It’s a warm Florida night, and the Bluebelle, a 60-foot, twin-masted sailing ketch began its return to Fort Lauderdale from the Bahamas. At around 9 p.m., 11-year-old Terry Jo Duperrault heads below deck to her sleeping quarters, leaving her parents, siblings, the ship’s captain, and the captain’s wife on deck. Approximately 2 hours later, she’s awakened by the sounds of heavy footfalls above, and her brother screaming and calling for his father. She decides to investigate and makes a horrific discovery.
This is the story of the “Sea Orphan”.
In this episode
Set the scene:
November 12, 1961, in America:
It’s a Sunday, under the sign of Scorpio. The president is JFK. People are listening to “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean. “His Latest Flame” and “Little Sister” by Elvis Presley are charting in the top 5. “Flower Drum Song” is the most viewed movie, and “The Edge of Sadness” by Edwin O’Connor is one of the best-selling books.
“Flower Drum Song” film synopsis according to Google:
Adapted from the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical, Chinese immigrant Mei Li is betrothed to nightclub boss Sammy Fong, but he wants to marry showgirl Linda Low. To get out of the arrangement, Sammy pawns her off to wealthy Master Wang as a fiancée for his son, Wang Ta. Mei Li falls in love with Wang, but he wants to pursue Linda, who takes advantage of his affections to test Sammy’s love.
“The Edge of Sadness” synopsis according to Amazon:
In this moving novel, Father Hugh Kennedy, a recovering alcoholic, returns to Boston to repair his damaged priesthood. There he is drawn into the unruly world of the Carmody’s, a sprawling, prosperous Irish family teeming with passion and riddled with secrets.
It’s a warm Florida night, and the Bluebelle—a 60-foot, twin-masted sailing ketch—began its return to Fort Lauderdale from the Bahamas. A ketch is a two-masted vessel, meaning the twin-masted Bluebelle had four masts. At around 9 p.m., 11-year-old Terry Jo Duperrault heads below deck to her sleeping quarters, leaving her parents, siblings, the ship’s captain, and the captain’s wife on deck. Approximately two hours later, she’s awakened by the sounds of heavy footfalls above and her brother screaming and calling for his father. She decides to investigate and makes a horrific discovery.
This is the story of the “Sea Orphan”.
In 1961, 11-year-old Terry Jo Duperrault was a girl who loved animals, and her family and enjoyed spending time in the wooded areas around her home in Green Bay, Wisconsin, pretending to be Tarzan swinging through the forest.
Terry’s father, Arthur Duperrault, is 40 years old and her mother, Jean, is 38 years old. She has two siblings, an older brother named Brian, who is 14, and a younger sister named René, who is seven. Arthur served in World War II and went on to become a successful contact lens optometrist. During his World War II service, he had sailed on the waters of south Florida, and always dreamed of taking his family on a year-long cruise, sailing the tropic seas from island to island. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any details about Terry Jo’s mother and siblings.)
For years, Arthur and Jean saved for this family vacation, and by the summer of 1961, they had saved enough money to head south for the winter and spend one of those winter weeks living at sea aboard a chartered yacht, sailing from the Florida Keys to The Bahamas, docking at several chosen locations, and planning to extend the sailing trip if everyone was enjoying themselves.
In early November, the family arrived in Fort Lauderdale and chartered the Bluebelle from the Bahia Mar Marina for $515 ($4,501 USD in 2021). Arthur hired a well-known local yachtsman, 44-year-old Julian Harvey, to skipper the vessel for $100 per day ($874 USD in 2021). Julian’s sixth wife, 34-year-old former stewardess and aspiring writer Mary Dene Harvey, was also brought on board and served as a cook. One source said Arthur was acquainted with Julian Harvey.
Now, Julian Harvey was just the skipper. Bluebelle was actually owned by a man named Harold Pegg who had hired Harvey to take tourists on their desired cruises in exchange for $300 a month ($2,622 USD in 2021) and free accommodation aboard the ketch.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, November 8, 1961, the Duperrault family returns to the marina to board the Bluebelle and start their long-awaited voyage.
Over the next few days, the family traveled to locations such as Bimini and Sandy Point where the Duperrault’s purchased souvenirs and engaged in activities like snorkeling, spearfishing, and collecting shells on the white and pink sand beaches.
