. He alleged that he was able to hear voices yelling and could ascertain it was a family dispute.

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He said, “There was a lot of yelling started up again between men, fighting you know, someone hurt someone’s sister,”. He then spoke of something his wife told him. She alleged that she saw a man, covered in blood and bruises, standing near the ship’s railing. She thought he looked like he was contemplating throwing himself overboard.

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“She thought he was going to jump over the rail,” Rowlen told the TV station, “and at one point he put his hand on the rail and set his rear on it.” Rowlen’s wife alleged that she screamed at the man, “Get back in!”. Was this man Kenneth Manzanares? And was he thinking of attempting suicide in the aftermath of an unforgiveable act?

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Other passengers spoke to local news outlets and revealed that the couple’s young daughters were seen outside the cabin and were despondent. Natalie Beckstrom alleged that she viewed a 13-year-old girl, “standing there wrapped in a blanket, just sobbing.” A man then came out of the Manzanares’ cabin, his clothes drenched in blood.

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According to Beckstrom, the man (it’s unclear whether he was a medic, security officer, witness or maybe even a family member) told the girl, “It doesn’t look good.” She said the young girl then, “just lost it.” She said the girl, in a heart-breaking scene, “just started sobbing ‘I want my mommy, I want my mommy.’”

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Beckstrom also corroborated the stories of other guests who said they initially believed the incident was simply part of the murder-mystery theme. She told newspaper the St. George News that she went to check on her children after several announcements were made on the PA system. These requested more security and medical personnel to attend an incident.

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Beckstrom said one of her own relatives asked, “Don’t you think that’s part of the play?” She replied, “Oh yeah, duh”, before alleging, “So that’s kind of what everybody in the room was thinking was that it was just part of the play.” Unfortunately for everyone, however, it was not part of their entertainment, and instead represented a very grave situation.

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Another passenger, Jen Larson, told TV network ABC News that she also saw a Manzanares daughter after the incident occurred. She claimed that the girl was frantic and terrified. Larson said, “She was just really scared. She said, ‘I just want to go and see my mom! I just want to see my mom! What’s happening?’”

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Passenger Chris Ceman also seemed to have seen one of the Manzanares daughters in distress. He told Inside Edition, “One of the little girls from that room came running out calling for help.” He then alleged that she said “her parents had been in a fight,” adding that the girl “sounded pretty desperate.”

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Passengers were prevented from leaving the vessel when the F.B.I. boarded the ship, unable to disembark for nine hours until an investigation had taken place. Many passengers were even denied permission to quit their cabins, such was the effort to keep the situation under control. Princess Cruises issued $150 credit to each passenger, to be redeemed on board the ship, as an apology for the inconvenience caused.

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The F.B.I. conducted its investigation with the aid of the U.S. Coast Guard. It was reportedly notified at 11pm on the night of the murder, and quickly dispatched 12 agents to Juneau, Alaska, where The Emerald Princess was docked. Agents interviewed somewhere close to 200 guests and members of the crew.

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The Manzanares family was utterly shocked at what had taken place on The Emerald Princess. Kasey Hunt, a cousin from Kristy’s home state of Utah, struggled to accept that Kristy was now gone. He told Inside Edition in July 2017, “Emotionally, it is hard to comprehend having someone so sweet and so perfect taken in the prime of their life like that.”

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Hunt also conducted an interview with PEOPLE in which he praised his cousin’s effervescent personality and genuine kindness. He said Kristy, “had a glow to her and filled a room with life.” He also made a point to say, “She was so damn nice to everyone, she was amazing.”

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In the days following her death, Kristy’s family released a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune newspaper. It was given through their spokeswoman Miranda Barnard, Kristy’s lifelong friend. The statement read, “We are devastated over the loss of Kristy. She is the light of our lives – a devoted mother, daughter, sister and friend.”

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“Kristy led by example with her giving heart,” the statement continued, “and we are inspired by the legacy of kindness and optimism she has instilled in her children. We appreciate all the support shown toward us from friends and family in Carbon and Washington Counties, as well as Princess Cruise Lines and Alaska Airlines.”

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It was clear that Kristy was a beloved member of her community, as tributes poured in on Facebook from shocked and distraught friends. “St. George and the real estate community are deeply saddened at the loss of this beautiful bright light,” read the post of one local woman. She added, “Kristy Manzanares you are truly loved. Blessings and prayers.”

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The genuine grief was palpable in this post, which was from one of Kristy’s friends. It read, “Please say a special prayer for Kristy Manzanares. She was a smart, kind and beautiful woman who had everything to live for, including her young daughters, plus a successful real estate career. My heart is breaking for her loved ones!”

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A GoFundMe page was created in the days following the murder, in order to aid the Manzanares family with costs associated with Kristy’s death. The web page read, “Kristy died a great distance away and her family needs to get her home. Please help the family with her final expenses and to help her three beautiful children.”

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Kenneth appeared in court, via teleconference, three days after the death. He had restraints around his ankles and was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. Both before and during his hearing, he could be seen weeping and wiping his eyes and nose. However, Kenneth offered no plea, and a definitive explanation of why he killed his wife was still elusive.

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Judge Kevin F. McCoy ruled that Kenneth should be held in custody while awaiting his trial date. A preliminary hearing was organized for August 10, 2017 and until then his lawyer, Jamie McGrady, refused to give any comment to the media. Giving background, the St. George News reported that Kenneth had no criminal history in Utah, prior to killing his wife.

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In late August 2017, Kenneth did finally enter a plea to the charge of first-degree murder of his wife. He pleaded not guilty during his arraignment in Juneau, Alaska, and once again wept during the proceedings. At this point, the prosecuting attorneys had not decided whether they wanted to seek the death penalty.

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However, two years later, Kenneth’s attorneys filed a motion to change his plea. They said they were in the process of cementing the finer details of a plea agreement and asked for a November date in court. This followed McGrady telling a judge in February 2019 that he hoped an agreement could be made in order to avoid a trial.

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At this point, more than two years after Kristy’s demise, there are still very few details publicly known about the crime. Kenneth’s attorneys filed documentation saying they had enlisted experts to test Kenneth’s mental state at the time of the murder. They said this would be critical to any verdict in the case, but the experts’ findings are still unknown.

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Perhaps the world will never know the exact reason Kenneth Manzanares slew his wife. The silence from he and his legal team has been deafening, and the Manzanares family has rarely spoken publicly about the case either. It’s possible that she truly did tell him she wanted a divorce, or that she laughed at him, and he snapped. But unless someone speaks up officially, the ‘why’ will remain shrouded in mystery.

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