September 21, 2006 11:25 AM
Dark Voyage: Ashley's Tale
Produced By Nancy Kramer
[This broadcast first aired on Sept. 23, 2006. It was updated on June 8, 2007.]For Jamie Barnett, the loss of her daughter Ashley has been a nightmare. "On October 14th, 2005, Ashley sailed out of Los Angeles to celebrate her upcoming 25th birthday and one day into that cruise, she was dead," she says.
Correspondent Bill Lagattuta reports on the mysterious circumstances surrounding Ashley's death and a mother's quest to find answers.
Jamie has made a promise to herself and to her daughter: she is determined to find out how and why her daughter died. Jamie knows this much is true: her daughter sailed off with her boyfriend, Geoff Ginsburg. But he came back, alone.
"She was very alive when I left that room," Geoff says. What happened in the cabin after he left remains a mystery.
This was not the ending that anyone would have predicted for 24-year-old Ashley Barnett, who had everything to live for. Ashley had the love and support of a large extended family. Though he and Ashley's mother were divorced, there was a devoted father, and three adoring brothers, as well as two half sisters and two stepbrothers.
"They were all so close. A wonderful thing about all of my children. Those boys adored their sister. And she them," Jamie recalls.
Ashley seemed destined for a life in front of the camera, right from the start, growing up in Burbank, Calif., in the shadow of the Hollywood studios
Jamie works at the CBS Television Studios, behind the scenes, running the grip department.
When she was 20 years old, Ashley landed a job on the lot, just like her mom. She moved on to become a production assistant on the TV show, "Will and Grace."
It was just the kind of stepping stone that a young aspiring actress needed. Soon, she caught the eye of film composer John Debney. "She had star written all over her. Not only was she beautiful, but she had such a heart and soul," he remembers.
He wrote the scores to box office hits like "Princess Diaries and "Bruce Almighty." Debney offered Ashley a position as his music coordinator.
"There are a lot of fine actors and actresses in this town. But Ashley had an extra something," Debney remembers. "I think it's a spark of fairy dust. It's this thing that very few people have."
Debney never imagined he would lead an orchestra at Ashley's funeral, with 40 instruments playing the music he had chosen just for her
Many of Ashley's closest friends stood up and paid tribute but one person at the memorial was not welcome to speak: her boyfriend Geoff Ginsburg.
"I felt you know like I should have been a part of it. That, you know I could have, I could have shared a lot of stories. I was a big part of Ashley's life. You know Ashley did love me. I did love Ashley," Geoff says.
Geoff and Ashley had been friends since the ninth grade but became a couple in their early 20's. By then, Geoff was working as an electrician.
What did Geoff like about her so much?
"Her personality, her carefree you know look at the world. Her eyes. Her hair. Everything. I mean her laugh," he says.
But there was a problem that was bigger than both of them. Geoff had struggled with drug addiction, saying he was using the painkiller Vicodin.
"Did she know that he was a drug user when she started dating him?" Lagatutta asks Ashley's mother.
"When she started dating him, she knew he had been, that he was clean now," Jamie replies. "And she was proud of him of what he had conquered, what he had gone through to you know, to clean up."
Everyone who knew Ashley knew this: she did not use drugs and didn't approve of them.
What was she doing with Geoff?
"I think she looked, she looked past it, she looked at when I'm in my addiction. That's not me. That's not Geoff," he explains.
"Ashley's the type of girl where if somebody's hurting she will comfort you and try to help you and fix you," says Allie Tweast, Ashley's best friend.
Allie says Ashley thought she could help Geoff and "that her love could somehow wake him up."
On Oct. 14, 2005, Ashley and Geoff boarded the Carnival cruise ship "Paradise," in Long Beach, Calif. There are conflicting versions of what went wrong that weekend. But there are clues – some of the most compelling left by Ashley herself - who was making a home video of that fateful trip, documenting what would turn out to be the last hours of her life.
"To me it was like a big rave at sea. Just people dancing and everyone just having so such a good time you know. You know drinkin' and partyin'. This is gonna be a cool time," says Joe Fischera, a friend of Geoff and Ashley's. He was part of the group that joined the couple, along with Geoff's brother, Keith.
But the nonstop music festival was not the romantic getaway that Ashley was expecting. We know from Ashley's video tape that she and Geoff went to the casino that night and also they went to hear the bands play.
"What I know is they went to the concert and then they went back to the room," Joe says.
According to Geoff, back in the cabin, there was a disagreement. He wanted to return to the casino but it was about 2:30 a.m. and Ashley wanted to go to bed.
