Sunday, November 18, 2012

Missing Tuesday - George Smith IV

(I have been trying to post this since last Tuesday and keep getting interrupted.)

I love going on cruises – it’s my favorite way to vacation. But since 1995, at least 165 people (both passengers and crew) have gone missing from cruise ships. Are they victims of a shipboard crime wave or an unfortunate accident? Did they disappear voluntarily or plan to take their own lives? Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, there is no answer. Disappearances almost always occur in the middle of the night, when the ship is far out to sea.

The disappearance of George Smith IV from the cruise ship Brilliance of the Seas in 2005 is one of the most-publicized continuing mysteries of the cruise industry. Although George’s family has accepted the fact that he is no longer alive, they are still waiting for answers about how he died.

George Allen Smith IV was born in Greenwich, CT, on October 3, 1978, and grew up in the suburb of Glenville. He grew to be 6’2” and played high school football. With his father, he managed the Cos Cob Liquor Store in Glenville. George’s family describes him as very devoted to his family; college classmates say he was a quiet student and a friendly guy, well-liked by everyone.

George, age 26, and Jennifer Hagel, age 25, of Cromwell, CT, met in Newport, RI, in 2002, and were married there in a clifftop ceremony on June 25, 2005. Jennifer was an elementary school teacher, beautiful and outgoing, with a great personality. Four days after their wedding, the couple set sail on a 12 night honeymoon cruise of the Mediterranean on Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas, sailing from Barcelona, Spain, a trip that they had planned together. The Brilliance of the Seas is a very large ship, carrying almost 2300 passengers. They had a balcony stateroom on the 9th deck of the ship. The personable young couple soon made new friends on board the ship.

Halfway through their honeymoon cruise, they spent the day ashore in Mykonos on July 4, then returned to the ship and changed for dinner. They had a romantic dinner in one of the shipboard restaurants, and then went to the casino to meet up with another couple also on their honeymoon. They also connected with several young men that they had met on the cruise.  There was a rumor on the ship that George was carrying large sums of money, and a report that both had talked about how people were stuffing cash into their pockets at their wedding, and that they had brought all the money with them on the cruise. When the casino closed at 2:30 a.m., they moved on with their friends to the disco. They were all drinking heavily, and Jennifer began flirting openly with other men, including one of the casino staff. At some point, someone brought out a bottle of absinthe (not sold on the ship). Jennifer and George got into an argument, and at least three witnesses said that both George and Jennifer were very drunk, and that Jennifer kicked her husband in the groin before walking out of the disco at 3:15 a.m. Later, Jennifer said that George was mixing alcohol with two prescription medications, Zoloft and Clonazepam.

The ship docked in Kusadasi, Turkey, at 6:14 a.m., and passengers were cleared to go ashore at 6:39 a.m.  When Jennifer awoke on the morning of July 5, she was not immediately concerned that George was not in their stateroom. She believed he had continued partying after she went to bed and had simply fallen asleep in their new friends’ room, as had happened on at least one other evening on the cruise. She and George had appointments at the ship’s spa for massages; she went to the spa to keep her appointment and thought that George would join her there when he woke up.

Around 8:30 a.m., over two hours after the ship had docked, several passengers on their balconies noticed a large bloodstain on one of the lifeboat canopies. At least one passenger photographed the bloodstain. Blood was also found on the Smiths’ balcony railing, in their cabin, and on the side of the ship. A search of the ship initially showed three missing passengers: George and Jennifer Smith, and one other passenger. Jennifer was located in the ship’s spa shortly before 10 a.m., and the third passenger was also found. Three officers came to the spa to talk to Jennifer and tell her that George was missing. When questioned, Jennifer said she did not remember anything after leaving the casino until she woke up in their room that morning. While it has been suggested that Jennifer was drugged for her to go into such a deep state of unconsciousness that she remembered nothing afterwards, it is also possible that she was just extremely drunk.

Thanks to the access cards, security cameras, and passenger accounts used on the ship, George and his friends left an electronic trail of their movements. After the disco closed at 3:30 a.m., George and his friends went back to the Smiths’ room since George was too drunk to walk on his own. When George realized that Jennifer was not with them and not in the stateroom, he asked the other men to help him locate her, but they were unable to find her. They all returned to George’s room at 4:02 a.m., where the partying apparently continued. Sometime between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m., George’s companions returned to their own room and ordered room service, even taking pictures of the food because they were amazed at the quanitity.

