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Disappearance Before Dawn

In 2005 a young groom disappeared during a honeymoon cruise through the Mediterranean.  It could have been an accident.  It could have been suicide. Or, it could have been murder.  Dateline has new details.

Take a luxurious cruise ship, handsome honeymooners, add sun-drenched ports of call, parties till dawn... and an ugly blood stain on the awning over the life boat deck, and you have the ingredients for a classic old-fashioned mystery like a dusty Agatha Christie.

But this one’s quite real and quite confounding. What could account for the disappearance before dawn of the young man from his locked stateroom? Where was the pretty young bride during the critical minutes in question? Who are the hell-raisers called The Russians and what part do they play in the puzzling affair?

Dennis Murphy, Dateline NBC: You've got a floating crime scene here, don't you? Potentially.

Clint van Zandt: You really do. You-

Dennis Murphy: 2,000-plus witnesses maybe.

Is it even knowable what happened aboard the vessel Brilliance of the Seas, somewhere between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea?

It had been a lavish wedding in June 2005. Friends and family gathered at a smart inn in Newport, Rhode Island, on a bluff overlooking the bay. An appropriate setting—by the sea. The two had met here in Newport back when.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith
The bride was Jennifer Hagel from central Connecticut, daughter of a realtor and a builder who’d once been a policeman. Jennifer was a high-school athlete: varsity soccer, basketball and golf all four years. She graduated from Trinity College in Hartford.

“She was really pretty, sort of always made-up, and looked really nice all the time,” says Kara Klenk, who was a year behind Jennifer. Klenk was happy to hear that the petite secret weapon of their intramural softball team was excited about getting married.

“She was a nice person. Good looking and athletic. You know, you always think those kind of people are just going to make it. Make happy lives for themselves.”

Jennifer—to no one’s surprise—had married a jock: George Allan Smith IV, the son of a family that has run a very successful liquor store near wealthy Greenwich, Conn.

George was a big guy, 6’ 2” over 200 lbs. Coach Bob Darula recalls a good linebacker and a nice kid at Greenwich High.

“He was very likeable, quiet young man, coachable, you know? He had a very dry sense of humor and always had a nice smile,” says the coach.

George had graduated from Babson College in Massachusetts with a business degree, a background he hoped to bring to the family store when his father retired.

“George did like to go out and have a good time,” says Shawn Keenan, who lived two doors down from George Smith at Babson. George was a friend he remembers as a well-buffed mass of muscles. They lifted weights together almost every day.

“George was one of those guys that in a group situation, he had a tough exterior but he definitely liked being around people, when you got him one on one, he definitely would talk to you more than he would reveal to anyone in a group situation, so we got to talk a lot. He was just the kind of guy that liked to have a lot of fun, kind of a prankster. Not the class clown or anything but definitely, liked to have fun with all the guys on the floor,” says Keenan.

Cruising to a new life together
George and Jennifer— now Mr. And Mrs. Smith— booked a 12-day honeymoon cruise of the Mediterranean on board the Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Brilliance of the Seas.

The tantalyzing ports of call included Barcelona, the French Riviera, Rome, and the Greek Islands.

The 2500-passenger cruise ship is one of the most popular in the Royal Caribbean fleet. A virtual floating city of cabins, restaurants, bars, a casino, and health club, everything for travellers who want to see some of the world and still bring the comforts of the mall along with them.

"We attract a lot of active vacationers, a lot of families," says Lynn Martenstein, then-vice-president with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

The honeymooners, George and Jennifer,  bought a package valued at $10,000, a mid-ship stateroom, portside on the 9th deck, a cabin with a desirable balcony overlooking the ocean.

On June 29, four days after the Newport Wedding, the couple boarded the cruise ship in Barcelona, Spain.

They and every other passenger were issued a card called a Seapass or an A-Pass:an electronic key embedded with your photo that not only opens your cabin, but records the precise time of day you entered and left. The same goes for boarding and leaving the ship.