"You know it was kind of late, but still I kind of just I was really excited about the cruise and I just wanted to stay up," Geoff says.
He says when he left, Ashley was a little upset with him. About 4:00 a.m., according to Geoff, he returned to the cabin. He says Ashley was asleep and that he cuddled up against her and went to sleep.
At midday on Saturday, Geoff said Ashley was still sleeping. So he left her in the cabin and went upstairs to join the group.
"He comes by and his exact words were, 'My baby doll's still snoring. Let's let her sleep a little bit longer, and we'll wake her up in a little bit,'" Joe remembers.
About 2 p.m., Geoff says he returned to wake Ashley.
"I went up to her. I walked up to her and I was like, 'Baby you now, let's, let's go, come on, time to get up," Geoff remembers. "And I kind of touched her on the face and I was like, you know, baby, baby, what's going on, you know. And her eyes were shut and I was kind of like trying to open her eyes a little bit and she wasn't responding. And I just started freaking out."
He knew something was very wrong and called for help. At 2:07 p.m., Geoff called 911. "I said you know my girlfriend's not breathing. I don't think she's breathing. Please come help," Geoff recalls.
Within three minutes a nurse arrived and attempted CPR. At 2:10 p.m. an emergency announcement was broadcast to summon the ship's doctor.
At 2:12 p.m. the doctor arrived. According to his statement, Ashley was unresponsive, cold, with no pulse. At 2:45 p.m. she was pronounced dead….
Geoff says he has thought about it a thousand times and says he just doesn't know what happened to Ashley. But Ashley's mom Jamie disagrees. "He has to know what happened," she says.
On Saturday, October 15, Jamie got that terrible phone call from the nurse on board the ship. "And I said, what happened to her? And she said, 'Well we don't know. That's being investigated right now,'" Jaime recalls.
Asked whether Geoff talked to her, Jamie says, "No. Not that night. I asked to speak to him and she told me I couldn't right now. That he was being questioned. She later called me back and said that he had been cleared to talk to me, but that he had so far declined to do so."
And that's how the mystery began.
Carnival began an investigation, but because the boat was docked in Ensenada, the Mexican authorities boarded the ship. They needed to determine if a homicide had been committed. Later that night, Geoff and the rest of the group were all on board when the Paradise set sail back to California. But Ashley Barnett was left behind in a Mexican morgue. Alone.
"If that had been me, wild horses couldn't have kept me on that ship. I would have been with her," Jamie says.
"I did not wanna stay on that boat. I wanted to get off that boat. I wanted to be with Ash. I didn't want to let her go into Mexico," says Geoff.
Carnival says Geoff had no choice and confirms to 48 Hours that he was required to remain on board the ship until U.S. authorities could question him.
One day after Ashley's death, as the ship was heading back home, Geoff finally called Jamie.
Why did he wait so long to call Ashley's mom?
"I didn't know what to say," Geoff says. "I was just like in a comatose, kinda just in a state of shock. How do you make that call? What do you say? You know? I'd never been it that situation before. I did not know how to handle it. And you know maybe I didn't do it right, but I did end up calling Jamie. You know the following day."
In that conversation, Geoff revealed what would be the first troubling clue.
"The conversation was very short because the people in the room with him took the phone away from him, because he was so upset. He just said, 'I don't know what happened.' And I said, 'You know, Geoff, you have to know what happened. You were with her.' And he said 'Jamie, I have no idea. She went to sleep and that's all I know. The only thing I know is some of my methadone and some of my Vicodin was missing.' And I said, 'You know, Geoff. What does that mean? What are you saying? She wouldn't have taken it.' He went, 'I know. I know,'" Jamie recalls.
So, was Ashley's sudden death caused by drugs, the drugs Geoff says were missing? Jamie was about to learn that the Carnival cruise was not just to celebrate her daughters birthday. Geoff says he planned to use the time on board to detox. He had relapsed into his Vicodin habit. And that's why he says he had methadone with him.
"Let me ask you this. At the time you were, you were addicted to this Vicodin trying to get off, using methadone. Is it a good idea to go on a three day party cruise?" Lagattuta asks.
"No, it's not," Geoff acknowledges.
Most people associate methadone with heroin addiction but it's also used to help addicts withdraw from other drugs.
Geoff says he wasn't under a doctor's care and attempted to do this himself.
Asked where he got the methadone from, Geoff told Lagatutta, "I've already answered that. I mean that doesn't matter. The fact is, is that I brought the methadone on with me."
When the ship returned to Long Beach, the FBI stepped in and began its own investigation.
"It makes you think, 'Oh thank God. It's going to get taken care of. The FBI is involved, you know help is one the way," says Jamie.