Early on the morning of November 12, four days into their voyage, Arthur and the Harveys stopped by the office of Sandy Point village commissioner Roderick Pinder to fill out forms for leaving the Bahamas and returning to the United States. It was then that Arthur told Pinder, “This has been a once-in-a-lifetime vacation; we’ll be back before Christmas.”
That evening, everyone on the Bluebelle gathered together and ate a meal of chicken cacciatore and salad. (Cacciatore means “hunter” in Italian. In cuisine, it refers to a meal prepared “hunter-style” with onions, herbs, usually tomatoes, often bell peppers, and sometimes wine. Cacciatore is popularly made with braised chicken or rabbit.)
Shortly after dinner, Terry Jo heads below deck to her sleeping quarters in a small cabin at the back of the boat, as her family and the Harveys remained on deck. Ordinarily, René slept in this cabin, too, but on this night, she remained with her parents and brother on deck.
At approximately 12:35 p.m. on Monday, November 13, a crew member aboard an oil tanker called Gulf Lion observed a man frantically waving his arms from a dinghy drifting in the tanker’s direction and shouting, “Help! I have a dead baby on board!”. Pulling the man aboard, crew members observed the deceased body of a girl wearing a life jacket inside the dinghy.
This man identified himself as Julian Harvey, the skipper of the Bluebelle. Harvey proceeded to explain that at approximately 8:30 p.m. the previous evening, his small vessel was at a location between the Abaco Islands and Great Stirrup Cay when it had been hit by a sudden, strong squall—a sudden violent gust of wind or a localized storm, especially one bringing rain, snow, or sleet. He insisted Arthur kept steering in the direction of the squall—an inconceivable move for any person let alone a Navy veteran and experienced sailor—which caused the Bluebelle’s mainmast to snap and pierce the ship’s hull.
According to Julian, he was completely separated from all others on board because the falling mainmast (middle pole) pulled down the mizzen sail (mizzen is on a ship having three or more masts, the mizzen sail is the one at the back of the ship). He had attempted to retrieve wire cutters from the cabin to clear the deck space and cut through the fallen rigging, but a sudden fire had broken out on board and he had not been able to rescue his wife or any of the passengers.
Forced to abandon the ketch alone on a dinghy, the body of one of his young passengers who he thought was Terry Jo Duperrault, floated by his raft. He retrieved the body and attempted to revive the child. He was unsuccessful in this medical effort, so he kept her body alongside him in the dingy out of respect.
Nearly everyone who heard Harvey’s story found something wrong with it. Crew members on the Gulf Lion found him far too calm and collected for someone who just lost his wife and an entire family of clients, while narrowly escaping with his life. The Bluebelle’s owner, Harold Pegg, found Harvey’s account of the mast failure ridiculous, given that the ketch had been recently inspected and cleared. Even Harvey’s old friend from his military days, James Boozer, who heard varying iterations of Harvey’s story, felt something was missing. There was also the fact that no one at the lighthouse on a nearby island saw a fire at sea that night, nor did Harvey try to make it over to that island after he found the body of “Terry Jo”.
Harvey was taken to Nassau (pronounced Nass-aah), the Capital of the Bahamas, and questioned by authorities, where his calm demeanour and the fact that his dinghy had an emergency kit in it, caused them to initially express serious doubts in his claims. Finally, Harvey admitted that at no point during his hours of drifting did he think to look for the flares that were in the dinghy’s emergency kit. But Harvey’s story could not be disproven, and he was allowed to return to Miami on November 15, two days after he was pulled from the water, to face further questioning by the U.S. Coast Guard.
November 16th, Harvey reiterated his story to the U.S. Coast Guard investigators, stating that a sudden squall had brought down the Bluebelle’s masts, piercing the ship’s hull, rupturing the auxiliary gas tank, and starting a fire. These circumstances, Harvey claimed, made it impossible for him to rescue his wife or any member of the Duperrault family. But this time he added that he was using two fire extinguishers on the flames with little effect and, once he got in the dinghy, he shouted over and over into the squall, trying to locate the other passengers. He reiterated that he spotted who he thought was Terry Jo, but she was floating face down in the water, already dead, and was sure to remind investigators that he had tried and failed to revive the child.