"Everytime that you come and go off that ship, you swipe your card," says Martenstein. "The security guard looks at you, looks at his computer screen, and makes sure you're the same person.  And then you're allowed to come and go on that ship."

Leaving Barcelona, settled into their stateroom, from their balcony, George and Jennifer could watch the water gliding by that night as they made their way to the first port of call, the south of France.

An important new chapter in their lives had opened-up. They were young, by all accounts in love... and he had only five nights left to live.

The honeymooners, Jennifer and George, had booked themselves on a snazzy state of the art cruise ship, a floating five-star hotel with round-the-clock diversions.

Up on deck 7, Illinois teenager Emilie Rausch and her sister, cruising with their mom, were thrilled with the view out their balcony.

Emilie had a brand-new camera and was eager to try it out. Emilie’s family had booked the vacation as a college graduation present for her sister. That made them typical passengers on this Mediterranean run.

This particular line of ship was designed with active families in mind more than the sedate retirees, of the cruise ship stereotype.

Up on deck 9, Clete Hyman, for instance, a deputy police chief from Redlands, Calif., now retired, had reserved cabins for eight extended family members: a stress-free, no cell phones, no e-mail, spin around the Med.

“There’s very little that you have to worry about,” says Hyman. “Your hotel goes with you. You’re not packing and unpacking.”

Down the same hallway, Pat and Greg Lawyer had a special celebration underway. “This was our 35th anniversary present to each other. I’ve always wanted to go to the Greek Islands,” says Greg.

And the cruise line delivered on schedule...the delights of Florence on July 1st. And wonderful weather in Rome on the 2nd.

Raucus party-throwers
Two days into the trip, though, Clete Hyman did have one complaint. After leaving France, the young couple in the cabin right next door, no. 9062, had a noisy party with he guessed four to six other people that lasted until 3 a.m.

Murphy: Are the walls that thin? Or were they that loud?Hyman: Well, I think it’s a combination of both.

The raucus party-throwers were the honeymooners, George and Jennifer.

According to some fellow passengers who got to know them, the younger people on-board— the 20-somethings along on those family reunions and special celebrations— tended to hang out together at night after the older passengers turned in.

After dinner, the young crowd would try their luck at the casino on deck 6, continuing the festivities late into the night at the disco bar on 13, with the newlyweds sometimes joining them.

One of the couple's new acquaintances was Josh Askin, a then-20-year old college student from California. He was along with his  family to celebrate his parents' 25th wedding anniversary.

Murphy: Did Josh get to know these honeymooners, George and Jennifer?Keith Greer, lawyer for Josh’s family: Yeah, the family actually met them at first in Florence, they got off the boat together. Neither of the groups had tours set-up and so they shared a cab. They spent a little bit of that day together that day, which is when they first met.

According to fellow passengers, George, Jennifer, and now Josh, were joined by another group of young men who, like Josh, were vacationing with their family— two cousins and a friend — who were vacationing with their families from Brooklyn, New York, and Florida. Their parents had emigrated from the Soviet Union so they became known in the events that followed as the three Russian Boys.

Murphy: How does Josh describe his temporary friendship with these guys?Greer: Fun, good group of guys, loud. You know, 18-to-20-year old guys on a boat partying.

The honeymooners, Josh and the three Russian boys became buddies— boisterous young compadres at sea with a mostly older crowd. Though a young woman on the same cruise, who told us off-camera that she thought the Russian boys were rough around the edges. She remembers them trying to pick fights and stealing liquor from the ship’s bar. Her instincts told her to give them some distance.

The night in question
On the Fourth of July, the ship tied up in Mykonos. The Greek island with the whitewashed houses and blue doors was as beautiful as the brochures.

What would happen in the next 12 hours after Mykonos is the crux of the mystery, between the evening of the 4th of July and the wee hours of the 5th, with the ship bound for it’s next port of call in Turkey.

The account of the evening is told through Josh's lawyer who says that Josh, George and Jennifer and the Russian Boys made the ship’s casino their home base in a night of heavy drinking.

Greer: This evening you can’t even imagine the amount of drinking. There was an incredible amount of alcohol.