Jamie says the FBI told her to be waiting at the harbor when the ship came in. She believed she would find out what happened to her daughter.
"We stood out in the rain and waited and waited. And finally a woman from Carnival came and spoke to my friends that had brought me there and said she was terribly sorry to hear about our loss, and she would go find someone to come and help us. No one ever came," Jamie recalls. "And it continued to rain, for four hours and finally the FBI came out and took me inside to interview me."
The FBI revealed little to Jamie about what they knew. Geoff Ginsburg was not charged with any crime and the mystery was about to deepen. Ashley's body was returned to the United States. Five days after her death, the Barnett family hired Dr. David Posey to perform an autopsy.
Dr. Posey found Ashley's organs were healthy and her body in pristine condition. There was evidence that she had consumed some alcohol. There were no signs of trauma.
"There were no signs of trauma," Dr. Posey explains.
His was the second examination of the body. The first one was in Mexico and both autopsies reached the same conclusion.
"It was the toxic effects of methadone that had killed her. And I was just stunned. Stunned. You know he said he had methadone on the ship. How in the world would it have gotten in her?" Jamie wonders.
Methadone is a tricky drug – less than a teaspoon can be fatal.
"You're saying this is an extremely dangerous drug to begin with. But, even more so, if your body has never had any methadone in it," Lagattuta asks.
"That is correct," Dr. Posey agrees. "It's a very dangerous drug to be using, even in, even in the best of hands."
Jamie and Ashley's friend Allie are convinced of one thing: that Ashley would not have tried methadone on her own. And to prove it, the family ordered a test of Ashley's hair. One strand could determine if she was a habitual drug user.
"No other drugs were found. Her hair was negative," Dr. Posey says.
But who could tie this case together? Jamie demanded that Carnival provide her with all the evidence they had gathered and she turned to attorney Gloria Allred for help. "
Their campaign yielded numerous documents from Carnival's internal investigation, and even landed them a personal meeting with company officials in Miami.
Seven months after Ashley's death, Allred and Jamie went to Miami to meet with officials from Carnival, hoping to finally get some answers to their many questions.
But the biggest question still lingered: how did the methadone end up in Ashley's body.
There were so many places Jamie Barnett expected to go in the name of the daughter she loved but she never expected that one of them would be the FBI.
She wanted details of the federal investigation into the death of her daughter. All she wanted to know was what happened to Ashley.
When asking FBI officials, Jamie says she got few answers. The FBI told her it was an ongoing investigation, prohibiting them from disclosing facts.
The FBI confirms to 48 Hours> that the investigation is still open. But the truth in this case is especially elusive. That's because the only version of events about what happened behind the doors of Geoff and Ashley's cabin comes from Geoff himself.
Asked if he gave Ashley the methadone, Geoff insists, "No way. Never I would never ever, ever done that."
If Geoff didn't give her the drug, did someone else?
"I think somebody may have slipped her something. Just trying to loosen her up, I think maybe that she might have been tricked into taking something she didn't know," says Ashley's friend Allie Tweast. "I just, I know something's wrong, in my heart."
We have no way of verifying if Geoff went in and out of the cabin at the times he said he did or if anyone else might have entered, because on this cruise, on this particular weekend, the key lock, which records all entries to the door of cabin R-149 malfunctioned.
We do know this about that fateful day: as CPR was being performed on his dying girlfriend, Geoff mentions those missing drugs to the doctor and nurse.
"I told them, you know while they were working, I said, 'I have methadone. I have Vicodin. You know give her. If she had taken that, give her something for that do whatever you can,'" Geoff explains.
Is it possible that Ashley, the young woman with the reputation for being so anti-drug, willingly took the methadone herself?
The ship's incident report from that day offers yet another clue: in a statement attributed to Geoff, Ashley had an abortion three weeks before the cruise and was quote "quite depressed at times."
"She was upset over having to make that kind of decision. And I won't deny that. She did not take it lightly," Jamie says. "But it was the appropriate amount of sadness."
"I was with her a day or two before she went on the cruise, she was not depressed. She was talking about getting back next week and her appointment with another agent that she was going to hopefully sign with," John Debney says.
Geoff also told Carnival about an earlier incident when Ashley "had attempted to consume a large quantity of medication – Aspirin – six months ago."
"She had brought up something about something that happened at her house, and that she had taken too much Tylenol, or something, or some kind of over the counter medication. And, but it was okay, because her mother was there, you know it was a stupid idea. But she was just depressed at the time. It wasn't like she was a suicidal person. She wasn't," Geoff says.
