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Honeymooner's disappearance: Was it murder?

Former FBI Profiler Clint Van Zandt profiles  the disappearance of honeymooner George Smith on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

Tuesday night on MSNBC’s “Rita Cosby Live & Direct,” two noted forensic scientists offered insight into the disappearance of George Smith.  Six months ago Smith, a honeymooner from Connecticut, disappeared from his cabin on deck nine of the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Brilliance of the Seas.   Dr. Henry Lee (of O.J. Simpson fame) briefly discussed his forensic examination this past Monday of the cabin occupied by George and Jennifer Hagel Smith when they were passengers on this ship.  I was also there in Miami and saw Dr. Lee and his team as they went about taking various measurements and looking for forensic evidence in the bedroom and balcony of the cabin that had been occupied by the Smiths last May.  Although the FBI is believed to have the carpet and other items of potential forensic interest from the cabin, Dr. Lee, who is working for George Smith’s wife, Jennifer, still conducted a belated “CSI-Miami”-type investigation.  Looking for evidence of blood and other trace evidence, Dr. Lee also spent time 22 feet directly below the Smith’s former cabin, as it was there on a white metal awning used to cover a lifeboat that the bloody outline of a human body was photographed by a fellow passenger on the morning of George Smith’s disappearance.  Although understandably cryptic in what he was willing to tell the media, Dr. Lee did suggest that he found something of some significance, perhaps evidence of blood, or scratches or cuts on the metal awning.           

Dr. Lee had already indicated that he had been able to conduct three of five experiments that he wanted to do while onboard the ship.  One test he wanted to run was squashed by the cruise line.  Dr. Lee wanted to throw a manikin the same height and weight as George Smith over the cabin balcony railing to see where, and how, it would land on the life boat cover below.  Dr. Lee believed it important to his investigation, but the cruise line was probably right in its refusal to allow this experiment.  For one, it is presumed that Smith disappeared while the ship was under way and at sea.  Therefore throwing the manikin from the balcony to the metal awning below while the ship was tied up in port would be nothing like a ship moving at 20 knots in a rough sea, perhaps with sea spray washing over the ship.  Further, at the time Dr. Lee proposed conducting the test, 2500 new passengers were boarding Brilliance of the Seas and would have witnessed the test.  Also, there were dozens of TV cameras pointed at the balcony, waiting for the “money shot,” one that would have been shown dozens and dozens of times as the “dummy” arched over the railing and hit the awning over two stories below.  Probably not a good marketing photo op for the cruise line….

The second forensic scientist to be interviewed on MSNBC Tuesday night was Dr. Lawrence Kobolinski (Dr. K).  Dr. K offered an interesting perspective to this case, especially noting that I continue to suggest that the three options to explain Smith’s disappearance, ruling out natural causes of course, are homicide, suicide, and accidental death.  Dr. K offered his belief that the Smith’s cabin was indeed a crime scene and that Smith had been murdered.  He based this on the amount of blood seen in the passenger’s photograph of the life boat cover, one that appears to show a significant amount of “red” on an otherwise white metal surface.  He further suggested his belief that this loss of blood would be consistent with Smith having been stabbed with a knife and then thrown over the cabin railing by persons unknown.  When he hit the awning, Smith might have been dead already, or might have died shortly thereafter.  Dr. K evidently does not believe the blood loss is attributable to, say, a possible head injury sustained from a fall of 22 feet.

Were Dr. K to be correct in his analysis, this act of foul play might then be laid at the feet of one of the last three or four men to be in Smith’s cabin with him.  At the assumed time of George Smith’s death his wife was lying unconscious on the same deck, but half way around the ship, apparently having become lost on her way back to her cabin.  Inexplicably, she was curled up in a dead-end hallway on the 9th deck.  Again, if Dr. K is correct, there could be, even some 6 months later, trace evidence of blood in the room, on the walls, ceiling, furniture, that an application of a Luminol-like spray might uncover.  CSI fans will know that Luminol is often used at crime scenes in the visualization of blood.  It is highly sensitive and can usually locate faint blood that is invisible to the eye.  When sprayed on surfaces where blood is evident, the Luminol will make the blood patterns appear a bright green.

If I continue with Dr. K’s theory, then there would probably have been blood on the clothing of the assailants, something that would have been evident to a crime lab had the clothing of any such suspect been seized by Turkish authorities in their very limited investigation aboard ship the day Smith disappeared.  And then there’s the question of how Smith’s body disappeared from the awning where he apparently fell, or was dropped.  Did he lie there bleeding for an unknown time period, then perhaps awake and attempt to climb down from the awning, slipping instead into the dark and unforgiving sea?  Or, again were he the victim of foul play did he lie there under the now-frightened eyes of his assailant or assailants, who now had to somehow climb down onto the lifeboat awning him or themselves to slide or push Smith to his watery grave?