Josh's attorney says the newlyweds gambled, but not always together.

Greer: In and out of the casino—there Josh sees Jennifer at the blackjack table and George at the craps table. And in fact, that night, George taught Josh how to play craps for the most part.

Murphy: Was George having some luck that night?Greer: No, and see that's interesting. There’s talk about big money and big winnings — that didn’t happen. George at one point in time went over to the table with Jennifer and she had been losing, not big, but losing—and he had to go back to the room and get some money to come back and give it to her.Murphy: So he doesn't stagger out of the casino that night with a wad of hundreds in his pocket?Greer: No, nothing like that.

With the night in full swing, Josh would make an emphatic point about what he thinks he sees next.

Jennifer and the man he callst he casino manager getting cozy.

At 2:30 in the morning, now July 5th, the casino is closed for the night and the honeymooners, Josh, and the three Russian boys head for the disco bar up on deck 13. Everyone’s tipsy or better, according to Josh. This, says Greer, is when it stops becoming a normal night.

Packed into the elevator with the party-ers is the casino manager and one of his dealers. Josh says he thinks he sees the casino manager put a move on Jennifer, right in front of her by now very drunk husband.

Greer: Jennifer’s there on the other side of the elevator with the casino manager next to her with his arm around her in the elevator and then another casino dealer.Murphy: So presumably, George is seeing the same kind of thing taking place?Greer: Yeah, but everybody’s still happy. Everybody’s still jovial. You know even you know George is happy and hugging and singing and it was still a party atmosphere at that point.

Up at the disco bar, as another account goes,  Josh notices that the new bride and the casino manager are together again.

Greer: Jennifer's there, but there's a couch adjacent to the table. Jennifer sits down on the couch with the casino manager sitting right next to her.

As another account goes, George and the guys sit around a table and produce their own bottle of alcohol, something not permitted by the cruise line. Someone has a bottle of an especially volatile green liqueur with a notorious history, Absinthe. One form of it was banned at the turn of the last century and young drinkers are attracted now to its taboo and reputation for being a kind of hallucinogenic. That’s largely urban myth— but it will get you smashed.

The boys sat in a semi-circle, doing shooters of absinthe, almost in a kind of ritual.

At 3:30 am, the barman closes down the disco lounge, the party’s over.

Greer: The lights go on. Time for everybody to go to their rooms. The Russian boys and Josh escort George back to his room.Murphy: Does George get there under his own power?Greer: No. By that time George was dropping his cigarette according to Josh. He was about 50 percent on his own power on the way back to the room. He wasn’t being carried but he was being guided with some assistance of the two larger boys.

Jennifer is no longer with the guys. For months, there would be speculation about her whereabouts in the next four and a half hours.

Murphy: Where’s Jennifer?Greer: That’s the big question.

Continuing Josh’s version of events, he and the three Russians stumbled George to his cabin on deck 9. When they see there’s no Jennifer, George changes his shirt and they all set out again to find her.

It’s now about 3:45 a.m.. The posee of five heads right to the place that the young people on board know as the after-hours hook-up place.

Greer: They go to the Jacuzzi in the solarium area. No Jennifer. So it’s 5, 10 minutes there are very short amount of time looking because it’s obvious there’s nobody else there. And then five, ten minutes back to the room which puts them back to the room at about 4:00 a.m.

Josh describes a tame ending to the night. He uses George’s bathroom as the Russians tuck in their drunken friend.

Greer:  The other boys put him down on the bed, take his shoes off, leave the room, ‘Goodbye goodbye, let’s go we’re outta here.’ They go down to one of the Russian boys’ rooms, order an incredible amount of room service, room service shows up 4:30, 4:45—with the food. They eat. Josh is back in bed by 5:15 that morning.

But Clete Hyman, the veteran California police officer in the cabin next door had been awakened at 4 a.m. by a ruckus through the wall— that’s at odds with Josh’s account. Through the common wall, he heard 15 minutes of loud voices and commotion that make him one of the best witnesses to the mysterious events in stateroom no. 9062.

