IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Cruise ship passengers disappear

MSNBC analyst and former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt reports on the mysterious disappearances of men and women aboard  cruise ships.
The cruise liner Sun Princess is shown in Honolulu, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2003. The ship is in Honolulu after cutting short its voyage when nearly 300 passengers and crew members were stricken with symptoms of the Norwalk virus.  All of the ship's passengers were taken off the ship and are to be flown to their hometowns on the mainland and abroad. (AP Photo/Carol Cunningham)
The cruise liner Sun Princess is shown in Honolulu, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2003. The ship is in Honolulu after cutting short its voyage when nearly 300 passengers and crew members were stricken with symptoms of the Norwalk virus. All of the ship's passengers were taken off the ship and are to be flown to their hometowns on the mainland and abroad. (AP Photo/Carol Cunningham)Carol Cunningham / AP file

Last month George Smith and Jennifer Hagel were enjoying a wedding cruise in the Mediterranean.  The weather was great, the ports of call wonderful, and the travel brochure-like life aboard ship consisted of dancing, drinking, and gambling with their fellow passengers.  But on July 5 something went terribly wrong.  The new bride may now be a new widow. 

According to some of the 2,300 passengers onboard the Royal Caribbean Brilliance of the Seas, the honeymooning Smiths were heavy partiers who had drank and gambled well into the night and early morning on the day Smith disappeared.  A police officer and his wife were in the cabin next door to the Smith’s and reported that noisy parties were the rule in the Smith’s cabin, usually into the wee hours of the morning.  The officer was awakened at about 4:00 a.m. on July 5 by loud noises from the cabin next door; another party in the Smith’s room.  This time, though, the officer and his wife heard yelling and arguing, the sound of heavy items being moved around the cabin next door, and then more noise from the balcony area next door to them.  All of this was followed by a final loud noise, with other passengers reporting a scream, and then, for the first time in 30 minutes, nothing but silence from the Smith’s cabin.

The daylight of July 5 found George Smith missing from his cabin with blood on the cabin floor, the bed, on the rail on the balcony, and a bloody handprint on the lifeboat just below the balcony of Smith’s room.  Smith was nowhere to be found, and a missing person’s investigation was ever so slowly instituted aboard ship.  The FBI has investigative responsibility for crimes committed against Americans on the high seas, and has entered this case.  FBI Agents and the U.S. Attorney for Connecticut are now reported to be focusing their attention on a teenager from California and two Russian brothers from the East Coast, all three of whom were seen taking Smith back to his room the night he disappeared.  Another report suggests that it was three crewmen from the ship that were captured on security cameras as they took Smith to his room, and perhaps fought and killed him that fateful night.  Yet other reports suggests that Smith had won money in the ship’s casino that night, a fact that the three (or six) men were assumed to be aware of, to include some type of incident in the casino.  Jennifer Hagel, who was reported to be sleeping in a lounge area of the ship, by one report perhaps drugged, and she did not, or could not, report her new husband as missing, later assuming that he was somewhere else aboard ship with his new friends.  Now she knows better….

The saga of persons missing from cruise ships is not limited to George Smith though.  In fact the International Council of Cruise Lines told me that in the last year alone at least a dozen people have disappeared from cruise ships, most of whom remain unaccounted for.  This is a small fraction of the 8.8 million people from North America who will book passage on cruise ships this year, but to their families, these losses are just as important as that of 18-year old Natalee Holloway, currently missing from a high school graduation trip in Aruba.

Virginian Amy Lynn Bradley was 23-years-old when she vanished from the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines Rhapsody of the Seas in March 1998 while traveling with her family in the Caribbean.  Her parents still keep the emotional porch light turned on at their home, awaiting her prayed for return.  Amy left her cabin early one morning for a smoke and never returned, with some believing that she was murdered and thrown overboard, while others believe she was kidnapped and sold as a sex slave.  Then there is 22-year-old James Scavone who disappeared from a Carnival cruise ship in the Caribbean on July 5, 1999, exactly six years to the day before George Smith’s disappearance.  An elderly couple disappeared from another Carnival Cruise ship, the Destiny, while enroute to Aruba in May 2005, and Annette Mizener disappeared from the Carnival Cruise ship Pride on December 4th, 2004 while enroute to Mexico with her daughter and parents.  Mizener’s purse was found by an outside railing but no trace of her has ever been found.  To add insult to painful injury, Annette’s husband subsequently received a form letter from this same cruise line offering his missing wife a chance to win a free cruise.

