Thursday, February 23, 2006

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Four days after their wedding on June 25, 2005, George Smith IV and his bride Jennifer Hagel-Smith set off on a twelve-day Mediterranean cruise aboard Royal Carribean's Brilliance of the Seas. The couple appeared to be having a wonderful time until the night of July 4 and into the early morning hours of July 5, when alleged heavy drinking, uncharacteristic behavior and perhaps trusting the wrong persons culminated in George's untimely and tragic death. George Smith went overboard into the waters of the Aegean between Greece and Turkey, leaving his wife of ten days a widow. A thorough search by Greek authorities proved fruitless in finding him.

MSNBC has a comprehensive Dateline article on the case. From this and other media sources, I've compiled a timeline (surprise, surprise):

July 4, 2005

  • 6:00 pm -- After a leisurely day on the Greek isle of Mykonos, the couple return to the ship for dinner.
  • 11:00 pm -- George and Jennifer meet another honeymoon couple, with whom they've become fast friends, in the ship's casino. At some point, George and Jennifer begin partying with Josh Askin, Rostislav Kofman, and two other young Russian men.
July 5, 2005

  • 2:30 am -- The casino closes and the party moves to the ship's disco.
  • Rostislav Kofman, a 20-year-old Russian man from Brooklyn, NY, claims that George and Jennifer were drinking heavily that night. Both were very intoxicated and got into a loud argument. George allegedly cursed at his wife, calling her names, and Jennifer, in response, kneed him in the groin hard enough to cause him to double over. Reportedly, a few other passengers corroborate this account.
  • 3:20 am -- Jennifer, alone and wobbly according to a custodian, leaves the disco. The custodian rides the elevator with her from deck 13 to deck 9 (her cabin level). She told him she was fine and went on her way.
  • 3:30 am -- The disco closes.
  • George is so intoxicated that he needs assistance to his cabin. He is helped to his room by Josh Askin, a 20-year-old California college student, and three young Russian men from Brooklyn, NY -- 20-year-old Rostislav Kofman and his cousins who have only been referred to as the Rosenberg brothers.
  • 3:45 am -- According to the young men's story, upon finding that Jennifer is not in the room, George and his entourage set out to look for her and head for the Jacuzzi in the solarium area. Unable to locate Jennifer, the men return to the Smith stateroom, put George to bed and return to their own cabin on deck three.
  • 4:00 am -- The four men allegedly order room service.
  • 4:05-4:20 am -- Clete Hyman is awakened by a commotion in the Smith's cabin. First he hears several loud male voices that sound like they're engaged in a drinking game. He phones security and bangs on the wall in an attempt to quell the racket. The voices continue, but in a more subdued manner. After several minutes, he hears three or four male voices arguing out on the balcony. This is followed by several "goodnights" from within the cabin, the door opening and closing, and voices receding down the corridor. Hyman looks out and sees three young men walking down the corridor. Subsequently, Hyman hears a single male voice speaking in a conversational tone in the Smith's cabin. More loud noises (which Hyman describes as furniture being moved) ensue as the man moves between the cabin and the balcony. The last couple of minutes, Hyman hears what he believes to be the metal chairs on the balcony being moved. Then a few minutes of silence are followed by a loud, reverberating thud.
  • 4:20 am -- The four men supposedly receive a very large room service order in the Russian men's stateroom and photograph it "as a memento."
  • 4:30 am -- Security officials respond to Hyman's call by knocking on the Smith's cabin door. No noise is heard from within, and no one answers the door. They do not enter the cabin.
  • 4:30 am -- Jennifer is found sleeping in a corridor on the other side of the ship from where the Smith's cabin is located.
  • 4:48 am -- Security officials return to the stateroom to try to locate someone to assist Jennifer. The room is vacant, and nothing appears amiss.
  • 4:57 am -- Jennifer is brought to her cabin via wheelchair and laid on her bed.
  • 5:15 -- Josh Askin, one of the four men who accompanied George that night, states that he is back in bed.
  • 7:00 am -- Clete Hyman peers around the partition between the Smiths' balcony and his own and sees the coffee table and chairs out of their normal position and several cigarette butts on the balcony.
  • 7:00 am -- Passenger Emilie Rausch photographs a large bloodstain on the lifeboat canopy below her balcony. She describes it as a couple of feet in length with what appear to be handprints or footprints in it.
  • 8:30 am -- The bloodstain on the canopy is reported to staff.
  • 9:30 am -- Ship officials have determined that one of the Smiths is missing.
  • 10:00 am -- Jennifer is located in the spa and informed by three uniformed officers that her husband is believed to have fallen overboard. Jennifer is wearing the same clothes that she'd worn the previous night.
  • 6:00 pm -- The bloodstained canopy is cleaned by crew members.
  • 7:00 pm -- The Brilliance of the Seas leaves the Turkish port. Jennifer Hagel-Smith remains behind.
July 7, 2005
  • The FBI takes over the investigation when the ship docks at Piraeus, Greece.