“That’s when I heard what I described as a horrific thud,” says Hyman.

A blood stain below the balcony
On July 5th, Emilie Rausch recalls waking up in Kusadasi, Turkey. “We woke up early in the morning and we went outside at about seven o’clock to look at the ocean.”

Emilie Rausch, the teenager from Illinois two decks below the honeymooners on 7, was looking forward to the day’s excursion— a tour of the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey. Her brand new digital camera would get a workout.

But Emilie’s first snapshot that day was one taken just below her balcony: a blotchy stain several feet long on the almost 12-foot wide metal overhang protecting the life boats.

"I noticed there was this blood stain on it," says Rausch. "And I didn’t think it was blood at first. I thought I was hoping maybe it was paint or maybe something else."

The teenager remembers seeing what looked like three bloody handprints or footprints though they’re not distinct in her photo, a picture she snapped on vague instinct.

“I took it, probably, out of curiosity and I just thought maybe this would matter later.”

She was right. It would matter.

“The first hint that anything is wrong, is at 8:30 a.m.,” says Martenstein, the vice-president of the cruise line at the time. She says the ship’s security determined it was indeed a blood stain and quickly surmised they may have a person overboard.

“We started focusing on the cabins directly above and narrowed it down to the Smiths’ cabin,” says Martenstein.

By about 9:30 a.m., the ship’s officers had determined that one of the Smiths was missing.

“Security very very carefully entered the cabin and found no one there. Then we started the public address announcements. We subsequently found Mrs. Smith,” says Martenstein.

Mrs. Smith was in the spa. “She had a pre-scheduled spa appointment,” says Martenstein.

The Smith’s cabin was sealed by security, a guard posted outside, until local Turkish authorities could complete their investigation which by mid-morning was underway.

What guests heard: Voices, knocks, trashing
When Clete Hyman, then a deputy police chief from Redlands, California, swiped his card to get back on ship after the day’s long outing, the buzzer went off. Two ship personnel flagged him .

Chief Hyman’s cabin was right next door to the Smiths’ on deck 9. And what he heard through their common wall from a few minutes after 4 a.m. until 4:20 or so, is a primary piece of evidence in the investigation now underway into George Smith’s disappearance.

“A little after 4 o’clock in the morning, we were awakened by what I’d call loud cheering, something like a college drinking game,” says Hyman. “This happened two distinct times.”

The deputy chief was awakened by what he thought were at least six loud voices, at the exact same time that — as Josh’s lawyer told the story— George and his drinking buddies had returned from a fruitless search for Jennifer who’d gone missing.

Chief Hyman, then a 31-year police veteran with a number of homicide investigations under his belt, reflexively noted the time, called the ship’s security office to complain about the noisy party underway and banged on the wall, to no avail.

Hyman: The voices continued. They weren’t as loud as they were during the drinking games. But then after a couple of minutes we heard voices outside the door of the Smith cabin. I don’t recall hearing the door open. I assumed they were leaving the party. But that was just my impression at the time.

For a few minutes the next door cabin quieted down, male voices in normal conversation, the chief couldn’t for the most part make out words or subjects.

Hyman: This went on for a period of time. And then we heard what sounded like arguing out on the balcony.Murphy: Arguing?Hyman: Yes. Several couple of male voices arguing. It wasn’t a physical confrontation. It was just like they were arguing over some type of point.Murphy: So after you heard these voices on the balcony part of the cabin, what happened next?Hyman: Well, then I heard a voice just repeatedly say "goodnight"  and my first assumption was that someone was trying to usher these people that were arguing out of the cabin. In fact, you could hear the progression through the cabin...

Now it was about 4:15 in the morning. Chief Hyman heard the adjacent cabin door open and voices receding in the hallway.

Hyman: So, I waited for a couple of seconds and then opened the door and looked out.Murphy: What did you see?Hyman: I saw three younger males walking down the hallway.

Young males — but only three of them — leaving George's cabin. Then through the wall, Chief Hyman heard a single male voice moving about speaking in a conversational tone though, oddly, no one replying. Then there was more loud noise.

