It was to be a picture perfect honeymoon for 26-year-old George Smith and his new wife, Jennifer Hagel Smith. They and 2,500 other travelers boarded the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Brilliance of the Seas in late May 2005. Their ship pointed its bow toward the Aegean Sea, sailing off for a tour of various Mediterranean ports of call, while the Smiths settled in to what would soon become their honeymoon from hell. Less than a week into their dream cruise something happened that would forever change their lives, a nightmare that continues today.
We’ve all seen the picture of the Smiths in swimsuits aboard the ship so often on cable television that viewers have come to think of them in the same light as Natalee Holloway, another American there one moment, gone the next. In the case of the Smiths, they, like Natalee, violated the rule of travel – always stay with your “wingman,” spouse, partner, friend, or the like; they are responsible for you; you, for them.
And, while some passengers on the cruise ship suggest the Smiths were a perfect couple, others noted obvious differences. What we do know from the endless parade of cable news stories is that George Smith somehow went overboard on the morning of July 5, never to be seen again.
Here is the time line of his last few hours as reconstructed from media interviews and statements by his wife, the cruise line, fellow passengers, and the many lawyers and talking heads that are now somehow part of this tragic story.
On the evening of July 4, George and Jennifer had dinner together in the ship’s dining room. They returned to their cabin for awhile where George took off his sport coat and left it hanging on a chair. In photographs taken the next day, this coat was there, but missing days later. The Smiths left their cabin and headed for ship’s casino for a night of gambling and drinking. Later, they moved on to the ship’s disco where they continued their social activities, again to include what some have described as heavy drinking. Somewhere in this time frame the Smiths met up with four young men, described by some as “the three Russian guys (although other sources identify them as U.S. citizens) and the teenage kid from California.” Exactly what they were drinking and in what amount throughout the night and early morning we do not know, but it is believed that absinthe was included in their choice of beverages.
Absinthe, also known as “the green fairy,” depending on the brand you drink, is a very strong herbal liqueur with the taste of licorice, anise, hyssop, fennel, veronica, lemon balm, and wormwood, and has an alcohol content of up to 90%. Some drink it with a sugar cube to help cut the bitter taste of the drink, but it’s the combination of various herbs, including wormwood, a potentially fatal plant extract, plus the high alcohol content, that gives absinthe its mythical qualities. The sale of absinthe was banned in the U.S. 88 years ago, although its legacy as a mysterious, addictive, and mind-altering drink continues today. Consumers, and this is perhaps a placebo effect, believe that absinthe will give them such a high and such a buzz, that they are willing to risk danger to their health, and life to consume it.
It was in the early morning hours of July 5 that the Smiths and various others found themselves socializing in the disco, drinking shots of absinthe (which is not sold on the ship) and whatever else that may have been legally available in the bar. Passengers suggest that both Smiths had been
drinking and were obviously feeling the effects of a night of imbibing. One passenger, a younger school teacher from Phoenix, said she and a male friend were in the bar with the Smiths and that the Smiths were “heavily intoxicated.” The witness said Jennifer was leaning on a male passenger, “flirting with him,” and because of this George called his new bride a “hussy.” Jennifer, a former college athletic, pushed her husband away from her, straightened up, and dropped kicked him in the groin. George went down and Jennifer was seen to stumble out of the bar. The 24-year-old passenger Jennifer was leaning on said the kick George received was hard and that his pupils were dilated, a look the passenger says he’ll never forget. Nevertheless, Smith, appearing to recover, continued drinking with the group.
Some suggest that the altercation between the Smiths took place between 2:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. Statements attributed to one or more of the four young men with George indicate that they helped him to his cabin before 4:00 a.m., but Jennifer was not there. Then at George’s request they helped him look for his new wife around the ship. She was nowhere to be found. We also know that just before 4:00 a.m. the young men and George returned to Smith’s cabin. A passenger in the cabin next door to the Smiths stated that he was awakened by loud noises and loud talk, perhaps in a foreign language, coming from the open balcony area of the Smith’s cabin. He then heard a sound like furniture being moved about, followed by one last, loud noise, as if a couch had been dropped on or from the balcony. The passenger, a deputy police chief, called the ship’s front desk at 4:05 a.m. to report this. Ship security personnel arrived a few minutes later, but hearing nothing from the Smith’s cabin, they went away without entering.
At least one of the young men with Smith has indicated that he and his friends walked George to his room a second time, and while one man was in the bathroom the others placed George into bed and they all then left the room. It’s noted, however, that another witness reported seeing three young men leave the room. Question – where was the fourth man and did he leave before the three, or stay on in Smith’s room for some unknown purpose?
Somewhere around 4:30 a.m. Jennifer was found lying asleep or unconscious, and either drugged or inebriated (depending on whether you view this from the ship’s standpoint or Jennifer’s attorney’s standpoint) on the hallway floor by ship maintenance personnel. She was on the same deck but the opposite side of the ship from her cabin, something that I know from experience is easy to do even without suffering from the effects of a long night of drinking. A spokesperson for the cruise line indicates that Jennifer got to her feet and walked a short distance, where ship’s personnel, at the telephonic instruction of the ship’s nurse, put her into a wheelchair and pushed her to her cabin. The employees had already determined her cabin number and had gone there looking for George to claim his wife, but he was not in the stateroom at that time. Jennifer was wheeled to her cabin and placed on top of the bedding, claiming that she was otherwise all right.
