Episode 5: The Girl on the Water
One of the most common traits among all living creatures is the will to survive. Which only makes sense if you think about it because anything else would lead to the extinction of the species. Sometimes that choice is taken out of the creature’s hands, or claws, as it were in the case of the dinosaur. Although most modern paleontogists will tell you the dinosaur never went completely away. They just grew wings and feathers, and learned how to fly. In the case of human beings, people have proven especially adept at surviving in practically every climate and locale on earth. And for every story of a plane crash or a lost arctic expedition with no survivors, there are many other similar tales where people manage to survive miraculously beyond all odds. This is one such story.
On November 13, 1961, the Greek oil freighter Captain Theo was on its way through the Northwest Providence Channel, which bisects the Bahama Islands, on a trip from Antwerp, Belgium to Houston, Texas. Nicolaos Spachidakis, the ship’s second officer, was on watch. From his perch high up on the ship’s bridge he could see other ships scattered here and there across the vast ocean. As his eyes drifted over the white-capped waves, something caught his eye. He squinted through the sun’s glare at a tiny white speck bobbing in the distance about a mile off the ship’s starboard bow. He focused on it intently, trying to make out what it was. He didn’t think it was just simple debris, and the only other thing he could think of that size would be a fishing dinghy, but that didn’t make any sense either. No fishing dinghy would be out this far from shore. He summoned Captain Stylianos Coutsodontis to the bridge, and as the freighter drew nearer to the object the two men were stunned to realize it was not a dinghy, but a small white life float, and on top of the float was something impossible. It was a little blond-haired girl staring up at them and waving weakly.
The girl had on pink pants and a thin white blouse and she was sprawled backwards across the float, steadying herself on her elbows, with her feet dangling over the float’s side into the water. One of the crewman grabbed his camera and snapped her photo as she stared up at them, squinting against the sun. The captain ordered the freighter to come to a full stop and to toss a small raft over the side. He was worried that if they launched one of the larger lifeboats they might knock the girl right off into the drink. Dark shapes circled in the water, and the captain ordered his men to hurry, realizing there were sharks closing in on the girl. The crew quickly constructed a makeshift raft out of empty oil drums and one of the crew went into the water with it. He reached the girl and lifted her up off the float, and soon the crew was hoisting both of them back up onto the freighter’s deck.
The little girl was barely conscious, and it was obvious she had been out on the ocean for some time. Her lips were puffy and cracked, her skin was badly burned, her cheeks sunken from dehydration. They tried to stand her on two feet, but she collapsed. The captain carried her below deck to a spare cabin and laid her down on a bunk. Teary-eyed crewmembers brought her water and fresh orange juice and gently wiped the salt from her skin with damp cloths. The captain tried to ask the little girl her name, but she wouldn’t respond. He told her he needed to know her name so he could get word to her family that she was alive, but she only shook her head, then lifted her hand and pointed downward with her thumb. The captain realized what she was telling him. “You can’t be sure they are lost,” he said. But she shook her head again, only this time she said a single word, “Bluebelle.”
As time went on the gaps in the girl’s story would begin to fill in, revealing a harrowing tale of survival on the open ocean, and of her narrow escape from death at the hands of a clever killer who had eluded detection for decades.
I’m Nate Hale, reporting to you adrift at sea somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle, and this is The Conspirators.
Arthur Duperrault was an optometrist from Green Bay, Wisconsin who dreamed of the sea. During World War II he had served in the Navy, sailing the warm waters of the South Seas and he longed to return there someday. He often spoke about wanting to take a year off with his family, charter a sailboat and island hop his way around the world. By 1961, he had made enough money off his practice to fulfill his dream, so he closed up his office, pulled his children out of school and took his family on what would turn out to be their last trip together.
On November 8, 1961, Arthur Duperrault, along with his wife, Jean, his 14-year-old son Brian, and daughters Terry Jo, 11, and Rene, seven, arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where they rented a double-masted sailboat, The Bluebelle. The ship’s captain was a 44-year-old man named Julian Harvey, an experienced sailor and former fighter pilot in World War II and Korea. He was a bona fide, decorated war hero, and since Arthur was a fellow vet, he trusted the man immediately, knowing he and his family were in good hands.
Julian Harvey was the sort of man who naturally inspired confidence in others. He was Hollywood handsome, well-muscled with a thick head full of blond curls and chiseled features. He had actually once worked a brief stint as a male model for the John Robert Powers Agency.
After serving two decorated tours in WWII and Korea, he went on to own a number of racing vessels, before purchasing the Bluebelle, which he lived aboard with his wife of four months, a former TWA stewardess named Mary Dene. It was no wonder he was irresistible to women, although he seemed to have a hard time holding on to them. Mary Dene was marriage number six for him.