Hyman: It’s what I would say sounded like furniture moving. Like, again, my impression was, ‘Good! They’re cleaning up the room.’

Whoever was next door the chief says he heard them moving between the cabin and the balcony. It was now approaching 4:20.

Hyman: And then for the last, maybe, couple of minutes it appeared to be concentrated out on the balcony area. The chairs on the balcony are metal so they make a different type of sound. I heard that noise and then there was silence. It got very quiet. Heard no voice. It was just very quiet.Murphy: Silent for how long? Hyman: Yes. Maybe three minutes, approximately, and at that point that’s when I heard what I described as a “horrific thud.”Murphy: Tell me in detail...Hyman: The first thought in my mind was somebody fell on the balcony because it was the last place I had heard anyone. However, I quickly dismissed that because the noise was just too loud. There was actually a reverberation to the noise. And somebody just falling you know off their feet to something on a balcony would not cause that much noise.

Unbeknownst to Clete Hyman, Pat and Greg Lawyer on the other side of the Smiths, say they had been awakened not by the noise from the cabin but by three soft male voices— two of them accented— in the hallway before the commotion all started. They heard the cabin door open.

Pat Lawyer: I figured that this young man was drunk or inebriated. And they were calmly bringing him back to his room. In my mind, there was a young person who was saying, ‘Settle down, calm down, George.’

Pat and Greg— on almost exactly the same timeline, just after 4 a.m.— didn’t hear what Clete Hyman thought was a drinking game—but they did hear that same moving about of furniture. Where the police officer read it as the room being noisily put back in order, Pat and Greg heard violence— a room they thought, was being trashed.

Greg Lawyer: And then all of a sudden there was a lot of noise coming from the cabin next door, the George Smith cabin, and what it sounded to me like is somebody was throwing things against the wall, like throwing furniture in the room against the wall or against the floor. Pat Lawyer: I kept saying to my husband, ‘What in the world is he doing there?’ and I did use the term ‘he’. I didn’t use the term they because we did not hear any voices.Greg Laywer: And these there were maybe a series of shuffles and bangs against the wall. And then it ended with one big thud like somebody had picked up the couch or the sofa and threw it against the wall. And then that occurred, it was maybe a stretch of like two minutes, something like that, where these thuds took place, what I call trashing the room and then it went quiet.

After the awful thud, both the deputy chief and the couple heard a knocks— two sets of raps on the Smith cabin door about 4:30 a.m.

Greg Lawyer, curious, opened the door to see two uniformed ship personnel standing outside the Smith cabin.

Greg Layer: And I looked at them and I said, ‘Hey, you guys , you better get in there because that room is trashed.’ That’s exactly what I said and then they sort of gave me the 'hi' sign. They didn’t say anything.

The cruise line confirms they were ship’s security officers responding to the noise complaint Clete Hyman made just after 4 a.m.

With the offending loud party now over, Royal Caribbean says the uniformed men left without entering the Smith cabin.

Chief Hyman and his wife could finally get some peace and quiet and a few hours sleep.

At 7 a.m., the chief went out on his balcony to take some snapshots of the Turkish port and peeked around the partition to the Smith cabin next door. He saw cigarette butts, and the metal chairs and coffee table moved.

Hyman: I noticed that the drapes had been pulled back. That was allowing me to see in that the bed appeared to have been slept in. The sheets were in disarray.Murphy: Did you notice if the furniture in the room had in fact been moved around?Hyman: I didn’t want to sit there staring in the room, they could have been in there and this was just literally a quick glance. I couldn't see that far into the room.

He didn’t look down from his balcony where he might have seen Emilie Rausch at that very moment photographing a blood stain, a picture she’d show to her mother later that afternoon. The image would jog a sleepy memory in her mom.

“She remembered hearing a scream late in the middle of that night too, and we put it together and we thought ‘This might be something that might be happening. This might be bad,’” said Rausch.

Murphy: Someone has reported a scream. Did you hear it?Hyman: Never.