Jamie denies that her daughter ever took a large amount of Aspirin. "That never happened. I mean that just unequivocally never happened," she stays.
Still, there is another theory offered by Jeanne Ginsburg, Geoff's mom. Jeannie says that Ashley's had a flair for the dramatic - remember Ashley wanted Geoff to stay with her that night in their room. She didn't want him to go back to the casino without her and there was a disagreement.
"So in this scenario though she would have taken some to get attention from Geoffrey? Is that what you're suggesting?" Lagattuta asks Jeanne.
"I thought maybe just to scare him a little bit. Like don't leave me like that again. Or you know something like that," she says.
But there's one last possible explanation. Geoff may have set in motion events that would lead to a terrible accident.
He doesn't deny he was the one who brought the methadone on board the ship. In fact Geoff admits he hid the methadone in a bottle of over the counter cold medicine, like Nyquil or Dayquil in order to smuggle it on.
In Ashley's home video, Geoff seemed to celebrate when he clears port security. "We're getting ready to load the boat. And we got past the dogs," he said into the camera.
There is one more small detail in this story that may have triggered absolute disaster. Ashley's mother says her daughter wasn't feeling well before the cruise and may have reached for that bottle of cold medication.
"So it's highly likely that she would have taken some Nyquil," Jamie remarks.
Jamie says Ashley wouldn't have taken something from the bottle, had she known it was filled with methadone.
But Geoff insists Ashley did know. "I was with her and I told her about it. I had put the methadone in the bottle right in front her," he says.
Asked if he thinks Ashley took it by accident, Geoff says, "I don't know."
"If she took it by accident that would imply that she didn't remember that you had put methadone in that bottle of Dayquil. It seems pretty far fetched to forget something like that," Lagattuta remarks.
"I don't know what happened. I have—I'll never know. And that can—I that's one thing that I've come to understand or accept is that I'll never know what happened," he replies.
Not knowing is not an option for Jamie. So she and her attorney press on with their own investigation. They traveled to Ensenada, Mexico to learn what they can from Mexican authorities.
On Jamie's fourth trip, Mexican officials spent several hours talking to Jamie about the case. "I know this case is still open. And I know they're still investigating it, and … they care, and that just overwhelms me," she says.
But now, almost one year after Ashley's death, the puzzle pieces still don't fit.
"I just don't know if I can bear to think that I'm gonna have to forever not fit those pieces together. They've just got to come together," Jamie says.
"I wake up every morning wishing I could hold her just one more time. And I wake up every morning praying that no other mother ever has to live this nightmare," she adds.
But sadly, another mother is. "As time goes by it doesn't get better. It gets worse because you don't have that person in your life anymore," says Maureen Smith, who lost her son on a cruise in July 2005. George Smith was on his honeymoon with his new bride, Jennifer Hagel.
A few days into the cruise, George disappeared somewhere in the Aegean Sea. A blood stain was found on an awning beneath his room. The captain was quick to call it an accident, something Maureen never accepted.
The FBI is investigating that case but no one has been charged with a crime. "It's not knowing what happened. That's the killer. And I know that was what was going through Jamie's mind," Maureen says.
Maureen heard about Jamie's campaign for answers and reached out to offer support.
George's story echoes Ashley's in many ways: both couples spent time in the ship's casino. The night George disappeared, he was there with Jennifer when they ran into a group of young men they met on the cruise.
Josh Askin was one of them – a college student traveling with this family.
When the casino closed, Josh says the manager Lloyd Botha suggested they head up to the disco. So they all piled into the elevator together.
"Lloyd the casino manager put his arm around Jennifer and—we thought—a little awkward moment," Josh remembers.
Asked if George see this happen, or had any reaction to this, Josh says, "I don't know – what he was thinking at that time."
But later at the club, witnesses say George and Jennifer argued and that she left without him. A short time later, Josh and his buddies walked a very drunk George back to his cabin.
Back at the cabin, Josh says George's wife wasn't there and that he thought it was a bit odd, considering they were on their honeymoon.
They went out for a quick look around and didn't find her. Josh says they returned George to his room.
"We just kinda said, 'You know, goodnight, man.' And he said, 'You know—thank you. Thank you.' And then we just left," Josh remembers.
But there's more to the story.
Clete Hyman, in the room next door, says he heard strange sounds coming from the Smith cabin at 4:00 a.m. "Suddenly there was an argument out on the Smith balcony," he recalls.
After a couple of minutes Hyman says he heard someone say goodnight and then says he saw three men walking away from the room.
Next Hyman says he heard what sounded like furniture being moved - followed by silence.
"After about two minutes of total silence, however there was a large, what I would call a horrific thud," Clete recalls.
