Cruise Vanishing: Suicide or Foul Play?

In December 2004, Wally and Heidi Knerler took their daughter, Annette, and granddaughter, Danielle, on a weeklong cruise to Mexico that Heidi had won in a raffle. The Waukesha, Wis., couple expected to have nothing but fun. The last thing they expected was to return home heartbroken and with a mystery on their hands.

Wally said everything was going great -- right up to the last night of the cruise. That evening, after dinner, they all went to the lounge where Annette and Danielle lit up the stage singing karaoke together -- the Britney Spears' song "Hit Me Baby One More Time."

After the karaoke, Danielle and her grandparents went back to their room to pack. Annette stayed behind but called them to plan for the big event of the evening -- bingo.

"Annette didn't want to miss that, because she won twice in bingo. Small pot, but she won twice. She was very excited," said Heidi.

Bingo started at 10 p.m., and Annette planned to get there early to get a good seat. When the Knerlers arrived, they couldn't find her.

Her parents were immediately concerned. Wally went to look for her in the casino but couldn't find her there either. A short time later, they heard their daughter being paged.

"When we heard that page, I knew something was wrong," said Wally. "My heart just fell ... I panicked. I knew something was wrong."

A Purse and a Spilled Drink

The Knerlers immediately sought out cruise officials and were told that someone had found their daughter's handbag next to an overturned drink on one of the decks next to the ship's railing. But Annette was nowhere to be found.

Heidi looked at her daughter's purse and noticed something that made her fear Annette might have been attacked.

"I said to Wally, 'Why are all the beads torn off?' " she said.

Wally and Heidi thought that the damaged purse indicated a struggle. Suspecting something bad had happened to his daughter, Wally said he implored ship officials to help.

"And I said, 'Well, are you looking for her?'" Wally recalled. "And they were just like, 'Yeah, we're taking care of things. Everything's OK. We're talking care of things.'"

Fearing precious time was being wasted, the Knerlers decided to search the ship themselves. Danielle searched the area where Annette's purse had been found and made a discovery.

"I saw a whole bunch of black dots all over the deck. And it was her beads [from the purse] scattered all over the deck," Danielle said.

Wally said they also found other possible clues, including a cup with liquid spilling out of it and a pen and bits of paper scattered about -- none of which, they say, had been collected by ship personnel.

Wally then said he called security and insisted they secure the area with crime scene tape.

"I made them do that. I insisted on it, very strongly," he said.

Wally said security didn't seem to have a procedure for gathering evidence or even taking pictures, so the panicked father took his own photos of the possible crime scene.

He also said the ship did not slow down, nor were resuce boats sent out into the water. "It was full speed ahead," Wally said.

Suggesting Suicide

Carnival Cruise Line declined "Primetime's" request for an interview, citing a pending lawsuit, but they did send a letter, which noted that it's not uncommon for guests to report that a travel companion is missing.

"In almost all circumstances the guest is eventually located onboard," Carnival wrote.

As for Annette's damaged purse, Carnival stated in the letter: "It was not immediately recognized as evidence that Ms. [Annette] Mizener had gone overboard. Nonetheless, immediate and appropriate action was taken to attempt to locate Ms. Mizener ... and all evidence was preserved and provided to the FBI as per standard protocols."

But at the time, Wally said rather than suspect his daughter was the victim of a crime, a Carnival security officer suggested something that shocked and enraged the family.

"One of the security officers told me, and emphatically said, didn't ask the question, stated a fact: 'Your daughter committed suicide,' " Wally said. "It's like hitting you in the face with a sledgehammer."

Annette's family said she would never have jumped overboard or committed suicide.

Danielle said her mother was afraid of the ocean, and the Knerlers said Annette appeared to be having a blast, singing karaoke an hour earlier and gearing up to play bingo. Not only that, Wally said Annette was looking forward to returning home because she and her husband were about to adopt two girls.

"There was no depression there. She wasn't depressed. She was very happy," he said.

Still No Answers

Wally said that witnesses later established that Annette was last seen in the casino at 9:30 p.m., but what happened in the next half-hour when she failed to show up at bingo is still a mystery.

There was also a security camera near where her purse was found. But the family's hopes of learning what happened were quickly crushed.

"We were told by security personnel that the camera was covered," said Wally -- and he believes that wasn't an accident. "Somebody obscured it."

Hours passed, and when there was still no sign of Annette, Wally said security officers started to search the ship for her.

"The ship supposedly was searched three times, top to bottom -- crew's quarters, boiler room, locker, everybody, three times," Wally said. "After the third search, this is when the captain contacted us. ... He told us that he was ordered by the Coast Guard to turn the ship around."

Around 2 a.m., Wally said the cruise ship was instructed to go back to the approximate area where it had been when Annette had gone missing. The Coast Guard initiated a search and rescue effort, which continued through much of the next day.

"They covered 833 square miles and they did not find the body," said Wally.

Twelve hours later, when the cruise ship docked in Long Beach, Calif., the Coast Guard captain came onboard. Wally asked if they would continue to search for his daughter; he was told no.

"And I say, 'Why?' And he says, 'Because usually the body ... sinks before it floats," said Wally.

For the devastated Knerlers, it was almost impossible to leave the ship without Annette. It has been over a year since Annette went missing, and there are still no answers about what happened, and no closure for the family -- only the bitter memory of what was lost out at sea.

"Very difficult," Wally said. "You go on vacation with four people and you come back with three."