Deputy Chief Hyman told the same story to the ship’s security officers late that afternoon following the early morning thud. The policeman who wanted nothing more than to cruise the Mediterranean with his family, found work following him—a mystery right next door and he had crucial details.

That night before dinner, the ship’s captain announced that there had been a tragic accident: a guest had apparently fallen overboard.

The chief, and so many of the other guests wondered, as wild rumor and speculation swept every nook and cranny of the ship. There was buzz about missing money and blood found in the cabin.

Hyman: This could be an accident, a suicide or foul play. I don’t have enough of the facts to formulate an opinion which it is.

Jennifer, Josh and the three Russians would be interrogated.

How was it that George Smith fell to a terrible and certain death in the sea between Greece and Turkey?

Or was it a fall?

George Smith, 11 days into his marriage, had disappeared from the luxury cruise ship.

The reverberating “thud” heard by several passengers about 4:20 am, the morning on July 5th, and the bloodstain beneath Smith’s balcony cabin, revealed when the sun came up gruesomely answered the question of what happened to the young honeymooner but not how.

Lynn Martenstein, cruise line vice president at the time of the incident: We started notifying proper authorities. In this case it was the FBI and American consulates, because we were dealing with an American citizen. It was the Turkish authorities because we had just docked in a Turkish port.

Turkish authorities step in
While most of the ship’s passengers departed for a day tour of the ancient city of Ephesus, Turkish authorities boarded the Brilliance of the Seas and began processing the honeymooner’s cabin as you would a crime scene.

Martenstein: They took samples. They took photographs. They dusted for fingerprints. They did their forensic investigation both of the cabin and the metal overhang. They spent the better part of the day on the ship.

According to a Turkish authority, blood was found in the Smith's cabin.

Murphy: Did they find blood in that cabin? On a towel? On the bedcovers?Martenstein: We have not characterized what they found. Our understanding is that the Turkish authorities turned over anything that had found in that cabin to the FBI…

By 6 p.m. that night, the blood stain on the overhang was cleaned and according to some passengers, painted over. The Turkish investigation on the ship was concluded.

On that same day, because they were some of the last people known to have been seen with George, both Turkish authorities and the ship’s officers had questioned Jennifer, Josh and the Russian boys about what had happened just hours before.

Jennifer, according to the Cruise Line spokesperson, gave a statement to the Turks in the presence of an FBI representative and was then flown home to the U.S.

Josh's statement is the only one we know about in detail. That's because his mother and father sneaked a home video camera to their son's appearance before Turkish authorities on shore. And those bootlegged pictures capture a chaotic initial inquiry.

Josh, in the red shirt, is being asked here to set down a perfunctory chronology of what he did and saw and then sign the statement when it's typed up.

Josh's interview
The translator’s baby cries as the public prosecutor in the provincial Turkish port town tries to understand Josh’s account of the night:

Were George and Jennifer having a fight, he’s asked? No, they were happy he replied.

Josh told the Turkish authorities, in abbreviated fashion, the same story.

Josh signs the statement and after the initial business is over, makes a point of defending Jennifer and implicating the casino manager.

After suggesting that the bride and casino manager had lef the bar together... and offering a motive for George’s disappearance (money hidden in the cabin), Josh is dismissed and returned to the ship with his family.

It had been Josh’s second interrogation of the morning.

The young man’s lawyer says that earlier, before the meeting with Turkish authorities, Josh’s electronic swipe card set off a buzzer when he tried to leave the ship with his family.

Ship’s personnel escorted Josh to a guest services room where he says he saw Jennifer for the first time since leaving the disco bar about six hours before.

Murphy: What does he notice about Jennifer?Greer: The biggest thing was she’s wearing the same dress she was wearing the night before. She’s distraught. And she asked at some point in the time and they mentioned that there’s a question of ‘Where’s George?’ And Jennifer says to Josh: ‘What happened? I blacked out. I don’t remember anything after the casino.’ Murphy: She drank too much and passed out?Greer: Blacked out.