The thud is believed to be the sound of George hitting the awning. At almost the same moment, a crew member found Jennifer on the other side of the ship, passed out in a hallway.
Investigators later found traces of blood in the Smith cabin.
Like Jamie, answers for the Smiths have been tough to come by. The FBI won't talk about the investigation and the person they counted on the most - Jennifer - says she has virtually no memory of what happened that night.
Her lawyer backed up her story, saying that she passed a polygraph test with flying colors.
At first, the Smiths were supportive but they soon grew apart. But George's sister Bree and her family still hoped to join forces with Jennifer when she filed her wrongful death suit against Royal Caribbean - that and that alone they said - would finally yield answers.
But just days before filing, Jennifer reached a settlement on her own with Royal Caribbean for $1.1 million. In addition, the cruise line agreed to give Jennifer access to its information on the case, something she hoped would bring some closure to both families. It didn't.
"Jennifer went behind our back, without my parents' knowledge and has proposed a settlement with Royal Caribbean that we didn't even know about," says Bree.
The Smiths say Jennifer settled because she doesn't want to answer questions under oath about her actions that night. They don't believe she had anything to do with George's death but they do believe she knows more than she's telling.
Jennifer refused our request for an on-camera interview, but told 48 Hours she and her family were deeply hurt by the Smith accusations, that she has fully cooperated with the FBI and has nothing to hide. "Short of turning back the hands of time," she says, "there may be nothing I can do that will satisfy George's family."
The Smiths meanwhile filed their own suit against Royal Caribbean, but it was dismissed. They are appealing and have vowed to continue their fight.
"When we get answers for our son, we can lay his soul to rest. Because right now we can't do that. And I'm gonna keep going till I can do that for my son. I owe him that," says Maureen.
Jamie Barnett feels she owes her daughter Ashley the same thing. "I had a dream a couple of months ago," she recalls. "And Ashley appeared to me in the dream. And I said, 'Ashley come home.' And she said, 'Mom I can't come home. I have things I have to take care of.' I felt like she was telling me you've got things that you have to take care of. Because I can't rest until you do."
Ashley Barnett died Oct. 15, 2005
Asked if he feels responsible for Ashley's death, Geoff says, "I don't feel responsible for her death."
"But you're the one who brought the methadone onboard," Lagattuta asks Geoff.
"I know, it's something I just have to live with and I'm trying to do that now, at where I'm at, you know," he replies.
Geoff says he has not withheld anything about that fateful weekend. "I have told everybody the story. I haven't lied. I've been honest about it from day one. And I've told a lot of people it. A lot of people the story. And everything that I've told them is exactly what I know. That's it. I haven't hid anything," he says.
In a story filled with so many questions, there is one more part of the mystery that haunts both Geoff and Jamie. Remember, when the doctor and nurse arrived at the cabin, Carnival statements described Ashley as "unresponsive" and "cold to the "touch".
Geoff says Ashley was warm when CPR was being performed. "She was still warm. She wasn't cold. She, you know her lips weren't blue," he explains.
And after receiving a 911 call that a passenger wasn't breathing, Geoff and Jamie believe that Carnival should have brought more rescue equipment when they initially responded: specifically a device to shock Ashley's heart.
"Everything you can do was not done," Jamie claims.
"You're saying it wasn't done in a timely fashion, or just wasn't done," Lagattuta asks.
"In a timely fashion," she replies.
Carnival insists they responded rapidly and appropriately. Additional rescue equipment would not have made a difference, they say, because Ashley had already died before medical assistance was requested.
Geoff spent time in a professional treatment program for his addiction. Sadly, the person who thought she could save him is not around to know that.
"She's in my heart and mind every day, all day long. There's not a there's not a minute that goes by I don't think about her," he says tearfully. "You know I think about her all day long. And you know, I wish she wasn't… You know I wish she was here with me. Not a minute goes by that I don't think about her."
Meanwhile, Jamie is determined to see this investigation through to the end and find out how and why her daughter died.
In place of the big dreams Ashley Barnett once had, a Hollywood star marks the stone where she is buried.
"This could be the story of anybody. She was a victim of a lot of different people, or a lot of different circumstances that contributed to her untimely death. And it could happen again," Debney says.
"Somewhere in some port, some 25 year old girl is getting on a cruise ship with some friends. What do you want their parents to know?" Lagattuta asks Jamie Barnett.
"Don't let 'em go. Don't let 'em go," she says.
Jamie Barnett has filed a wrongful death suit against the Carnival Corporation. The FBI and Mexican authorities continue to investigate Ashley's death.
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