Tragedy at Sea
In the early morning hours of July 5, Jennifer and George were gambling, drinking and enjoying their first few days of married life—until their blissful union was torn apart. Just a few hours later, George disappeared, never to be heard from again.
Details of the evening's events are hazy. Some witnesses claim the couple was extremely intoxicated. They say Jennifer and George argued before going their separate ways. Jennifer has no memory of the evening and what happened to her husband. Jennifer was found at 4:30 a.m. unconscious in a corridor and was taken back to her room by security officers. When she woke the next day, George was nowhere to be found. Amid the controversy and speculation, a basic timeline has been established:
4 a.m.: George returns to his room. This is the last time anyone admits seeing him alive. Shortly after, a vacationing police officer in an adjacent room hears loud voices and a commotion. Security comes but hears nothing and leaves.
4:20 a.m.: More commotion is heard in the Smiths' cabin. A neighbor hears what he describes as a "horrific thud."
4:30 a.m.: Jennifer is discovered unconscious in a corridor a considerable distance from her own cabin. Crew members helped Jennifer back to her room in a wheelchair. They see nothing out of the ordinary in the cabin.
7 a.m.: A passenger snaps a picture of a blood stain on a metal overhang below the Smiths' cabin.
8 a.m.: Jennifer wakes up in her room and makes her way to the spa for a couples' massage appointment—without George.
Was George murdered? Was his bride somehow involved? Oprah's best friend Gayle King sits down with Jennifer Hagel-Smith.
Jennifer claims she remembers nothing from the time she and George arrived at the bar. "[That] sounds very suspicious," Gayle says. "Had you been drinking heavily?"
Jennifer says they had been drinking socially—not enough to cause a blackout. "People are going to slam me either way," she says, "If I say, 'Oh, maybe I was drinking too much,' I'll get slammed—I'm the drunk bride. If I say, 'Well, maybe I was drugged,' they'll say, 'Oh, she's just making excuses for herself.'"
What about reports the couple had a nasty argument? Some witnesses say they heard George swearing at his wife and saw Jennifer knee him in the groin. Jennifer, who has no memory of their time at the bar, says she cannot deny or confirm the alleged fight. "If that is the last encounter that I had with my husband ... then that is something I will have to carry for the rest of my life," she says, her eyes filling with tears. "I can't remember anything from a certain time period. We just aren't angry people. George would never call me names. And I would never do something like that out of anger to George."
Gayle has another question about Jennifer's behavior that morning—why didn't she think there was a problem when she woke up in her cabin without George? "At that point, I obviously wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer," she says. "I was just found unconscious four hours earlier; [I was] very groggy." Jennifer says she assumed her husband had spent the night in a friend's room. She didn't worry until cruise staff approached her at the spa after her massage, informing her that they were looking for George—and they had found blood.
Jennifer wishes the media would stop exaggerating the sensational aspects of the story and instead help in the effort to find answers. Unsatisfied with the cruise line's handling of the case, she's hired a top forensic expert. "I want to know what happened to my husband," Jennifer says. She's also taken and passed a polygraph and is frustrated by the public's continued focus on her. On the other hand, she says, "[I] just want to say, forget everybody. I just lost George. Why do I even care what [people] think anyway? Why do I even care about what the world thinks about me? This is about George."
"They were just so lovely and kind and nice," Jaci says. "[They] seemed so in love." Jaci says she spent time with Jennifer and George at the casino that night around 2:30 a.m., right before the newlyweds left for the bar and Jennifer's memories of that evening lapse. Jaci says the two "absolutely" did not appear to be drunk. "They say I'm FBI," she says. "I smell everything—I have teenagers. I didn't [sense they had been drinking] at all. In fact, her words were perfect, her conversation. ... [George] did not seem at all intoxicated, as far as I was concerned."
"What do I think [happened]?" Jaci says. "It couldn't have been an accident. I've been on 28 cruises. Never one time [has anyone just gone] over."
"While [Jaci is] talking favorably about Jennifer and George," Gayle points out, "you'll find other couples who say, 'I saw them. They were fighting; it was very nasty.' ... But after meeting her and talking to [Jennifer], I believed her."
