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Cruise ship death may be suicide

On the surface, so much seemed to be going well for Jennifer Ellis-Seitz.

She was celebrating her first wedding anniversary. She had lost 130 pounds after years of struggle with obesity. She had lined up a new job at her hometown newspaper.

And she and her husband were taking a Christmas cruise with her mother.

It all went horribly awry in the Gulf of Mexico, authorities say.

That's where the U.S. Coast Guard believes the Winter Haven woman plunged off the 15-story cruise ship Norwegian Pearl and into the waters off Cancun on Christmas Day.

Though the FBI launched an investigation to determine if foul play was involved, her family believes she committed suicide.

A surveillance video captured someone falling overboard Thursday night, but no one saw it. Not until hours later did Ellis-Seitz's husband and mother begin to fear she was missing and alert the crew.

Boats, helicopters and planes from two nations spent three days searching 4,200 square miles for the missing 36-year-old Central Florida journalist. The Coast Guard gave up its search Monday afternoon.

"Despite our best efforts," said Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Johnson, "we do not think there is a reasonable expectation that we would find a survivor."

The FBI launched its investigation when the ship docked in Miami. Agents questioned her husband, Ray Seitz Jr.

"The family suspects that Jennifer chose an unfortunate ending to her life," the family said in a statement. "She was a beautiful and caring person and will be truly missed by all who love her."

• • •

The FBI has jurisdiction when an American disappears "on the high seas," as Special Agent Mike Leverock put it Monday.

Agents boarded and searched the ship. They interviewed family members and passengers. An evidence response team examined the couple's cabin.

"We're still investigating whether a crime has been committed or not," said Leverock.

The missing woman's husband, and her mother, Donna Ellis, and their families declined to speak to the media.

But their account of Jennifer Ellis-Seitz's last hours is included in a joint statement released by the families of both the husband and wife. The statement was provided Monday to the missing reporter's former papers, Florida Today and the Winter Haven News Chief.

The statements says the husband and mother realized Ellis-Seitz was missing about 2 a.m. Friday.

Though it wasn't unusual for her to walk around the ship if she couldn't sleep, the husband and mother went looking for her. They couldn't find her, so they went to security about 3:30 a.m.

The crew spent hours searching the ship but also couldn't find her. The Coast Guard said Norwegian Cruise Lines reported the woman missing at 7 a.m. Friday. Then the crew discovered that one of the ship's many surveillance cameras had captured someone going overboard about 8 p.m. the night before.

By the time Mexican naval vessels and Coast Guard planes began their search, it had been more than 11 hours since she had gone overboard. A Coast Guard C-130 plane from Clearwater joined the search.

The Coast Guard called off its efforts at 3 p.m. Monday, though the Mexican navy told the Associated Press it would keep looking,

By this time, Ellis-Seitz had been in the 70-degree water for 91 hours.

"The longer the search goes the less and less possibility that you can find someone alive," said Johnson.

• • •

It was at Queens University of Charlotte (N.C.) that Ellis-Seitz first discovered journalism — her "nose for news," as she put it on her writing Web site, NewsHound Communications.

She joined the News Chief in 1995 and spent five years there as a reporter. In 2000, she joined Florida Today. Four years later, she became a teacher and a freelance writer for the Tampa Tribune and other publications. Her most recent job was training poll workers in Polk County.

"I remember her as being a very outgoing, very personable person," said Florida Today sports editor Lee Nessel. "Reporter was a very good job for her. She could easily talk to anybody."

Ellis-Seitz was excited to re-join the News Chief as a part-time copy editor and designer, said managing editor Joe Braddy.

Ellis-Seitz blogged about her physical and emotional struggle to lose weight, her gastric-bypass and plastic surgeries in 2002. She even wrote an article about staying in shape on a cruise ship.

She got married in 2005, but it didn't last. She remarried in 2007.

Polk County records show her new husband, Ray Seitz Jr., was arrested April 18 on a domestic battery charge for head-butting his wife. The charge was dropped in June after Seitz completed a diversionary program.

Ellis-Seitz was looking forward to her new job and talked about starting a family. But as for what else troubled her in life, this is all her family would say: "There were no outward signs or indication of anything being wrong or unusual. Jennifer, however, has had previous emotional issues."

Times researchers Shirl Kennedy and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Cruise ship death may be suicide 12/29/08 [Last modified: Sunday, January 4, 2009 10:50pm]
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