Mexico Suspends Search For Passenger

Article Published:  The Ledger (original content)

“Mexican authorities have suspended their search for a Florida woman who went missing during a Christmas week cruise and whose family said they fear she took her own life.

The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday suspended its search for a Jennifer Ellis Seitz, 36, who officials say fell from balcony of the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. Mexican authorities said they would continue their search for another 48 hours, but announced Tuesday morning they had suspended their efforts.

Seitz was on a first wedding anniversary cruise aboard the Norwegian Pearl with her husband, Raymond, and her mother, Donna Ellis, when her family reported her missing Friday, according to a statement released Monday afternoon by her family.

“The family suspects that Jennifer chose an unfortunate ending to her life. She was a beautiful and caring person and will be truly missed by all who love her,” said the statement, released Monday in an e-mail by her brother, Christopher Ellis.

“Jennifer, however, has had previous emotional issues,” the statement said.

The statement said her husband and mother saw no signs of problems on the cruise.

“Jennifer was in a very happy and uplifted mood both before and during the cruise. She was excited about starting a new job and her future career with a local newspaper. She and her husband had been talking about starting their family,” the statement said.

Seitz had been talking with Winter Haven News Chief Managing Editor Joe Braddy about doing freelance work for that newspaper. She had previously worked at the News Chief as a reporter. She had also done freelance work for The Ledger and The Tampa Tribune and had worked as a reporter at Florida Today in Melbourne.

Authorities say a ship surveillance camera showed someone falling overboard at 8 p.m. Christmas night. They are still investigating and haven’t said what they think happened.

Television station WFTV-Ch. 9 in Orlando reported the ship has about 1,000 cameras on board, so there may be more images to help authorities piece together what happened.

FBI spokesman Mike Leverock said agents met the ship as it arrived in Miami on Sunday and collected materials.

“We are looking to see if a crime was committed with an American citizen on the high seas,” Leverock said.

The family’s statement said Seitz’s husband and mother discovered her missing about 2 a.m. Friday. They said it was common for her to walk around the ship when she was unable to sleep.

Raymond Seitz searched for his wife, the statement said, but could not locate her, so he and his mother-in-law notified ship security about 3:30 a.m. that she was missing.

The couple met in a weight-loss support group. Both had undergone bariatric surgery. She chronicled her weight loss journey for an Orlando TV station and for some time kept an online journal of her battle to lose weight and keep it off.

At one undated point in the journal, she said she was down to a size 10 from a size 28.

At the Garden Grove Oaks, Seitz’s neighbors in the well-kept mobile home park were hopeful she is alive.

Reporters were kept out of the neighborhood by two guards, but some people driving in and out of the park stopped to answer questions.

Neighbor Betty Kirckl said she and her husband Robert bowled with the Seitzes every Monday and did so on the Monday before the cruise began.

Kirckl said Jennifer Seitz was proud of her marriage and showed off her wedding pictures.

“She was a wonderful, beautiful girl,” Kirckl said. She said Jennifer Seitz was “real enthusiastic” about going on the cruise.

Raymond Seitz was arrested on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge April 18 when a deputy was called to the mobile home belonging to her mother on Knotty Pine Drive Southeast, east of Winter Haven, where the three lived.

Raymond Seitz was accused of head-butting his wife, but not causing obvious injury. The charge was dropped when he completed a diversionary program. Jennifer Seitz didn’t want to press charges.

Jennifer Seitz had been married previously. Ex-husband Michael Rich in Melbourne said they separated in mid-2006 after a year of marriage. They divorced in February 2007, and he said he hasn’t had any contact with her since.

Rich said they had no children, but she had children from a previous marriage. He wouldn’t say why they split up, but said “she was very energetic and friendly to those she met.”

Rich said she had been working for Florida Today and was freelancing when they were together. He said he wasn’t sure where she went when she left Melbourne.

Norwegian Cruise Line said the ship returned to Miami on Sunday after a seven-day western Caribbean cruise.

On land, several passengers said they were not aware Seitz was missing, though they recognized the couple because of their role in the game show, which was shown on the ship’s closed-circuit television system.

Several passengers interviewed on the Today show after disembarking in Miami, said Seitz and her husband participated in the on-board mystery game show called “The Not So Newlywed Game.”

Suzanne Nestor said Seitz was “very excitable” and “outgoing,” and had spoken of plans to take a New Year’s trip to Bridgeport, Conn., and New York City.

Her husband, Jim Nestor, said he ran into Raymond Seitz the day after his wife was reported missing.

“I had given him my condolences, and he had a plastic bag filled with quarters, and he said to me that he was going to the casino to see if he could change his luck,” Nestor said.

Another cruise passenger, Carter Scurry, told Today that Seitz’s husband appeared calm after his wife disappeared. The cruise ship did not make a formal announcement.

“It was eerie to me,” Scurry said. “He was nonchalant.”

The search took place just more than 17 miles east of Cancun over an area of more than 2,500 square miles, officials said. Waters in the search area have been in the mid-70 degree range since Seitz went missing, Coast Guard officials said.

A Coast Guard crew from Clearwater joined Mexican search boats by Monday morning, but they suspended efforts Monday afternoon.

The Mexican search crew looking for Seitz reported rough waters Sunday.

While a Coast Guard Falcon aircraft based in Miami and a C-130 aircraft based in Clearwater searched for Seitz over the weekend, only the Mexican crew searched overnight, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Ameen, a spokesman.

Seitz’s disappearance marks the sixth time in 2008 that a cruise ship passenger went overboard in Caribbean waters, Ameen said.

Of those six cases, only once was the Coast Guard able to rescue a stranded person, Ameen said.

“You’re looking for a head in an ocean of water,” Ameen said. “It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

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Raymond Seitz (Husband)

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