July 8, 2005
  • An 18-year-old female passenger notifies officials that she was raped by the same men whom George Smith was last seen in the company of. The incident, which supposedly progressed from an encounter between two of the men and the alleged victim in the Jacuzzi to a videotaped sexual encounter in a stateroom, is described as consensual by the accused men. The young woman vehemently denies the characterization. Royal Carribean officials say that the incident had already occurred by the time the ship docked in Greece on July 7, but had not yet been reported. No charges are filed.

July 9, 2005
  • The young men and their families are removed from the ship when it docks at Naples, Italy.

Albert Dayan, attorney for Rostislav “Rusty” Kofman, asserts that his client had not met the Smiths before the night of July 4. Kofman describes both George and Jennifer as “bombed” and recounts his observation of the couple’s behavior in the disco that night – Jennifer, flirtatious and cozy with the casino manager and an ugly confrontation between George and Jennifer, ending with Jennifer kicking her husband in the groin and “walking away with an attitude.” Statements from other passengers confirm the story and depict George remaining behind in the bar drinking absinthe shots with the four young men. According to Josh Askin’s attorney, George himself brought the bottle of absinthe aboard when the ship docked in Florence, Italy. Interestingly, the jaunt into Florence was the first occasion on which Askin and the Smiths became acquainted, when they shared cab rides to and from the city.

Of particular interest to me is that Kofman’s attorneys refer to their client as “the leading target” of the investigation. Does this mean that Kofman is believed to be the man who remained behind, talking and moving furniture around before passengers on the either side of the Smiths' stateroom heard a “horrific thud”?

Josh Askin’s statement is somewhat in line with Kofman’s: Jennifer was cozy with a man he believes to be the casino manager. The man was openly flirting with Jennifer in George’s presence and had his arm around her in the elevator as the group moved from the casino to the disco. They were sitting on a couch together in the disco lounge, and Askin thought they had left together. However, during his interview with Turkish authorities, Askin described the Smiths as happy and denied that they were fighting that night. He also expressed concern for Jennifer, stating, “I’m not letting her go to jail,” and urging investigators to interrogate Lloyd, the casino manager. Josh made a couple of other interesting comments in the days that followed George’s disappearance. Upon hearing the ship’s page for the as yet unaccounted for couple, he told a ship statesman that “George had been drinking a lot the night before and they might need to send somebody to his cabin because he might not respond to the page due to the previous night's activities." He also commented to another passenger, “The room service is what saved us.” It seems to me that young Josh knows more than he’s willing to admit. Perhaps his parents do, too. They surreptitiously videotaped his interview with Turkish investigators and seemed to be trying to keep him on track and prevent him from saying too much. Of course, that’s just my observation.

What really happened after George left the disco with his benevolent entourage that early morning of July 5? Do records indicate that the men left the cabin briefly to search for Jennifer, as they’ve stated? He’s been described by the men as so intoxicated when leaving the disco that he was dropping his cigarette and needed the physical assistance of two young men to make it back to his stateroom. Do ship records coincide with the 4:20 am time stamp on the photograph of the room service feast? What happened to George in that cabin? It’s been reported that Turkish investigators found blood on a towel and in the bed. Josh Askin claims that he used Smith’s bathroom while his Russian friends put George to bed. What did the men argue about on the balcony and what was ultimately decided by the argument? Was George already dead and Kofman elected to dispose of the body while Josh and the Rosenberg brothers left George’s cabin to return to their own, order room service, and photograph it as a time-stamped alibi? I realize that I’ve provided more questions than answers, but they’ve formed in my mind a working theory that makes more sense than the young men’s purported version of events. Motive is, as yet, unclear, but let’s hope that the FBI knows more than we do. By all accounts, it’s still a very active investigation. George Smith’s family needs some form of resolution soon; by maritime law, the statute of limitations for their civil suit runs out one year from his disappearance.