While Harvey’s being questioned by the U.S. Coast guard, a Greek freighter (cargo ship) named Captain Theo is sailing in the Northwest Providence Channel. Second officer Nicolaos Spachidakis observes something in the water approximately one mile away. Spachidakis summons Captain Stylianos Coutsodontis to the bridge, and the two gradually realize Spachidakis’s sighting was not a fishing vessel but a small white raft carrying a young blonde-haired child dressed in a white cotton blouse and pink corduroy pants, leaning backwards and waving feebly. The captain ordered the engines to be stopped and a life raft lowered. Noting sharks circling close to the girl’s cork float (oval-shaped with mesh netting, no solid base), crew members shouted at the child not to jump into the water as one crew member, Evangelos Kantzilas, lifted the child aboard the life raft, hoisted her aboard the Captain Theo, and placed her in a spare cabin.
Aboard the freighter, the crew quickly discovered the child was incoherent and barely able to speak. She was given water and orange juice; salt was sponged from her body with wet towels and Vaseline was applied to her lips. She was able to hoarsely identify herself as 11-year-old Terry Jo Duperrault; informing the crew that she had been floating aboard the cork float for several days after the ship she was on sank. Her ability to speak waned, and the child soon responded to questions by weakly gesturing, before lapsing into a semi-comatose state.
The captain of the Captain Theo immediately informed the coast guard of their discovery and the child’s medical predicament, and a rescue helicopter was soon summoned. Terry Jo—suffering from severe sunburn, dehydration, and exposure—was airlifted to a Miami hospital in a critical condition. She began to recuperate, but it would be two days before she revealed to police and the U.S. Coast Guard the circumstances surrounding her rescue and the truth of what had happened to her family and Mary Dene Harvey.
Remember, while all of this is happening with Terry Jo, Harvey was being interrogated for the first time by the U.S. Coast Guard. Now, during this interrogation the coast guard was unable to prove that Harvey was lying, so they released him but told him to return the following day, November 17, for a more in-depth interview. He returns, and halfway through this second interrogation, he was told that Terry Jo had been rescued the previous day, and that her condition was improving. His response was to exclaim, “Oh my God!”, before calmly adding, “Isn’t that wonderful?”. He was then informed by a lieutenant named Ernest Murdoch that an official investigation into the loss of the Bluebelle and her passengers was to be launched that day. Shortly thereafter, Harvey asked to be excused from further interrogation, claiming he was tired and that he wished to speak with his wife’s family. The coast guard granted his request and let him go.
Upon leaving the interrogation, Harvey drives a short distance, where he checks into the Sandman Motel under the assumed name of John Monroe. He penned a two-page suicide note before slashing his thigh, ankles, and jugular vein with a razor blade in the motel bathroom, ultimately dying of suicide. His body was found by a maid approximately two hours later.
By November 20, three days after Harvey’s death, Terry Jo had regained sufficient strength to reveal to investigators the truth regarding the loss of her family, Mary Dene Harvey, and the Bluebelle.
Late on November 12, the Bluebelle began its return journey to Fort Lauderdale. At around 9 p.m., Terry Jo had entered the lower cabin to sleep, leaving her parents, siblings, Harvey, and his wife on deck. At approximately 11 p.m., she was awakened by heavy footfalls and the sounds of her brother screaming and calling for his father. She lay in her bed shivering, disoriented, and terrified. Approximately five minutes pass, and Terry Jo creeps out of her cabin. She sees her mother and brother lying crumpled in a pool of blood in the main cabin (the main cabin functioned as a kitchen and dining room during the day and was converted into a bedroom at night). She knew instantly they were dead.
Slowly, Terry Jo climbs the stairs leading to the deck, and sticks her head out of the hatch. She sees more blood pooled on the starboard side (when looking forward, toward the bow of a ship, starboard refers to the right side) of the cockpit, and possibly a knife. She climbs on deck and turns toward the front of the boat, when suddenly she’s struck in the head with a bucket by Harvey, who shoves her below deck, shouting, “Get back down there!”. Terrified, Terry Jo averts her eyes from her mother’s and brother’s bodies and returns to her quarters.
