Published January 13, 2015
When a Connecticut man vanished from his honeymoon cruise a year ago, his young widow and her new in-laws were united in grief.
They mourned together and shared anger at how Royal Caribbean responded after George Allen Smith IV disappeared in the Mediterranean last July after a night of heavy drinking. They sat together at a congressional hearing last year as they lobbied for changes in how cruise lines report suspected crimes at sea.
But quietly behind the scenes, Smith's family harbored doubts about his widow, Jennifer Hagel Smith. Those doubts grew into suspicions that erupted after Hagel Smith reached a settlement with Royal Caribbean two weeks ago while Smith's family sued the cruise line.
The FBI is investigating, but no one has been charged and no body has been recovered.
Hagel Smith, who was found passed out on a floor far from the couple's cabin, says she has no recollection of what happened and has passed an FBI polygraph test.
Witnesses have said she argued with her husband the night he disappeared, kicked him in the groin and left the ship's bar. Hagel Smith has called those accounts "ridiculous" and "outlandish."
The Smiths vowed to depose Hagel Smith as part of their lawsuit.
"She's definitely hiding something," said Smith's sister, Bree. "It's not clear to us whether Jennifer is hiding behavior that is just embarrassing or of some greater importance to the investigation. We have reported all such behavior to the FBI as it occurred."
Bree Smith said Friday that her family broke off communication with Hagel Smith last fall after she indicated she did not want to be deposed in a civil or criminal case.
"I thought this was suspicious enough that I did inform the FBI," Bree Smith said.
The Smiths said Hagel Smith also told them FBI advised her not to talk to agents about the case, a claim the Smiths say they later learned was not true.
James Walker, Hagel Smith's attorney, said she has nothing to hide. The FBI views her as a victim, assigning her a specialist who works with victims, Walker said.
"The comments are regrettable and they're misplaced," Walker said. "The Smiths unfortunately have lost their focus on the most important issue, that is the criminal investigation into the individuals who are directly responsible for George's death."
The FBI did advise Hagel Smith not to talk about the case, Walker said. He said the Smiths brought up a lawsuit within weeks of George Smith's disappearance, when his client was emotionally drained.
"Jennifer will appear at that deposition and raise her right hand and tell the truth," Walker said.
Hagel Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press that the notion she feared a deposition because she has something to hide makes no sense because she was extensively questioned by the FBI.
"If that was the case, then obviously who would be a better judge than the FBI," Hagel Smith said. "I was the first person to willingly sit for a polygraph test."
The attack from the Smiths brought Hagel Smith's family into the dispute publicly for the first time.
"Bring it on," said John Hagel, her father. "It really hurts us deeply that they're attacking my daughter. As a father, if they're going to attack my daughter I'm going to fight back."
In their lawsuit, Smith's family members accused the cruise line of a cover-up that hindered the investigation. The cruise line has denied the allegations, saying employees cooperated fully in the investigation.
Bree Smith said that after her brother disappeared, her sister-in-law used to visit her parents every week, often spending the night. The families talked about the couple's wedding in Newport Beach, R.I., and about fond memories of George, but never his disappearance, she said.
Smith's family was planning to join his widow in a separate wrongful death lawsuit against Royal Caribbean before she reached the settlement. Hagel Smith said she believes the settlement will help bring some closure.
"It's been a hard year," Hagel Smith said. "But I think it was made that much more difficult because of the misplaced anger and resentment."
Hagel Smith said the settlement will give her access to all the information the cruise line developed about the case. But she said that will not satisfy the Smiths.
"Other than turning back time," she said, "nothing will ever be sufficient."