Memories may be fuzzy but investigators— now the FBI— have a very crisp record of some of the things that happened on the ship.

In addition to the electronic room keys, documenting down to the second when and where a cabin door is opened, guests on the Brilliance of the Seas may be unaware that the ship has several hundred hidden cameras continuously recording virtually every public area onboard.  The cruise line has turned over 97 of those tapes to the FBI.

Martenstein: They’re reviewing them, it is an ongoing investigation and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment on what’s on the tapes.

Without saying exactly how it knows it, the cruise line claims that the casino manager Josh raises suspicions about— actually a manager trainee— and the other employee drinking with them, a casino dealer, each went to their separate cabins about 3:15 am and Jennifer was with neither man.

After our interview, the cruise line V.P. added another detail about Jennifer: She allegedly left the disco bar alone at about 3:20 and a custodian on that deck, deck 13, thought she was wobbly and needed help. The custodian rode down with her in the elevator to 9, her cabin deck level.

She told him she was fine and went on her way... but to where?

In January 2006 when the cruise line issued a timeline of events, we finally found out.  After being escorted to deck 9, where her cabin was, Jennifer apparently got disoriented. She was found about an hour later by a ship security guard "sleeping" on the floor of a corridor. Just before 5 a.m., guards took Jennifer by wheelchair back to the cabin, where they did not see her husband George, nor anything amiss in the room.

George Smith went overboard. There’s no doubt about that. And even though it happened in the Aegean Sea on a Bahamian-registered ship, for the last four years the case has been handled by the F.B.I. bureau in New Haven, Connecticut, the lost man’s home state.

“This is a very active, ongoing investigation with the FBI,” says Clint Van Zandt, who was with the FBI for 25 years. “What we need to realize is that if the bureau came to the point where they felt strongly it was an accident, they would close their case.”

Dateline asked Van Zandt, an NBC News analyst, to look at the public record of evidence in the George Smith case.

Van Zandt: First in a case like this, you’ve gotta go in and you gotta say, ‘Well, what happened? We got a missing person. If he’s gone, is it a homicide, a suicide, or an accident?

What about an accident? Both witnesses either side of the Smith cabin noticed one of the metal balcony chairs had been turned around so that its back was near the 4-foot railing.

Hypothetically, did George Smith, foolishly perch on the balcony rail for a breath of fresh air or literally a last cigarette?

Van Zandt: I push the chair up against the balcony. I sit up on the edge. I have a cigarette. The ship hits a bump or something and I go over the side? We can't say that didn't happen because we dont have the body to get the forensics from. So I cannot at all discount the idea of an accident.

The former F.B.I. man eliminates suicide right away since there’s nothing, he says, in George Smith’s background to remotely suggest it.

Van Zandt: We get homicide and accident. We take our legal pad. We draw a line down the middle and then we start to build a case on either side and see which one we can support with the evidence.

We looked at each bit of evidence, in turn, starting with the photo of the bloodstain.

Van Zandt: When you look at this picture here do you see this point right here? That looks like that was pooling blood. This is 10 feet-plus wide here so if a human body fell here, if this is perhaps evidence of a head injury.

Murphy: A bleeding kind of injury, right?Van Zandt: A bleeding where there was continued bleeding. It can be blood that had been contaminated with water, sea spray something like that, that made it spread out like this. Perhaps, George Smith, by whatever means went over the balcony two floors down—he crashes on top of this metal awning. He lays there for awhile, he’s already bleeding. He bleeds out a little bit. And then he starts to crawl. Does he pick himself up? Does he zig when he should have zagged? Or does someone come up on the body and help it over the side?Murphy: Does this picture tell you: ‘I am the victim of an accident? I’m a victim of foul play?’Van Zandt: Don’t we wish.

Witness statements
Since the bloodstain doesn't tell the full story, that makes the statements by witnessess all the more important.

Here, they are not eyewitnesses so much as “ear-witnesses”: the two sets of people in the cabins on either side of the Smiths, starting with the deputy police chief Clete Hyman, a 31-year law enforcement veteran.