Approximately 15 minutes later, she sees oil and water beginning to gush onto the floor of her cabin but she’s too scared to move. Then, she notices Harvey’s silhouette in the doorway, holding what Terry Jo thinks is her brother’s rifle. The two make eye contact. The only sound is the that of rising water and Harvey’s heavy breathing. Suddenly, Harvey walks out of her cabin, and returns above deck. Terry Jo lays there, scared to death as the water rises and starts lapping over the top of her mattress. She knows she must abandon her cabin, so she gets into the waist-deep water and heads for the stairs. She reaches the top, and sees Harvey standing on the deck, the vessel’s dinghy floating on the port side. She asks, “Is the ship sinking?”, and he shouts, “Yes!”
Harvey pushes rope attached to the dinghy into her hand while he “leaves to retrieve something”. Numb from shock, the rope slips through her fingers. Harvey returns, sees that she’s let the dinghy go, dives into the water toward it, and abandons Terry Jo on the sinking vessel. She watches him swim off and disappear into the night.
Remembering the small cork float lashed to the deck (lash involves different means and mechanisms to secure the cargo to the deck of the ship), Terry Jo unties the float as the boat deck begins to sink beneath the ocean. She gets the float free, puts it into the water, and half crawling, half swimming she pushes the float into the open water. As she climbs onto the float, one of the lines of the float snags on the sinking ship. For a terrifying, breathless moment, Terry Jo and the float are pulled underwater with the sinking ship. Luckily, the line comes free, and they surface. She huddles as low as possible on the float, fearing Harvey is lying in wait and will see she has survived. The open waters are dark. The moon had set, and clouds deny any light from the stars. Saltwater stings her eyes and lips. She’s already soaking wet and freezing, wearing only a white blouse and pink pants, when a sudden shower starts, and she begins to shiver uncontrollably. The only thought occupying her mind is, “Where is my father?”.
When Monday morning arrived, the initial feel of the sun was a blessing as it drove the chill from her bones. But as the sun rose in the sky, it became unbearably hot and began to burn her. As each hour passed, her tongue and throat grew drier.
On Tuesday, a small red plane circled above her. Terry Jo waved at it with her blouse, her heart pounding with hope. But the plane passed directly over her.
Early that afternoon, just beneath the water’s surface, Terry Jo saw shapes approaching her. As they came closer, she saw they were porpoises. They stared up at her with large, dark eyes, and she felt comforted by the whooshing sounds they made as they came to the surface for air, staying close-by for hours.
Tuesday night brought back the darkness, but her body felt relief from the scorching rays of the sun. That night, she dreamed that she was in the cockpit of an airliner coming in for a landing. She saw the long, straight, converging lines of iridescent landing lights standing out against a black abyss. In the dream, she saw her father, seated peacefully with a glass of red wine. She heard his voice call out to her, “Come on, Terry Jo! We’re leaving!”.
Wednesday dawned bright and clear, and it grew hot very quickly. The glare of the sun caused her dry eyes severe pain. All her muscles ached. Her skin burned all over her body. Her lips were rough and swollen. She can’t get comfortable because she had to balance rigidly on the edges of the unsteady float because almost all the rope webbing had broken away. On top of all this, she hallucinated frequently, imagining a tiny desert island with a solitary palm tree. She tried paddling toward it, but it disappeared. Finally, she fell unconscious.
When Thursday morning came, she didn’t feel the burning rays of the sun. She was in a deep sleep close to death, knowing the chances of her being spotted by someone in a passing ship or plane were slim. Her white float, white blouse, and blond hair blended right in with the waves of the sea. But by mid-morning, she gathered her strength and opened her eyes, and saw the Captain Theo looming above her, coming to her rescue.
Terry Jo was adamant the mast of the Bluebelle was intact, that there had been no fire aboard the vessel, and that the sea was calm throughout the entirety of the events prior to the sinking. After telling her story, she was informed that Harvey had been picked up alive three days prior to herself in a life raft, alongside her sister’s dead body, and that the bodies of her parents, brother, and Mary Dene had all been lost at sea.
With Terry Jo’s story outlining clear evidence of foul play, and Harvey’s sudden death, an investigation was launched into Harvey’s history. If only the passengers knew that Harvey was such a troubled man. He’d fallen into serious financial trouble and was using this voyage as an opportunity to execute a wicked scheme.