The passengers in the neighboring staterooms, Cletus Hyman, a law enforcement officer from Redlands, CA, and Pat and Greg Lawyer, said they heard what sounded like a loud party and a drinking contest in the Smiths’ stateroom that night around 4 a.m. Mr. Hyman called the Guest Relations desk at 4:05 a.m. to complain about the noise. He thought he heard at least one voice out in the corridor, and then what he describes as an argument on the balcony that lasted about a minute, involving three voices. At around 4:15 a.m., he heard voices saying “good night” softly and when he looked out his door, he saw three men walking away. Pat and Greg Lawyer who were staying on the other side of the Smiths’ room also called Guest Relations to complain about the noise. They said they heard three male voices talking quietly outside their room, although they did not look to see who it was. They believe two of the men spoke with accents.

By now, it was approximately 4:15 a.m. Based on witness testimony, either three or four men had left the Smiths’ stateroom. The Smiths’ neighbors heard someone talking in a conversational tone in the Smiths’ room, and sounds like furniture was pushed around and cabinets being opened and closed, as though the room was either being put back in order or searching for something. Mr. Hyman said there was only one voice speaking, and after about ten minutes, the voice moved to the balcony, where he heard one of the metal balcony chairs being moved. It was quiet for a minute or so, and then he heard what he described as “a horrific thud” coming from the Smiths’ balcony, strong enough that he felt the vibration in his room. He said his first thought was that someone had fallen on the balcony. He did not hear anyone leave through the Smiths’ door, which he normally did.

When security personnel finally responded to Mr. Hyman’s call about the loud noise in the neighboring room, it was 4:30 a.m. and everything was quiet.  Mr. Lawyer suggested they might want to enter the room because it sounded as though the room was being trashed, but the security staff opted not to do that when there was no response to their knocking. 

Shortly after 4:30 a.m., Jennifer was discovered passed out in a corridor on Deck Nine, but on the other side of the ship from her own stateroom. She had made it to the right deck, but was too disoriented to find the correct room.  If she had made it back to her own room after leaving the disco, the night would most likely have ended differently: George’s friends would not have entered the room, or she could have prevented him being pushed or falling overboard, or she too might have ended up in the ocean. Jennifer was able to tell the staff who she was and her stateroom number.  Crewmembers stayed with Jennifer while two other staff went to her cabin to try to locate her husband.  Unaware of the first visit by security staff just a few minutes earlier, they entered the room around 4:45 a.m. looking for George and found the room empty. Two security officer and a female crewmember took Jennifer by wheelchair back to the Smiths’ cabin, entering the room at 4:57 a.m., and helped her to bed.  As they were leaving, Mr. Hyman stuck his head out the door and mentioned that he had heard a commotion in the room about an hour earlier. The security personnel assured him that they had seen nothing amiss in the room and then left.

George was reported missing to the Turkish police, and Jennifer and Josh Askin, one of the men who had been partying with the Smiths, were taken ashore to be questioned by police. Askin had heard the page aboard the ship asking George and Jennifer to check in with them, and volunteered the information that he had been with George in the early hours of the morning.  At 6 p.m., Captain Lachtaridis had the crew wash the bloodstain away the bloodstain on the lifeboat and prepared to depart for the ship’s next port of call. When Brilliance of the Seas returned to the Bahamas where it is chartered after the cruise, the captain filed a report calling George’s disappearance a “probable accident.” The Turkish police and Royal Caribbean turned over their findings to the FBI, including over 100 security tapes from various points on the ship.

In addition to his wife, George was seen with four men in the early morning hours of July 5, 2005, before he vanished: Josh Askin of California; and three Russian-Americans, brothers Greg and Zachary Rozenberg and their cousin Rostislav “Rusty” Kofman of Brooklyn. All four men were in their late teens or early twenties. The Turkish police interviewed Askin, but none of the others. When contacted by the FBI, they insisted that they had all left George’s room by 4:15 a.m. and returned to Kofman’s room to order room service. Askin said he returned to his own room around 5:15 a.m.  All insist George was alive and well when they left him in his own room. Askin met the Rozenbergs and Kofman on the ship; there is no reason to think that he would be covering for them, or they for him.

The young Russian men had already been warned by ship personnel regarding their behavior. During the 48 hours after George vanished, there were several more incidents involving the Rozenberg brothers and Kofman. The Rozenberg family, Kofman, and the Askin family (13 people in all) were removed from the ship in Italy after an alleged sexual assault on a female passenger that at least two of the young men participated in and videotaped. That case is still being investigated by the FBI.