Van Zandt: In this particular case this is a cop who’s kind of leaning forward in the saddle and saying, ‘What’s going on next door?’

Assuming those three people had just come from George's room, Van Zandt thinks that could be important for the foul-play theory. Remember they had been a group of five.

Van Zandt: Four as a posse, plus George. Five. Three out the door. George is still there. Where is the other person? And who is that? Somewhere in between is the story of that fourth person.

But the attorney for one of the Russian boys now says Clete Hyman's recollection is wrong. He insists all four boys left George's room together, which would mean there is no fourth person left to account for.

Still, something else in the police officer’s recollection intrigues Van Zandt. After the three leave, the business about a lone voice in the cabin.

Van Zandt: The challenge here is this single voice. Is this allegedly highly-intoxicated man talking to himself? Is he rambling on because he drank too much, because he won money... or, is this, perhaps, George Smith laid out on a bed? And this other person still in the room of this group of four, this one is still there?Murphy: The chief hears that voice moving.Van Zandt: Who’s up moving around? Opening and closing cabinet doors. What would George Smith be looking for if he’s opening and closing cabinet doors? Moving furniture? Or what could somebody else be looking for?

Likewise, Van Zandt thinks the couple through the other cabin wall, Pat and Greg Lawyer’s description of loud noises is an important clue.

Van Zandt: This is not just let’s scoot a chair across the floor. This is banging. This is moving. This is dragging. This is something that has to reverberate against the wall to make that kind of sound.Murphy: Purely speculation: what the couple hears, what they regard as this kind of violent moving about of furniture. Could it be a physical fight? Could it be guys exchanging blows and throwing one another around the room?Van Zandt: What we’re missing is: ‘Why are you doing this to me? Don’t hit me again! You no good… and so-and-so.’ We’re missing the profanity that might normally accompany this kind of fisticuff. Now it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And it may mean that one person was simply not capable of talking.

As for the three Russian boys and Josh Askin, their attorneys have said their clients did nothing wrong and are unfairly living under a cloud of suspicion.

Keep in mind, F.B.I. investigators have many more interviews, photos and presumably forensic evidence than we've talked about with Clint Van Zandt.

In the meantime, the case - and the controversy surrounding it - are far from over. 

Five months after George Smith's mysterious death, Jennifer Hagel Smith broke her silence about her husband's last day alive.

Jennifer Hagel Smith: We had this just great dinner, a very romantic dinner. And we were just, you know, toasting to the future, toasting to life, and just saying, god, we are the two luckiest kids in the world. And we kept saying that. And it`s ironic now.

But she said she couldn't reveal much about those critical hours in question the night her husband disappeared.

Jennifer Hagel Smith: My number-one priority -- and I am going to say this again and again -- is just, you know, doing what the FBI has told me. And, basically, you know, there’s nothing that I am going to sort of release that -- that happened to me that night.  I am excited in the future to be able to talk freely and openly, because that will mean that the FBI has solved their case.

But that hasn't happened yet. The FBI's case remains open and unsolved four years after George Smith went overboard. Which frustrates George's parents, because they've believed all along that their son was the victim of a crime. 

Dennis Murphy: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, accident or murder?

Ms. Maureen Smith: Murder.

Mr. George Smith III: It's murder.

Dennis Murphy: You say without any hesitancy.

Mr. George Smith III: Oh, there's no doubt. Once we heard exactly about the blood and about the way he fell on to the...

Ms. Maureen Smith: The overhang.

Mr. George Smith III: The overhang and the way he fell onto the overhang, it wasn't like he fell overboard. It was like he was dumped overboard.

And now the Smiths are battling their former daughter-in-law in court.  After Jennifer reached a million-dollar settlement with Royal Caribbean in 2006, the Smiths claimed she settled too cheaply — and gave up chances to get more information out of the cruise line that could potentially solve the case.  The Smiths are now trying to get that settlement overturned, and have Jennifer removed as the executor of George's estate.

Just the latest, sad chapter of a marriage that lasted only 11 days: the tragic voyage of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.