We still don’t know the truth.  The cruise line has turned over approximately 98 surveillance tapes from various cameras throughout the ship, tapes that some suggest depict an argument between the Smiths shortly before George disappeared, one in which witnesses suggest that Jennifer kicked George in the groin because he called her a “hussy.”  Others suggest that the surveillance tapes do not show the corridors, halls or passageways leading to the cabins, so there would be no footage of who came and went from the Smith’s cabin that fateful night.  But if the tapes showed staircases or elevator entrances, for example, the timing on the tapes could depict who entered, say, the elevator on the Smith’s floor at about the time George is believed to have gone overboard.  After all, how many people were up and about the halls between 4 and 5 a.m. that morning?  And the key cards would show who used a key to get into a state room at that time of the morning.  Finally, there are witnesses, both eye and “ear,” on either side of the Smith’s cabin who either heard or saw some evidence of a possible argument or people leaving the cabin at that hour of the morning.

This investigation has deteriorated into a she said (Jennifer Hagel Smith), they said (the cruise line) type of case.  Jennifer has gone on national television recounting how she was mishandled by cruise line personnel.  Cruise line defenders say that at the time they thought they had done what was needed to help Jennifer and to facilitate the investigation.  The parents of George Smith continue to demand answers to the ultimate fate of their son and seek reform concerning the investigation of crimes on the high seas.

There are now two distinct cases that are interwoven but need be separated.  First there is the criminal investigation trying to determine the fate of George Smith.  Was he just so intoxicated that he pushed a chair against the rail on the balcony, sat on the railing to get some air and think out the events of the evening, and simply fell overboard?  Or was he murdered as suggested by Dr. K, perhaps during the course of an argument or even an attempted robbery?  And now comes the buildup to a civil law suit by Jennifer (and perhaps the parents of George Smith) against the cruise line with deep pockets.  Somehow today everything in our world eventually evolves into a law suit.  Somebody is always trying to hold someone else responsible for the actions of another, no matter whether right or wrong.  “We demand that someone pay.”  Attorney and host of MSNBC’s “The Abrams Report” Dan Abrams is right to suggest that this “how Jennifer was treated afterwards” aspect of the case pales alongside discovering what really happened to George.  After all, isn’t he the ultimate and true victim in this case?  But he left behind a “grieving” widow and a family who obviously loved him, all of whom want this matter resolved, even though Jennifer’s in-laws have suggested their belief that she has been less than forthright with them in this case but perhaps that is because the FBI has asked her not to talk about the investigation…

In this case there are plenty of victims and plenty of personal and professional responsibility to go around.  Some suggest that George and Jennifer Smith were drinking way too much the night he disappeared, perhaps mixing “routine” alcoholic drinks with “Absinthe,” a dangerous concoction at best.  That Jennifer and George argued that night was evident.  Jennifer left the bar first, with George, accompanied by three or 4 young men, leaving later.  Others report their arguing was evident that night and it appears obvious that the newlyweds did not go to their room at the time that George disappeared, this with George overboard and Jennifer passed out, unconscious or just asleep in the hall many feet away.  Then there is the questions concerning the three or four young men that accompanied George back to his room just prior to his disappearance.  Were these young men the cause of the loud noise coming from the Smith’s room?  Did they have anything to do with the blood found in the cabin and with Smith going overboard?  And what about the ship’s personnel?  When they responded to complaints of loud noises in the Smith’s cabin shortly after 4:00 a.m., should they have gone into the room, walked out on the balcony and looked down some two decks below, perhaps where Smith still lay?  Or should they have done this at about 4:45 a.m. when they wheeled Jennifer into her room and placed her on the bed just a few feet away from the sliding glass door to the balcony, and the lifeboat awning just below?

This is a classic “who did what to whom,” but this is real life and real death.  George Smith should have been starting the next phase of his life, but instead he has vanished, probably never to be seen again.  Dr. Henry Lee is a great forensic scientist, but he’s not a magician.  He can’t make linking physical evidence appear if it was never there to begin with, or if it has disappeared in the last six months.  If, as Dr. K suggests, this is a murder investigation, then who committed the murder and how do you solve the case?  If more than one assailant is responsible, someone may get a plea bargain and someone else life in federal prison.  Reality is that it may take someone’s statement to break this case open.   But it may take linking physical evidence to convict in the absence of a body.  This is a mystery to be solved by investigation, and a civil suit to be resolved by litigation.  No matter how you look at it, George Smith will never get to talk about the results of these cases.  It is the investigators and the forensic scientists who must become George’s voice now that he can no longer speak for himself, this while family and friends grieve his loss and the rest of us wonder who and how and why?

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , 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."