So what’s going on?  Where are these people?  Are there serial killers working on the lesser-priced cruise lines, a job that puts them in a “target rich environment” so to speak?  The answer is we just don’t know.  Hundreds of thousands of people are reported missing every year from cities across the United States, most of whom are subsequently found, and a cruise ship is really a small city at sea, only you really don’t know your next door neighbors in most cases.  Add to this the life-style that is found aboard these party boat type of cruises, with some five or seven day trips that wander around in the Caribbean going for under $500, and you get what you pay for; your fellow passengers are there for the fun, the food, the booze, and all the other activities so well advertised by this less expensive end of the cruise ship industry.  Finally some suggest that crew members on these less expensive cruises may believe that it is always open season on passengers, with little to no accountability for their actions towards vulnerable guests other than to be sent home from the next port – hardly a deterrent to bad behavior, or worse. 

If a person is immediately reported as missing from a ship at sea, the captain can turn the ship around and look for the man or woman believed overboard.  The challenge is that you are looking around in a big, dark ocean, and a lone body without a life jacket makes a very small target to find, especially at night, in high seas, or after any length of time has passed.  Some cruise lines may suggest that a missing passenger must be a suicide victim, something that may serve the image of the cruise line, but is an explanation that most families will not accept to explain why the missing person was there one minute, and gone the next.

Part of the challenge in investigating such onboard mysterious disappearances and/or suspected homicides is that the ship itself is a moving crime scene, one that if not immediately declared a crime scene will be cleaned up (with potential forensic evidence lost forever) by the ship’s maintenance staff.  And a further complication is that the potential witnesses, all 1,000 to 3,000 of them, may get off at the next port, necessitating a fugitive hunt-like investigation to track them down, sometimes all over the world for purposes of interview.  There is also the possibility that some cruise lines may not want to tarnish their image and appeal as “a love and party boat on gentle blue waters.”  The image of passengers being assaulted and tossed overboard, either by other passengers or crew members, is not something these cruise ships want to show in the slick ads that they run on TV and the Internet.  Therefore some cruise lines, like the Aruban Police in the Holloway disappearance case, may be a little slow out of the blocks to start an investigation.  Another challenge to investigators is that most ships operate under a foreign flag and it may be difficult, especially if the loss is not immediately reported, to tell in what country’s waters the person went missing.  The ability for the authorities to solve such cases is usually in direct proportion to the timeliness of the reporting of the incident, and hours and days later the trail in many cases has become ice cold in the warm waters in which these cruise ships usually travel.

In the case of missing passenger George Smith, there is some physical evidence (thanks to the cameras of passengers), and witnesses that have come forward to help.  It would appear that the two Russian brothers and the American teenager, or the three crew members, would likely know what happened in Smith’s room the night he disappeared, including the source of and the reason for the blood on the carpet and the lifeboat under Smith’s.  Bottom line is that someone is going to jail in this case and someone will be a witness in court – these three men need only decide which side of the investigation they are on and where they want to spend the next 20 years.  Other cases, like that of Amy Bradley, have no physical evidence, no DNA, and no reliable witnesses; only a missing person that should not have gone missing with some cruise lines blaming the missing passenger or providing misinformation concerning what might have happen to the passenger aboard ship.

When traveling you should always have someone with you who always knows your whereabouts, a mutual accountability so to speak.  Like “Maverick” told us in the movie Top Gun, “Never leave your wingman” -- no matter whether you are Tom Cruise, George Smith, or Natalee Holloway.  The world can be a dangerous place for those who do not read the signs of impending trouble and who miss other indications of danger that pop up around us.  Remember to trust your instincts, don’t allow yourself to become under the influence of anything (watch your drinks) or anyone, and if it doesn’t look like a good situation, walk away as quickly as you can.  Don’t be paranoid when traveling, just be smart and be safe.  And as dream vacations on the high seas go, well, always be aware of bargain discounts in heart surgery, dentistry, parachutes, and cruise ships.

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."