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Local Writer Joan Lownds Tackles Honeymoon Cruise Murder, And Billion Dollar Cruise Industry, In Her New Book, "Man Overboard"
Journalist Joan Lownds, of Naugatuck, CT, took on the billion dollar cruise industry while researching her book "Man Overboard".
Column By John Murray
Harrison Salisbury was one of the greatest journalists in American history. He was the first American journalist to report on the Vietnam War from inside North Vietnam. Salisbury had been invited to North Vietnam by the Communists in 1966, and his dispatches from Hanoi shook the world. While the United States insisted it’s bombs were micro-targeted to military posts and ammunition factories, Salisbury documented that errant U.S., bombs had destroyed schools and orphanages. Salisbury took considerable heat from President Lyndon Johnson for reports the U.S., government called treasonous, but Salisbury’s dogged reporting triggered opposition to the war, which pressured our eventual withdrawal.
During a journalism symposium celebrating Harrison Salisbury at the University of Connecticut back in the 1990s, I had the privilege to address a gathering that included Salisbury’s family, writer Arthur Miller, and the founders of the Village Voice newspaper. During my comments I said few journalists will ever find themselves reporting behind enemy lines, but we can find our own Hanoi in our own backyards. It takes courage to defy the United States government, like Salisbury did back in the 1960s, and it takes courage to challenge politicians, police departments and powerful corporations.
Inevitably, almost every journalist in America will encounter a story that demands courage, as much as it demands truth. Sadly, most journalists turn away - some from fear and some from sloth. The writers who ignore risk and jam lights into the darkened corners of America bring honor to journalism.
Naugatuck’s Joan Lownds is such a writer. She began her career at the New Haven Advocate, worked at the Litchfield County Times, and the Newtown Bee, before landing at the Greenwich Citizen, a weekly newspaper.
“I thought Greenwich would be a quiet place to work,” Lownds said, “but things changed in 2005.”
That’s when Greenwich resident, George Allen Smith IV, vanished from a Royal Caribbean ship during his honeymoon cruise through the Greek Islands. Within days the story of the handsome Smith, and his stunning blond wife, Jennifer, generated headlines around the world.
George Smith IV with his wife, Jennifer Hagel Smith, on their wedding day.
With the New York media camped out in Greenwich, and national TV shows dedicated to the mystery of what happened to George Smith, how could a reporter from a small weekly newspaper make a difference?
With patience, curiosity, empathy, and an ability to see that the story wasn’t only what it appeared to be. While Smith may have been murdered and tossed overboard - a bloody hand print was an obvious clue of foul play - what was largely overlooked by the media was the strange behavior of the cruise line.
After Smith disappeared, his cabin was not sealed up as a possible crime scene, witnesses were not interviewed, and Smith’s wife was dropped off in Turkey with her luggage and no ticket home. The ship, the Brilliance of the Sea, continued on it’s journey with nary a hiccup that a murder had taken place onboard.
Why acknowledge that a murderer may still be on the loose? It might ruin a dream holiday for hundreds of passengers, and, oh yeah, it might generate negative publicity for Royal Caribbean.
The ship sailed on.
Back in Greenwich the horror of George’s disappearance crashed onto the life of his family, and the surreal morphed into a nightmare. The Smith family received no help from the cruise line, so they flew to Greece and scoured the islands themselves to try and find George.
They found nothing but heartache.
The first media spin portrayed George as a drunken honeymooner who fell to his death. The cruise line later said George had committed suicide. Then the spotlight turned sharply onto George’s wife, Jennifer Hagel Smith, who had argued violently with him onboard that night, kicked him in the groin, left with another man, and was found unconscious hours later in the crew’s hallway.
Clearly, George and Jennifer were not your typical honeymooners. But had she murdered him? The story was tabloid heaven, and thousands of articles, television shows, a NBC Dateline special, and a made-for-TV movie examined the possibility that Jennifer had murdered George on their honeymoon.
Underneath the sensational headlines, a second plot was developing, one that questioned the safety of the cruise industry. The Smiths were not going to back down, they were determined to find out what happened to George. The Smiths contacted their congressman, Chris Shays, and he agreed to help.
Shay’s office discovered that the cruise ship was sailing under a Bahamian flag and had no obligation to release the information about George Smith’s disappearance. Royal Caribbean didn’t have to cooperate with the Smiths, or the United States.
Joan Lownds began to cover the Smith story in December 2005, six months after George vanished. The Greenwich Citizen sent Lownds to a Smith family press conference in Hartford. It was the first time the Smiths had stepped into the media spotlight and they asked probing questions about Royal Caribbean.
“The Smith family was very impressive,” Lownds said. “ I had been following the story but I hadn’t realized the details.”
The Smiths accused Royal Caribbean of lying about George's disappearance, and accused the company of covering up the details of his suspected murder. After the Smiths completed their statement about Royal Caribbean, the first question asked was, “Where was Jennifer?”
A good looking blonde always gets attention.
In March 2006 Congressman Shays convened a hearing in Washington D.C. to question the cruise industry, which in the past 20 years had exploded into a 3,000,000 passenger, $35 billion a year industry. Lownds attended the hearings and began a dogged exploration into the under-regulated cruise industry. What she found was shocking; crew members were hired without background checks, and in a two-year period 13 people had vanished off cruise ships, and 178 were either raped or sexually assaulted.
Lownds, thanks to her editor, Don Harrison, was allowed to cover an international story for the diminutive Greenwich Citizen. Lownds spoke to victims of the cruise industry all across America, and became an expert on safety problems. The Smiths continued to challenge Royal Caribbean and Shays sought federal legislation to reign in the un-regulated beast.
Shays said that if a person were looking for the perfect place to commit a murder, it would be on a cruise ship. Shays would go on to sponsor the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, and with the help of Congressman Jim Himes (who defeated Shays), and Senator John Kerry, the act becomes law on January 1st, 2012.
The law has created, among other things, a bridge between the cruise industry and U.S. officials that require each ship to document crimes, and alleged crimes, in a log book.
“It’s quite a story,” Lownds said. “The Smiths didn’t have any money and they confronted a multi-billion dollar industry, and won. It’s remarkable.”
Lownds spent two years writing a book about George Smith’s disappearance, and the legislative reform it triggered. The book, “Man Overboard” was published on September 1st, and Lownds has been busy at book signings, and radio shows. The book has two main story lines, the first concentrates on George and Jennifer Smith, the second reveals the global problem with the cruise industry and the legislative battle to reform it. Lownds deftly weaves the two stories together, and her writing is superb.
The cruise industry vigorously resisted legislative reform by unleashing high paid lobbyists on Washington D.C., and called in favors from several congressmen who had feasted on campaign donations that flowed freely from the cruise industry. There was tremendous resistance to reform and "Man Overboard" was not an easy book for Lownds to research, or write. She displayed courage and passion in finishing the project. When the big story came her way, Lownds didn't shirk her responsibily and turn away.
“Everybody still wants to know what happened to George Smith that night,” Lownds said. “I believe he was murdered - not by Jennifer - and the truth will eventually be exposed.”
But thanks to Joan Lownds, a far reaching truth has emerged, and a greed driven cruise industry was brought to its knees. And Lownds didn’t have to report from a foreign war zone to get the story, it was right there in her own backyard.
("Man Overboard" can be found at local bookstores, or can be ordered at amazon.com)