Thu, Dec 15, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Disappearance highlights violent cruise-ship crime


The disappearance of a US man during a honeymoon cruise is drawing congressional attention to a seamy side of the glitzy sea cruise industry.

"Like small cities, cruise ships experience crime -- from petty to profoundly tragic," said Republican Representative Christopher Shays, chairman of one of two congressional subcommittees hearing testimony Tuesday. The missing man was from Connecticut, Shays' state.

George Allen Smith IV vanished from a Royal Caribbean Cruises ship in the Mediterranean Sea 10 days after his wedding last summer. His family alleges he was a victim of foul play that was hidden by the cruise line to avoid bad publicity.

Authorities agree the case is suspicious, saying blood stains were found running from the balcony of his cabin to life boats and a hand print was discovered on the side of the ship.

Industry officials estimated 13 people have disappeared from cruise ships in the past two years. Shays and other lawmakers question such statistics because they said the industry supplies its own data to the FBI and might be lying about crime.

Smith's wife, Jennifer Hagel Smith, says ship officials forced her from the vessel after her husband's disappearance and abandoned her in Turkey, where she ended up at a police station and later a hospital without food, money, clothing or a ticket home.

Shays read aloud some of the testimony by Smith's wife, who sat at a front row seat at the hearing, surrounded by her late husband's family.

"There was no compassion, sympathy or sensitivity shown by the cruise line," she wrote. She said ship officials would not let her call her family immediately after her husband's disappearance.

"Initially, the cruise line issued a statement attacking George, stating that it was just an accident and suggesting it was all George's fault," she said

Lawmakers expressed outrage.

"Here's a woman who has lost her husband, and it seems like she is treated in a way that is simply incredible," Democratic Repres-entative Elijah Cummings said.

Lawmakers vowed to shine a bright light on what they said are major problems the cruise industry has in reporting and handling crime on the high seas where relaxing and unsuspecting vacationers such as the Smiths are vulnerable.

"That just sends a shiver down my back," said Shays of Smith's testimony.

He alleged that crime statistics the cruise lines voluntarily report to the Federal Bureau of Education are bogus: "I'm wrestling with how we can trust any statistic from any cruise line who can do what they did to a young bride."

Gregory Purdy, director of safety, security and environment for Royal Caribbean, apologized to the Smith family but said his company handled the incident correctly.

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