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Byline: Bryan Burrough
On Monday evening, July 4, 2005, a mammoth, multi-tiered cruise ship, Brilliance of the Seas, weighed anchor and eased out of the harbor at the Greek island of Mykonos, in the Aegean Sea. It was the sixth night of the ship's 12-day circling of the Mediterranean, a voyage begun in Barcelona the previous Wednesday. Captain Michael Lachtaridis of the Royal Caribbean line, which owns the ship, ordered a course north by northeast. The ship was scheduled to reach the Turkish port of Kusadasi around dawn.
Aboard that night were 2,300 guests, most of them Americans. One was a handsome, muscular 26-year-old Connecticut honeymooner named George Allen Smith IV, whose family owns a popular liquor store in the upper-crust Connecticut town of Cos Cob, near Greenwich. Smith and his attractive blonde bride of 10 days, Jennifer, who was to begin a new job teaching third-graders upon their return, had a stateroom with a balcony on Deck Nine. After a day among the whitewashed villas of Mykonos-the highlight of which was an unlikely encounter with the actress Tara Reid, who was filming her now canceled show, Taradise-the Smiths returned to the ship for a romantic dinner. Afterward, they headed to the casino and then to the discotheque, where they were seen drinking with a circle of shipboard acquaintances late into the night.
It should have been another fun, frolicsome evening, the first night of the rest of their lives. But what started out as a story suited for Jimmy Buffett turned out to be one for Agatha Christie. Sometime in the hours before dawn George Smith vanished, presumably fallen overboard into the dark Aegean. All that was found the next day was a single ugly bloodstain on a life-raft canopy beneath his balcony-just the first macabre detail in an extraordinary set of clues, quasi-witnesses, possible suspects, and grieving relatives that have become fodder for the nonfiction soap operas that unscroll on the cable-television "justice" shows. Was it an accident? Or murder? Or something else?
Night after night, Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, Joe Scarborough and Rita Cosby on MSNBC, and Larry King and Nancy Grace on CNN have repeated the tantalizing particulars: The bloodstain. The "misplaced" wife. The flirtatious casino boss. The ugly scene in the disco. The troublesome "Russian boys." The bottle of absinthe. The suspicious noises inside the Smiths' stateroom. The cop listening through the wall. The "thud."
Just about everyone on television appears to believe George Smith was the victim of foul play, though the F.B.I., which is investigating, hasn't said a word. The longer the case remains unsolved, the darker its undertones grow. Allegations of a Royal Caribbean "cover-up" have been tossed about while journalists and congressmen murmur about the dangers lurking aboard cruise ships.
The case was actually slow to attract national attention, in large part because Smith's family remained silent during the early stages of the F.B.I.'s investigation, but in November, frustrated by what they characterized as a lack of information from Royal Caribbean, Smith's wife and parents hired attorneys. A month later they went public, granting interviews to King and Scarborough, and making statements before a congressional hearing investigating cruise-ship security.
In short order Smith became the first white male prominently featured in the five-year boomlet of Missing White Women media sagas that began with the murder of Washington intern Chandra Levy in 2001 and have endured through the coverage of Laci Peterson and others. The Smith case quickly elbowed out the dwindling updates surrounding the disappearance of Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba, of which there has been little news in months. "Now that the Holloway case is going nowhere, everyone is looking for the next big thing," a cable booker told me in January. "I guess this is it."
The Smith coverage, however, has been oddly circumspect, in part because the F.B.I. has asked witnesses to refrain from discussing what happened that night. But if you talk to the bookers and reporters who have followed the case since the beginning, it becomes clear that everyone knows who the "persons of interest" are. Strangely, their names have been kept out of the press for months and are only now trickling into view. In the vacuum, cable hosts have been left to examine side issues: whether Royal Caribbean "contaminated" the "crime scene"; whether its officials "abandoned" Jennifer Hagel-Smith in Turkey following her husband's disappearance; whether cruise ships are safe. All three ideas are being pushed by plaintiff's attorneys, who smell big money in filing lawsuits against Royal Caribbean. Valid or not, this kind of marginalia has tended to obscure the central question: What really happened to George Smith?
The Smiths have been a fixture in the Greenwich area for decades. The first George Allen Smith, a major-league pitcher in the 1910s and early 1920s, taught high-school math there for years. His son, George Allen Smith II, was a dentist and prominent horse breeder. George Smith III, the missing George's father, is an accountant who purchased the Greenwich area's oldest liquor store, Cos Cob Liquor, in 1982. He and his British-born wife, Maureen, live in neighboring Glenville, where George IV and his older sister, Bree, now a lawyer in Hong Kong, grew up.
His family remembers George IV as a fun-loving, free-spirited boy who grew up doing the things American boys do. He played driveway basketball, rode his bicycle for miles, and was on the football team at Greenwich High before being sidelined by a bout of mononucleosis. The family joker, George was a devotee of the British sitcom The Office. In the family, and later at Babson College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where he studied computer science and received a business degree, he was known as a whiz with anything electronic. "He was the go-to person for all that kind of stuff," says Bree. "Still, when something goes wrong, I think I'll ask George, and it just hits me. You can't ask George anymore."
At Babson, where he pledged the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, George was known as a friendly, quiet student who suffered through an extended breakup with a longtime girlfriend. "A sweet guy, not too chatty, he wasn't the center of attention at a bar, but he was well liked by everybody," remembers a woman who knew him there. "Like every college student, he partied pretty hard, but we all did."
After graduation, George took a job with a computer firm in Stamford, Connecticut, doing research on Internet search engines. He later moved on to a firm in suburban Boston, where his boss, a Ph.D. named Amanda Watlington, remembers him as a favorite employee, a hard worker who took vacation time at Christmas to help his father at Cos Cob Liquor. "I cannot remember him ever having an unkind word for anyone," says Watlington. "He was a big, gentle man."
In 2003, George surprised his family by quitting his job and coming home to work at the family store. "It was the pull of family-absolutely the pull of family," says Watlington.
"At his job, you know, he …