Tonight, January 6th, 2012, Dateline NBC is presenting an update on the case of George Smith, who disappeared during his honeymoon cruise on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship the Brilliance of the Seas in July of 2005.
The mystery of what happened to George Smith has never been solved. The FBI continues to state it is an open investigation. Following his disappearance during his honeymoon cruise, it was immediately suspected that foul play had taken place. Blood was found inside the cabin, and outside his cabin on a canopy below the balcony, where he apparently fell to before disappearing into the sea.
A passenger in a cabin next door had heard arguments and fighting going on in the cabin shortly before his disappearance. There was a question where his bride was, Jennifer Hagel-Smith. She was reported to have been found in an alcove next to a stairwell, actually close to the cabin of one of the passengers that had been reported to have been with the couple during the night in question.
The disappearance of George Smith was highly publicized. George, and his bride Jennifer Hagel-Smith, had a storybook wedding, and looked like the couple that would be on the top of a wedding cake. They were a beautiful couple. They attracted a lot of attention because of their good looks. They were young, and seemed to have a bright future ahead for both of them.
George Smith’s parents, who I had the privilege of representing, immediately were seeking answers as to what happened to their son. After some period of silence to deal with their devastated loss, the Smiths, along with myself, embarked on a media plan to get out as much information as possible to the public with the hope of getting some type of answers to the mystery of their son’s disappearance. We appeared on numerous television shows, including the Larry King show on numerous occasions, Dateline NBC, 20/20, the Nancy Grace show, as well as many other shows. Newspaper articles were discussing the case on a daily basis. The public became interested in how this young man on his honeymoon could have disappeared, possibly having been murdered.
All of the public attention eventually led to Congressional Hearings, which I also had the privilege to testify at as an invited expert speaker in the area of maritime laws and safety onboard cruise ships. Eventually, the Congressional Hearings led to the development of the organization called International Cruise Victims Association, an association formed by individuals who were also victims of tragedies onboard cruise ships. It was at the first Congressional Hearing that I testified at that I met Kendall Carver, the president of International Cruise Victims Association, who lost his daughter Miriam on a cruise ship. His daughter Miriam had gone on a cruise ship and disappeared during the cruise. Her case was never solved by the FBI. The failure of the cruise ship company to promptly report her disappearance resulted in an inability to conduct an appropriate investigation into her disappearance. Kendall Carver has been relentless in his efforts to seek increased safety legislation for the cruise ship industry, and has been lobbying for better safety laws and regulations onboard cruise ships, and increased reporting requirements and accountability for the cruise ship industry. I had the privilege of assisting Kendall Carver when he formed this very valuable association.
The disappearance of George Smith also resulted in conflicts between the Smith family and Jennifer Hagel-Smith. Jennifer Hagel-Smith was unable to provide any information regarding how George disappeared. Initially, she resisted the proposition that he had been murdered. She hired her own counsel to represent her in her case against Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. I represented the Smith family. Jennifer Hagel-Smith then decided to reach a settlement directly with the cruise ship company without the input or approval of the Smith family, which frustrated the Smith family because it deprived them of their attempts to engage in a discovery process that would have been allowed if the case had not been settled, and hopefully this would have resulted in obtaining more valuable information to assist in solving the mystery of George Smith’s disappearance.
The Smith family then decided to fight the settlement, arguing that Jennifer Hagel-Smith was not acting in the best interests of the estate of George Smith by settling the case without attempting to gain more valuable information to solve the mystery. This resulted in a highly disputed case in the probate court in Connecticut. Eventually, the case was settled, and Royal Caribbean agreed to provide some additional information as part of the settlement agreement.
Dateline NBC has announced it will update results of further investigations that have taken place over the past few years, including the additional information the cruise ship eventually provided after the highly disputed probate matter was resolved.
To date, the FBI still has not made any criminal arrests, or closed their case. Initially, there was much criticism of the cruise ship company in their handling of the disappearance of George Smith. Many experts took the position that the cruise line attempted to cover up the incident, and that their actions following the disappearance resulted in the inability for any authorities to conduct a proper investigation into the disappearance. The experts claim the crime scene was contaminated, and valuable evidence was lost, and that witnesses were either tampered with, or not interviewed promptly.
The cruise that resulted in George Smith’s disappearance also involved individuals that were kicked off the ship at a later port due to an allegation of rape of another passenger.
This case, and the many other cases that have been reported since, as well as information obtained during the Congressional Hearings, has raised serious concerns over criminal activity that occurs onboard cruise ships. The good that has occurred is it has brought more public awareness to the fact that these type of matters do occur onboard cruise ships. Disappearances, sexual assaults, and other criminal activities, do occur onboard cruise ships. There is a necessity for laws governing preserving evidence, conducting proper investigations, reporting to the appropriate authorities, and being held accountable for maintaining appropriate information regarding the occurrence of these events.
I expect that Congress will continue to keep an eye on the industry, and that there will be subsequent hearings and revaluations by the United States Congress, as well as the FBI and the United States Coast Guard, after some period of time has passed following the passage of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act which was passed into law by President Obama in 2010. This law was passed as a result of the Congressional Hearings that followed the disappearance of George Smith. Whether the laws are being followed properly, and whether the cruise ship industry is accurately reporting the information required to be reported under this law has been questioned.
When going on a cruise, it is important to be aware that crime does happen on cruise ships, and to act accordingly. Cruising remains a great way to take a vacation, including a family vacation. These type of events that do occur onboard cruise ships simply raises our awareness when taking a cruise. The cruise ship industry has always emphasized the “fun ship”, as well as the carefree nature of cruising. The fact that the cruise ship is a floating city and hotel, and the fact that the cruise ship industry profits from the sale of alcohol aboard their cruise ships, makes it a place where accidents and criminal activities will occur. One should always exercise caution and awareness when taking a cruise.
Our firm continues to be safety advocates for those injured or harmed at sea.