In the swirl of rumors surrounding this case, Goldstein says Royal Caribbean has been accused of having covered up evidence. To this, Goldstein responds, "There certainly is no cover-up."
He continues: "Within 20 minutes of the guests reporting that there was apparently a blood stain on the canopy, we had commenced a complete search of the ship. ... We notified the Turkish authorities and the U.S. Consulate before we even had found Jennifer. So the full search was under way immediately. We looked all over the ship and eventually found Jennifer, as she has said, in the spa and asked her if she was aware of her husband's whereabouts."
Goldstein says Jennifer and George's stateroom was sealed until after Turkish authorities completed a forensic investigation. He also says a rumor that Royal Caribbean preemptively cleaned or painted over the bloodstain on the awning is "completely false."
"As soon as we sealed it off, it was guarded," he says.
Only after receiving two assurances from the Turkish authorities did the cruise continue on, Goldstein says. "Then we cleaned off [the blood-stained awning] with a pressure hose [at 6:15 p.m.]. We never painted over and still have not today painted over that area."
Within an hour of removing the bloodstain, the ship departed Turkey.
In her first public confrontation with a Royal Caribbean representative, she wants an explanation for the company's conduct during the Turkish government's investigation.
Jennifer believes the crime scene on the cruise ship was not adequately secured. She also says that a "premature" decision by the ship's captain and others to treat George's death as an accident now makes discovery of truth impossible. "That is what this comes down to," she says. "Not this 'he-said-she-said' ... That's not the point. The bottom line is we may have known what happened to George before he fell if that bloodstain was secured."
According to Jennifer, an independent forensics expert named Dr. Henry Lee says that, had the scene been properly secured, evidence there could have either proved or disproved the hypothesis that George died accidentally.
Goldstein defends Royal Caribbean's methods, saying, "We enabled the investigation to take place by notifying all the relevant authorities immediately. They came on board and they did their forensics while the cabin was sealed, while the bloodstain was sealed down below. They did the forensics and they were in constant consultation with the FBI. The U.S. Consulate was there. ... All of the relevant authorities were involved in determining how the investigation should be carried out."
Though the ship was cleared—twice—to leave port in Turkey, Jennifer still wonders, "If there's a doubt, why not just keep the ship in Turkey? Why not just keep it there? Why not keep the passengers on? Why not talk to all of them?"
Jennifer says what bothers her most is that she feels she never received an appropriate apology from Royal Caribbean. "I think it's so much more admirable just to say, 'I'm not sure we did everything right. ... I wished we had done, maybe, things differently,'" Jennifer says. "Just admit some wrongdoing."
Goldstein offered regret for the treatment Jennifer received. "I am sorry if some of the things we came forward with in terms of the assistance we provided seemed trivial to you because that certainly wasn't the intention," he says. "I think we could have communicated better on a very disoriented day, and absolutely we should have paid for your air ticket home."
And in an apology, he says, "We did the best that we could, that we knew how to do, in a situation we had not encountered before. ... There wasn't anything that we could do that would have been enough. I am sorry, on behalf of the 40,000 people at Royal Caribbean, that we were not able to render you as much assistance and comfort as you would like to have had on that terrible day."
Jennifer also has a difficult relationship with George's family: his father, George III; mother, Maureen; and sister, Bree.
"She hasn't told us everything I think she possibly could have," George III has said.
Maureen agrees, saying, "She has stated that the FBI has requested that she keeps certain things from that evening quiet. So that could be the reason."
Jennifer says she mourns everything about the future with her husband that will not be. "George [was] George IV. There should have been a George V and George VI." Jennifer still struggles with guilt. "Why wasn't I there to protect George? Why wasn't I there in that room?"
Jennifer: I wish that everybody would just, every time you see his face on your TV screen, to just know that he's our George, that we love him so much. This has been just such a nightmare for everybody. Just stop bashing him. Stop saying he was "this" or "that." He was a wonderful person. He was a great husband, even for the short time. For all the years that I've known him, there's not a one person who can say a bad word about him. It's amazing, now that he's gone people are saying bad things about him. It's terrible.