Jennifer Hagel Smith has spoken out publicly for the first time about her wedding to the love of her life, George Smith. It’s been a little over five months since 26-year-old newlywed George Smith was reported a man overboard, missing and presumed drowned in the Aegean Sea.
Two decks below the honeymooner’s balcony suite, on a ship’s overhang, was an ugly blood stain.
His family members have confirmed that investigators also found blood in the cabin.
The passengers on either side both remembered loud noises coming from the Smith cabin a little after 4 am last July 5th.
Was it a raucus party or a fight? There were ear-witnesses, some blood stains, and accounts of a long night of binge drinking by the honeymooners and four other young men, new shipboard acquaintances. They were among the passengers and crew members later questioned by authorities.
It was not much for investigators to go on to resolve a still unanswered question: Was the groom’s disappearance the result of an accident or foul play?
For George Smith’s family— sister, mother and father— there’s no longer any doubt.
This past week, the Smiths were reunited with their daughter-in-law Jennifer in a Washington D.C. congressional committee hearing room. Their congressman called in cruise ship industry executives to answer pointed questions about onboard security and safety measures for passengers.
Jennifer and the Smiths say they’re preparing a joint lawsuit against the operator of the cruise, the Royal Caribbean line.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Do you believe the cruise ship is complicit in his death, what you call a murder?Mr. Smith, George's father: I think the cruise ship is covering up evidence. And I think they swept evidence under the carpet and they just don’t want to admit they got caught. How much do you have to have something written on the wall to say, you know: “This is murder?”Murphy: Y’all think it was murder. Do you think it was about money?Bree Smith, George's sister: We don’t know.Mrs. Smith, George's mother: We don’t know.
Jennifer did NOT testify but had a statement read into the record, including her harrowing account of being all but abandoned, she claimed, at a dock in Turkey.
Jennifer Hagel-Smith talked exclusively to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough of “Scarborough Country” about the worst day of her life. She was told her husband was overboard, then instructed by ship’s officers, she said, to clean-up before an interview with Turkish authorities.
Jennifer Hagel-Smith: And I was told to take a shower. And I was then given the Royal Caribbean t-shirt, Royal Carribbean gym shorts and Royal Caribbean tank top because they said we cannot, you know obviously give you any of your own clothing, which was all in our room.
The dazed bride seemed unaware that local authorities, who had jurisdiction in her husband’s disappearance, would look at her suspiciously, as they did initially.
Hagel-Smith: I was taken away from the ship. So now I am in town. I am the only one there of all the other passengers. I am the only one who is in Turkey in a Turkish police station and there I am with all of my Royal Caribbean logo-ed attire and just feeling, just falling deeper into just this feeling of shock.
And, as Jennifer tells it, the Turks then essentially strip-searched her at another location, a hospital in town.
Hagel-Smith: And it was really, for lack of a better word, seedy sort of area and place. And the man just very, you know just lifted up my shirt and just looked down my pants. And at this point, I felt, you know, what does it matter? You know at this point modesty is out the window. At this point you don’t care about anything.
As evening fell Jennifer says she assumed she would be re-boarding the ship after a long day of interrogation but, she says, she was brought back to the dock only to find her luggage waiting.
Hagel-Smith: I see George’s suitcases. I see my suitcases and I see 10 Royal Carribean logo’ed plastic souvenir bags on the dock and I just froze. As I am looking at all of our suitcases, just one thing stuck out: It was george’s sneakers. George’s sneakers were appearing out of one of the bags that were, that was just haphazardly thrown together, in an attempt to, I am sure, get me and anything having to do with George and I just off the ship… It just kind of hit me at that moment, that’s it. He will never wear those sneakers again.
The FBI which is conducting the investigation into George Smith’s disappearance has made a point of letting it be known that Jennifer is not a suspect in any theory of foul play. But she is still an enigmatic figure for people following the case simply as an intruiging unsolved mystery.
While she’s cooperating with investigators, she’s never publicly revealed where she was, or if she blacked out as another passenger has said she told him, during the critical hours when it’s believed her husband went overboard.
Her late husband’s family says not even they have heard her account of events.
Mr. Smith: It's been said, that the FBI asked Jennifer not really to go into that. That that was part of the investigation. That’s basically pretty much what we’ve heard.Murphy: So you don’t know her story either?Mr. Smith: No, that’s the answer.Bree Smith: We wouldn’t do anything to hinder the investigation and you know...Murphy: But Bree, it strikes me as odd.Bree Smith: It’s difficult.Mr. Smith: It is. We would love to, but you know most important to us is getting the culprits and getting them prosecuted and getting them convicted. And making sure that they go to jail. Because my brother is in the bottom of the Aegean sea and the culprits are walking around. And that’s foremost in our minds: making sure that those people are convicted and that they don’t go on to do this again.
The FBI has not tipped its hand about the status of the investigation but the Smith family is encouraged that five months in it’s still aggressively pursuing a foul-play scenario.
Mrs. Smith: I honestly don’t think that the FBI would be giving it 100-percent attention...Bree Smith: ...and spending millions of dollars, and agents all over the world working on this...Mrs. Smith: ...if it wasn’t murder.
As for the Royal Caribbean cruise line, a spokesperson gave “Dateline” a statement denying both Jennifer Smith’s allegation of callous treatment in Turkey and the Smith family’s accusation of cleaning up and covering up a crime scene.
Writing in part:
“All of us at Royal Caribbean extend our deepest sympathies to Jennifer Hagel-Smith and the Smith family....we also realize members of the family remain in deep shock and pain and their recollections of events may not reflect what actually happened.”
Jennifer, according to Royal Caribbean, was accompanied in Turkey by a female guest relations manager from the ship, a U.S. consul official and an FBI agent and, the cruise line says, Jennifer declined its offers to arrange for travel back to the States.
“Jennifer said repeatedly she preferred to leave the ship... At no time was Jennifer left without resources or contact information.”
So it remains a mystery what happened aboard “Brilliance of the Seas” somewhere between Greece and Turkey last summer.
A young man lost, the bud of a marriage destroyed, now a family silent no more.
Mrs. Smith: It’s a tragic situation. And we want answers. And we’re just going to keep pushing now. We’re out there now.Bree Smith: We’re not gonna let it go.
Jennifer Hagel-Smith is offering a $100,000 reward for any information that leads to an arrest in her husband’s case.