Only one month prior to the Duperrault family chartering the Bluebelle, Harvey had been hired by the vessel’s owner to take tourists on a cruise of their choice in exchange for $300 a month (Today’s money: $2,622) and free accommodation aboard the ketch. Harvey had arranged a double indemnity insurance policy on his wife just two months after their marriage in July 1961 (a payout of double the amount of an insurance policy under certain conditions, e.g., when death occurs as a result of an accident) (they were only married for 4 months), and investigators speculate this arrangement with Harold may have help to formulate Harvey’s plan to murder his wife at sea, by claiming she had vanished, use the tourists as valuable witnesses to corroborate his claims, and collect on her $20,000 double indemnity insurance policy, which would yield double the insured sum if she died accidentally (a total value of $349,630 USD in 2021).
But Harvey may have been observed by Arthur Duperrault either in the act of the murder of his wife or the disposal of her body. Harvey had then proceeded to kill Arthur, his wife, and two of his children, who may have also witnessed the murder. It’s also speculated that he had retrieved René’s body from the ocean to add credibility to his story. If Harvey had not died by suicide, he would have been prosecuted for the murder of his wife, Mary Dene Harvey, Arthur, Jean, Brian, and René Duperrault, and the attempted murder of Terry Jo Duperrault.
The suicide note he had left addressed to James Boozer left no explanations or apologies for his actions, it simply ended with, “I got too tired and nervous. I couldn’t stand it any longer.”
Investigators searched further into Harvey’s background and discovered he had a series of insurance claims.
According to Deanna Cioppa in an article for Mentalfloss, people in Harvey’s life have always been weary of him.
“Anyone with a birds-eye-view of Julian Harvey’s life would have found a few other elements not in his favor. While it was true that Harvey was a skilled WWII bomber pilot, served in the Korean War, and even managed to pull off a dangerous test flight of a modified B-24 bomber, peers in the military periodically noted his propensity for ditching missions due to “engine failure.” By the end of his career in the military, even his supporters noted his nerves were shot—a fact apparently made clear by the worsening of a facial tic and stutter.”
Based on the evidence the investigators uncovered, the quotes from people in his life, his suicide note, and his vile actions of the night of November 12, 1961, it’s pretty clear the guy didn’t possess any follow through. He didn’t want to work hard and earn anything fairly. Julian Harvey wanted quick, easy money and didn’t care who he let down or hurt in the process.
Following the loss of her family, Terry Jo returned to Wisconsin to live with her aunt, her grandmother, and three cousins in the city of De Pere. She refused to part with the blouse and plants she was wearing when she as rescued. The following year, she changed her first name to Tere—in part due to her refusal to be viewed as a victim. Due to contemporary psychological coping strategies in the early 1960s, authority figures very seldom spoke with Terry Jo about her ordeal, and she received no trauma counseling. Consequently, she did not speak publicly about the loss of her family and her survival ordeal for over twenty years.
Tere Jo later married and had three children. As an adult, she chose to live and work close to the ocean. She is now retired and resides in Kewaunee, Wisconsin.
In 2010, Tere Jo Duperrault Fassbender released her memoir “Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean.” Co-authored with psychologist and survival expert Richard Logan, her book details her family’s final cruise, Harvey’s murder of her family and his wife, the three-and-a-half days she spent drifting upon the cork float prior to her rescue, and her life in the years since.
Some individuals, including writer Erle Stanley Gardner, have speculated as to why Harvey did not murder Terry Jo that night. Gardner has speculated Harvey may have subconsciously wanted to be caught and punished for his actions. However, Richard Logan and others have theorized that Harvey had intended to kill her, but when Terry Jo accidentally dropped the rope connected to his dinghy, he was forced to dive overboard to prevent it from floating away without him, resulting in him leaving Terry Jo alive on the sinking ship and believing she would not survive.
When Tere Jo was 60 years old, forty-nine years after her ordeal, she granted a televised interview with morning television show host Matt Lauer, in which she told him she believed Harvey thought she would go down with the ship. She also stated her belief that Harvey had originally intended to discreetly murder his wife, dispose of her body, and later claim she was lost at sea, but his wife likely fought back, attracting the attention of the Duperrault family. Tere Jo has also stated she does not wish for people to reflect upon her ordeal and feel sorry for her, but rather to think to themselves, “She has gone on with her life.” Tere Jo has also stated she has “always believed I was saved for a reason… if one person heals from a life tragedy [after reading my story], my journey will have been worth it.”