Tonight, Dateline NBC will air a brand new segment on the disappearance of George Smith, a newlywed sailing on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas in the Mediterranean just days after he was wed to Jennifer Hagel. It has been dubbed the "Honeymoon Cruise Mystery" and a number of other names, but without a doubt, no other cruise case, crime or otherwise, has received nearly as much media attention.
Dateline now claims it has new information and new pictures from the cruise, and is focusing on three Russian-born American citizens who lived in Brooklyn, New York, at the time of the event.
In fact, the entire story is already extensively documented, and there are several seedy and embarrassing elements, especially surrounding the bride, Jennifer Hagel-Smith (now remarried). Jennifer was "missing" during the entire night when George Smith obviously went overboard from the balcony of his cabin in the Aegean Sea.
Jennifer was found at about 5:00 in the morning passed out, drunk, in a hallway corridor at the opposite end of the ship from the location of the newlywed's stateroom. The couple, along with the Russian young men, had been drinking heavily all night long and were last seen together in the Disco onboard the ship in the early morning hours of July 5, 2005.
Jennifer was very drunk and decided she wanted to go back to her stateroom; however, she did not tell anyone in her group where she was going. She apparently made the decision on the spur of the moment and just got into an elevator she passed upon returning from the restroom. A crewmember recalls talking to her and pushing the button for her floor, she got off the elevator but no one saw her from that moment until she was found hours later.
It is very easy to get turned around on Royal Caribbean ships, especially since the line does not put all odd numbered cabins on one side of the ship and evens on the other as most lines do. Rather, Royal Caribbean starts numbering each stateroom with the number of the deck (for example 7000 for deck seven) on one side and when all staterooms are numbered they continue with the next highest number on the other side. It is also easy to lose track of which direction is forward when on an enclosed cruise ship, and so getting lost on the same deck as your own stateroom is actually pretty easy to do – it happened to me on Liberty of the Seas just last month, I had an even numbered stateroom and was looking at even numbers on the doors. It never occurred to me my room could be on the other side of the ship. I kept thinking I had just walked past it my mistake.
Chances are that Jennifer, very drunk, simply get lost and fell asleep in the hallway. When she was found by ship personnel, a three person team, including a female security guard was sent to return her to her stateroom. They put her in a wheelchair and took her there. Using her key to open the door they did not notice anything unusual about the stateroom; except that it was a mess (Jennifer said during the subsequent hearings that it had looked "lived in" for days.) She was put on the bed and the crewmembers left.
Not long after Jennifer had left the nightclub George noticed she was gone and decided to go looking for her. Also very drunk (it was reported he couldn't keep a cigarette in his mouth) he was accompanied by the Russian men to the top deck and other places, but when Jennifer could not be found the men all returned to George's stateroom and George was on the bed. It was reported that some loud voices and "banging" noises were heard by the next door neighbor at this time. When it sounded like some people had just left the room the neighbor looked out into the hall and saw three men walking away from the room.
He reported hearing further noises, like furniture being moved, but no talking and eventually silence.
At about 8:30 Jennifer woke up. George was not there but she later testified that she concluded at the time that he had probably fallen asleep in someone else's cabin. She said that such things had happened with George before so she was not overly concerned. But George had fallen somewhere else, over the balcony railing, hitting a structural piece of the ship on the way down where a large blood stain was later discovered.
Jennifer testified she was more concerned with a Spa appointment she had scheduled that morning. Mistakenly believing she was already late for the appointment (actually, it was scheduled for about an hour later) she hurried to the spa. When the blood spot was found soon after she left, the ship started looking for George – and Jennifer. Finding her in the spa she was asked if she knew the whereabouts of George, and she said she did not. The investigation started and continued throughout the day, and eventually Jennifer decided to leave the ship in the port of call that day, Kusadasi, Turkey, site of the ancient city Ephesus.
A lot of questioning and investigation by Turkish authorities ensued. Jennifer was obviously confused, distraught and somewhat helpless. She was not allowed to enter her stateroom because it was a crime scene, and so she was given some clothes by Royal Caribbean from the onboard gift shop. Turkish authorities examined the room and did not find any evidence of a crime. The blood smear outside the cabin was obviously suspicious, but not conclusive of anything. A chair was found placed next to the balcony railing as if someone wanted to use it as a stepping stool, to possibly sit on the railing, back to the sea, or to intentionally jump.
Crime theorists say the chair was put there for a person to "throw George overboard," but there are no particular theories as to whether he was already dead. No blood was found in the room although the smear outside was fairly large. No one knows what really happened, but it does appear that George was bleeding profusely at some point, but not inside the stateroom. Was he injured when he struck the embankment below his balcony?
Was George distraught because his bride was missing at 4:00 a.m. on their honeymoon, and so he committed suicide by jumping? Or did he just decide to smoke a cigarette while sitting on the balcony railing and lose his balance?
The case was further investigated by the FBI for over a year, working directly with Jennifer. Jennifer was cleared of suspicion by authorities, but the Smith family, George's parents, still feels Jennifer has some responsibility in the case. A settlement between Royal Caribbean and Jennifer was contested by the Smith family in court, but they did not prevail.
Jennifer moved on, finding a new beau. The Smith family is still very active in the case, however, and they will be featured on the Dateline Episode airing tonight.
The new evidence is said to include pictures, and suspicion over the fact that one of the Russian men, Josh Askin, failed an FBI lie detector test concerning what happened in George's stateroom. When he was later deposed by the Smith family attorney he invoked his fifth amendment right not to answer.
There were four Russians who accompanied George on his search for Jennifer, but the neighbor, a California police detective, Cletus Hyman, said he only saw three men leaving the cabin. The four men claim they ordered a large order from room service at just about the same time as George went missing, but the cruise line documents show no evidence of that order. The only timeline proof of the picture is the date recorded by the camera.
Now – of course it is easy to change the dates printed onto a digital camera, but if you have the original picture files you can also see when the file was created, and if the pictures are in sequence. Furthermore, whether or not the cruise line has a record of any other large room service order at a different time by the four men is not yet known.
When the Smiths contested Jennifer's settlement with Royal Caribbean (she got close to $1,100,000) a further settlement agreement was reached where the amount was increased to 1.3 million with the additional money going to the Smith family. The agreement also included Royal Caribbean turning over all evidence it had in the case – which had been given to the FBI already – to the Smith family.
The Smith family is instigating the continuing investigation, although it is not yet clear what they hope to prove. The FBI still has the case "open," but the FBI leaves almost all cruise crime cases open, even when they are no longer actively investigating them.
The show airs at 10:00 pm tonight (Friday, January 6th).