The Smiths had scheduled his and her massages for the next morning for about 10:00 a.m. Jennifer allegedly said that when she awoke that morning she assumed that George had slept in another cabin that night, indicating that he had done this before on the cruise. Wearing the same clothes she had on the night before, the same clothes that she had just slept in, Jennifer walked to the spa, arriving one and one half hours early for the massage appointment. She allegedly asked if she could be seen early, even though her husband was not there (in her defense perhaps thinking George would meet her in the spa) and even though the appointment was supposedly for both of them at a later hour. It was here that she was found by a ship’s officer and asked if she knew where her husband was.
Jennifer was next to find out about the bloodstain on the life boat cover two decks below their cabin balcony. She was later questioned by another ship’s officer, this in the presence of one of the four young men that were with her and George the night before. The young man allegedly asked if blood had been found. If he did, in fact, say this, was it because he had already heard about the blood from other passengers, or did he witness something in the Smith’s cabin that morning that lead him to ask this, or was it just a “lucky guess” on his part?
The window of opportunity for George Smith to have gone over his balcony railing and land on the small life boat cover decks below appears to have been between about 4:00 a.m. and 4:47a.m., or between the time the loud noise was heard coming from his room and the time Jennifer was escorted back to their cabin. Roughly 47 minutes appears to have spelled the difference between life and death for George Smith. Occurring now is an unfriendly dialogue between the Smith family—George’s parents, sister, and his probable widow—and the cruise line. “She said, they said” rules the cable news airways as the two sides trade allegations and accusations while the Smith’s prepare to sue the cruise line.
It’s now been over six months since George Smith was last seen. Turkish police, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and perhaps a Federal Grand Jury have reviewed the evidence to date. Statements by Jennifer Hagel Smith, various witnesses and suspects, video footage from almost 100 security cameras, cabin key entry information, room service and beverage bills, and telephone calls have all been examined. No public statement has been made by those in the know, again the FBI, as to whether George Smith was a victim of others or an accident or suicide victim. We have heard that blood was found in the cabin, perhaps on the sheets. (Remember the four young men are said to have put George into bed.) Other blood may have been found on the balcony. We’ve all seen the photograph taken by a young passenger on the ship of the blood, perhaps representing the outline of a body, or of blood somehow mixed with sea water that nevertheless stained the white lifeboat cover. Turkish police, called to the ship by the cruise line, appear to have conducted some type of limited forensic examination of the Smith’s cabin. Most television viewers have seen the before and after pictures of the Smith’s room as taken by ship personnel showing items missing or otherwise rearranged. We’re also told that the FBI has been given all available physical evidence, hopefully to include samples of the blood from the cabin. Pictures of the life boat cover, the actual bedding from the Smith’s room, and perhaps the carpet and other possible evidence found in the room and associated with any suspect has also been given to the FBI. Questions for the FBI Laboratory to help answer include whose blood was found in the room, on the balcony, and on the life boat cover? What other physical evidence has been found to link some other person to the room and perhaps to the untimely death of George Smith. The evidence and statements should give the FBI a pretty good picture of what happened the night that George Smith went overboard. But why he went overboard is the pressing issue.
In this equivocal death investigation the FBI must find evidence to support one of three possible theories:
- George Smith was somehow injured, bled in the room, and then intentionally jumped overboard, thereby intent on taking his own life, perhaps delusional from the night of heavy drinking?
- George Smith was somehow cut and bled in room and on his sheets, then climbed out of the bed the young men state they placed him in and pushed a chair up against to the porch or veranda railing. He then used the chair to help him sit or otherwise teeter on the narrow railing where the effects of the drinking and emotions from the night before somehow caused him to lose his balance, to fall over the railing, and crash on to the metal lifeboat cover below. Did he then lie there semi-conscious in the dark night, eventually attempting to find his balance and then somehow slip into the dark sea below?
- Or was he somehow injured in a confrontation with someone who entered his room that night, someone who took advantage of his state of emotion and intoxication and pushed, shoved, or dropped him over the side to meet his untimely death on that same dark night?
Jennifer has stated that she passed an FBI polygraph examination and the FBI has confirmed her cooperation in the investigation. But what about the four young men, the men that George drank with, that later allegedly helped him to search for Jennifer and that later still allegedly put him into bed the night he disappeared? We know that three days later some of these same men were alleged to have raped a young woman aboard ship, an assault that they may have videotaped and passed around the ship. One of these men has indicated that one or more of them did have sex with the alleged rape victim, but states that he included a kind of disclaimer on the video, asking her on tape if she was a willing participant, something she allegedly acknowledged on the tape. For whatever reason, the ship’s captain put some of these men off at the next port, suggesting that they had simply gone too far.
The investigation continues, as does the march toward a law suit. Noted forensic expert Henry Lee will examine the cabin, this over six months and hundreds of occupants later, for any trace of physical evidence that could help Smith’s family understand what happened to George that night. The cable shows continue to thrive on this real life soap opera, one with deadly real life consequences. What we do know is that George Smith is missing and presumed dead. Why he disappeared and at whose hands, it appears, will be left to the grand jury to decide while his family members and the cruise line trade time lines, information and accusations. Why do inquiring minds (and cable news shows) want to know? Well, millions of Americans cruise every year and we want to know because it could have been any one of us, our family, or friends, if, that is, we’d had the night that the Smith’s had before George disappeared….
Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed LiveSecure.org, a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."