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Dark Cruise: The Mysterious Vanishing of George Smith

It was the summer of 2005, and 26-year-old George Smith was in one of the happiest times of his life. He had just married his girlfriend, Jennifer Hagel, and the two were embarking on a sumptuous 2-week cruise through the Mediterranean for their honeymoon, planning to visit Greece, Turkey, and Italy, and other places. When they departed from Barcelona aboard the Royal Caribbean International cruise ship MS Brilliance of the Seas on Wednesday June 29th, 2005, they did so on the adventure of a lifetime, with their whole future lying out brightly in front of them. Yet things were about to turn into a cruise into darkness, with a series of sinister and mysterious events, and only one of them was going to leave that ship.

On July 4th the couple was halfway through their cruise, and had spent the day exploring the Greek island of Mykonos, after which they had a romantic dinner before hitting the casino and then moving on to the ship’s disco. They seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, and up until then everything was going very well and without incident. At the disco they ran into some other people they had met during the cruise, including another newlywed couple, a young man from California named Josh Askin, and a group of three Russian American men by the names of Greg and Zach Rozenberg and Rostislav Kofman. They all ended up sitting in the club together drinking, and according to some witnesses they had a bottle of absinthe that someone had smuggled aboard. When Smith and his wife retired for the evening they were very drunk, so drunk in fact that Hagel would be found the next morning passed out in a maintenance alcove in the hallway. Even so, she came out of it better that her husband, who could not be found, and who indeed has never been seen again.

George Smith and Jennifer Hagel

On the morning of July 5, Smith was nowhere to be found, but although the man himself could not be located anywhere on the ship, there were some rather sinister things found in the vicinity of the room. There were found some bloodstains on the awning of the cabin’s balcony, as well as a bloodstain on the lifeboat canopy directly below the cabin’s balcony, which led to the suspicion that he had been so drunk that he had fallen from the balcony and gone overboard. This was what the officials with Royal Caribbean Cruises believed after a brief and cursory investigation, but the police had other ideas. For them this was a possible homicide, and they would indeed uncover a slew of strange clues.

Authorities began interviewing people who had seen the couple or been with them the night before, as well as Hagel, who had been found blacked out in the hall and claimed to have no memory whatsoever of the previous evening. The group of men they had been with were questioned and painted a clearer picture of what had happened that night. Askin would tell them that Smith and Hagel had been arguing throughout the night due to the fact that she had been flirting with other men, in particular a handsome crewmember by the name of Lloyd Botha. Apparently at some point Smith had had enough and the couple got into a huge fight that ended with Hagel storming off, apparently with Botha in tow. The men then claim that they had escorted the heavily intoxicated Smith back to his room and left him there on the bed to sleep it off, after which they had gone back to their rooms and ordered room service. The ship’s key card system would confirm that he had been dropped off at his room at exactly 4:02 AM. They claim that when they left Smith in the room, his wife was nowhere to be seen and they assumed that she had gone off with Botha for a fling. It is all pretty intriguing and scandalous so far, but evidence would show that this story didn’t exactly hold up.

One thing that didn’t quite add up was that although it was reported that they had ordered a huge meal from room service after dropping Smith off, the cruise has no records of them doing so. A minor point, perhaps, but odd. There is also the fact that despite their insistence that Hagel had left the disco with Botha, his employee card information shows that he in fact left long before Hagel did. More ominous is that neighbors of Smith’s cabin would report that they had heard some sort of commotion in the room at approximately 4 AM, which was described as being a lot of cheering, yelling, and loud conversation, like a party was going on, and one witness would report hearing at least three voices coming from the cabin’s balcony. When the noise died down, witnesses reported seeing three men leaving the room, which is strange since four men insisted that they had gone there to drop Smith off. Where did the other one go? Did he stay behind? Why? After the three men left, a single voice was purportedly heard from within the cabin speaking in a normal tone and there was also the sound of furniture being moved around for around 10 minutes, after which there was a moment of silence and then a loud, resounding thudding noise. It is unknown what this sound could have been, but authorities speculated it could have been the sound of Smith falling off the balcony and hitting the deck below. No one was seen to enter or leave the cabin after that, and adding to the frustration of those investigating is that the cruise ship has no surveillance cameras that show the corridors, halls or passageways leading to the cabins, meaning it is impossible to know who came and went and when.

It is also unclear where Hagen was during all of this, because she was estimated to have left the club at just after 3 AM and was not seen again until 4:30AM out in that hall, after which she had been put back in her room by the crew members who found her, however, they did not take any time to look around the room and were unsure of whether Smith was there at the time or not. Where had she gone and what had she been doing during that time? No one seems to know. For her part she claimed she had absolutely no memory of what had happened after the disco, and even stated that she believed she might have been drugged. Making this all even weirder was that a more careful examination of the room would later turn up small droplets of blood on a bedsheet and a towel inside the cabin, casting doubt on the idea that he had simply fallen overboard in a drunken stupor.

All of this cast the four men last seen with Smith in a new light, and there were renewed efforts to investigate them. It was quickly found that the three Russian men had a long list of complaints from other passengers and the crew of the cruise, being described as rowdy, belligerent, unruly, and rude. A passenger would also later claim to have been raped by the three of them on the cruise, and there was even a piece of footage found on one of their cellphones showing them talking about Smith’s death, and although they say nothing truly incriminating, they speak of the tragedy in a decidedly callous tone. Adding to this is that Askin would fail an FBI polygraph test about his version of events, and while none of this is concrete evidence that they had something to do with Smith’s vanishing, it is certainly suspicious. Attorney Michael Jones, who represents Smith’s family, has said of these men, “The evidence suggests that Josh Askin and the boys know more than they have let on. It’s time for them to come forward and tell what they know about George’s disappearance.”

In the end, no one has ever been formally charged with anything to do with Smith’s disappearance, and his body has never been found. The cruise company itself has adamantly stood by its decision that this was a simple drunken accident, and they have been criticized by Smith’s family as not doing very much to investigate and accused of trying to cover it all up, leading to them pursuing civil lawsuits against the cruise line. In the meantime, the police and FBI have done all they can to pursue it, and have come to the conclusion that there is insufficient evidence of murder. George Smith’s family does not agree, and has offered a $100,000 reward for information leading directly to an arrest and conviction in the case. The money remains untouched. In the end it all remains officially an “accident,” and we are left to wonder just what happened to this man and what all of the disparate clues mean. Why was that blood there in the room, who was with him that night, and what did the neighbors here? Why is there so much discrepancy between the story of the last people known to be with him and what the evidence actually shows? Where was Smith’s wife during all of this? Do those four men who were with him have anything to do with it, or indeed even his own wife? Was Smith the victim of a simple accident, foul play, or something else? There have been no new leads, the case remains unsolved, and it seems like the only one who could’ve told us the real story is Smith himself, but he isn’t talking, and has never been seen again.