Royal Caribbean officials are blamed for failing to lockdown the ship when it reached the port of Kusadasi, allowing passengers and crew to leave the ship. But at that time, they were unaware that anyone was missing. The Turkish police investigated the crime scene for about two hours, but were rushed off the boat in the afternoon, so that the cruise ship could continue on to its next scheduled port of call. Jennifer at first criticized the cruise line for abandoning her in Turkey to fend for herself, but Royal Caribbean officials say that is not true, that a crew member stayed with her from the moment she learned that George was missing until she left Turkey to return home. The Smiths’ stateroom was sealed to preserve a potential crime scene, and ship personnel provided clothing for Jennifer from the shops on board the ship.

In January 2006, Royal Caribbean allowed forensic specialist Dr. Henry Lee aboard to collect forensic evidence from the Smiths’ room.  He collected samples, photographed the scene and took measurements.  He wanted to perform an experiment throwing a mannequin off the balcony, but Royal Caribbean denied him permission to do this.

In May 2012, a new piece of possible evidence was made public. A video taken in the dining room onboard the Brilliance of the Seas shows the four men who had been with George prior to his disappearance, sitting around and talking about his death and apparently mocking him, while the search for George was still going on around them. The four men took the video themselves, apparently passing around a flip phone.  The FBI has had the video in their possession since 2005. Were the men admittiing that they had killed George, or was it just a bunch of young callous guys sitting around, trying to impress each other?

Cruising is still one of the safest forms of vacation, particularly for women, singles, and seniors. Millions of people vacation on cruise ships every year. The crime rate is minute compared with the rate of crime on land. It is a fact that people do dumb things when they are on vacation, things they would never do when they are at home (if you don’t believe me, watch a few episodes of “Vegas Strip” on TruTV). If you get drunk or high enough, it might seem like a good idea to stand on the rail of your balcony, or jump off and take a swim in the ocean.

In the years since George Smith vanished, cruise lines have changed their policies and practices regarding missing passengers. Now when a passenger is missing, no one is allowed to leave the vessel until a thorough search has been performed.

In 2010, Congress passed the Cruise Security and Safety Act, which stipulates more onboard security personnel, crime response training for security officers, and improved communications between cruise lines and the FBI and Coast Guard. In addition, the International Cruise Victims Association founded by Kendall Carver, father of Merrian Carver who vanished on an Alaskan cruise in 2004, is advocating background checks for all crewmembers, higher railings, more and better security cameras, security bracelets for all passengers and crew, complete documentation of all persons boarding or leaving the ship, and access to records and security videos for investigators.

Jennifer received a $1.1 million settlement from Royal Caribbean in 2006. George’s family challenged the settlement and Jennifer's position as executor of her husband's estate, but a probate court approved the settlement and the ruling was upheld in Superior Court in 2008. A portion of the money went to create a charitable fund in George's name.  Included in the settlement was an agreement from Royal Caribbean to turn over the evidence they collected at the time of George's disappearance from their own internal investigation.  In 2009, Jennifer remarried, to financial analyst Jeff Agne, and they have a child.  While the mystery of George's disappearance will undoubtedly stay with her forever, she is a young woman and deserves to have a life.

What really happened to George Smith IV? A number of possibilities exist:

- George was earmarked for murder because it was believed he had a lot of money in his room. Was his death the result of a robbery gone bad?

- A bunch of drunk guys got into an argument that ended horribly, and then panicked and threw George’s body overboard.

- Young drunk guys can do stupid things, like dare each other to stand on the balcony railing of a cruise ship traveling through rolling seas.

- Like a lot of men, George enjoyed a good cigar. Passengers mentioned smelling cigar smoke from the Smiths’ balcony earlier in the cruise. Possibly the opening and closing of doors that Mr. Hyman heard was George looking for a cigar, and then going out on the balcony to smoke. If he decide to get up on a chair so that he could sit on the railing to look out while he smoked, it is entirely possible that he lost his balance and fell overboard because he was extremely drunk.

On an interesting side note, a lengthy article about George’s disappearance was deleted from Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia.  Since Wikipedia has stories about Natalee Holloway, the Springfield Three, and Etan Patz, I am at a loss to explain why this particular article was deleted.

If you have any information about the disappearance of George Smith IV, please contact the FBI.

1 comment:

  1. Did they ever test the blood on the ship to see if it matched George's DNA? They could get DNA from his parents in order to see if it was his. Or maybe from George's toothbrush. I don't understand this whole botched investigation. Who behaves like that on their honeymoon? They don't sound like they were in love at all. What were they arguing about all the time? And why did she kick George in the groin? And that woman goes onto marry someone else and have a child? Jeff Agne must just be another man thinking with the wrong head. I hope the truth is discovered in this very tragic story and whomever is behind it goes to prison for life.