He was the son of a gorgeous Broadway performer. He never knew his biological father, who left his mother when he was still an infant. She went on to marry a vaudeville showman, and that man doted on Julian. He bought him his first sailboat for his 10th birthday, instilling in him his lifelong love of sailing. But the Great Depression hit the family hard. Julian Harvey’s mother and stepfather divorced and the boy went to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle where, according to reports, he developed a taste for money and the good life.
By the time Julian reached college his life seemed aimless. He was known to have a wild streak. He liked to drive fast and live recklessly. He joined the Air Corps in 1941, where he flew more than 30 bomber missions and gained a reputation as a fearless flyer. He earned a load of medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, and eventually achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.
After the war, settling down just wasn’t in his blood. He met and married a succession of women. In 1953, he married a Texas businesswoman. This would be wife number 4 for those keeping score, but within three months of their marriage, Julian Harvey rejoined the military and left her. He flew 114 missions in Korea and earned another bunch of medals. But immediately after returning from the war, he got divorced again. Then married and divorced again, all of which led up to his marrying Mary Dene, the wife he brought with him on the Bluebelle.
The Dupperaults set sail with Julian and Mary Dene on Wednesday, November 8 on a course for the Bahamas. Their plan was to give it a week in the islands, and if all went well, they’d keep travelling all over the globe. 11-year-old Terry Jo shared her father’s love for the water and she, like her brother and sister, was thrilled by the thought of the adventure to come. The first stop on their journey was Bimini, where she had the time of her life snorkeling and collecting shells off the pink sandy beaches. By Sunday they had sailed further east to Sandy Point, and that night around 9 o’clock, Terry Jo settled in to sleep in the tiny cabin below deck at the back of the boat. Normally, her little sister Rene slept there with her, but on this particular night Rene stayed up on deck with their mother and father while Terry Jo went to sleep by herself.
In the middle of the night she was startled awake by her older brother’s voice crying out, “Help, Daddy! Help!” She heard what sounded like running up on deck, followed by the sounds of loud banging and thumps, then nothing. After several minutes, Terry worked up the courage to crawl out of her bunk and into the main cabin, where she discovered to her complete horror her mother and brother’s bodies lying crumpled in a pool of blood. She crawled up the steps and on to the deck, where she found another puddle of blood and what she thought was a knife. She turned and suddenly Captain Harvey was there and he lunged at her. He shoved her back down the steps and ordered her to stay there.
She tried not to look at her mother and brother’s bodies as she made her way back to her bunk in the rear of the boat. She climbed onto the bunk and waited there in the dark, her heart thudding in her chest. After a while she began to hear sloshing noises and she could smell oily water. Terry Jo realized the ship was filling with water, but she was too scared to move.
Suddenly the doorway to the cabin was filled with the captain’s huge shape. He held something in his hands that she thought was a rifle. He stared at her for a long minute, and for a brief time she was convinced he was going to kill her right then and there. But then he just pivoted and walked away out of the cabin and returned to the deck. The water was rising more quickly now, and Terri Jo knew she had to get out of the cabin too. She waded through waist-deep water and found her way up to the deck. In the dim light she could see the ship’s dinghy and rubber life raft bobbing next to the boat. She asked Captain Harvey if the ship was sinking. He growled at her that it was, then he shoved a rope attached to the dinghy at her and ordered her to hold it. Terry Jo held it for a second, then she let it fall from her fingers. The Captain glared at her, then turned and dove into the water after it. He swam into the darkness after the dinghy, leaving Terry Jo all alone.
Terry Jo felt the ship tipping into the water. She recalled seeing a small cork float attached to the side of the main cabin. She ran for it and hurried to untie it. She yanked the float down and as soon as she had it in her handss the rest of the boat sank under her feet into the ocean. She clung to the float for dear life. She squeezed herself on top of the tiny wedge, terrified the captain was going to return and find her. She had no food, no water, and she only had on a pair of pink pants and a thin cotton blouse. She drifted in the dark, shivering and frightened and alone. It was only then that she began to wonder what had happened to her father. She never found out.
A rain shower drenched her later that night, chilling her even more. But it was worse in the daylight. The sun scorched her from above, burning her skin as if she were being held under a magnifying glass. Even worse, she realized the cork float was beginning to disintegrate under her. She was forced the dangle her feet in the water, and schools of parrot fish nibbled at her legs. She wasn’t hungry at all, but her thirst soon grew maddening. On Tuesday she spotted a small red airplane overhead and she waved at it frantically. The plane appeared to dip lower in the sky toward her, then turned and flew away.
Terry drifted for days and the cruel sun made her thirst grow worse and worse. As her tongue thickened and her throat began to constrict, she grew delirious and she drifted in and out of consciousness. One night she dreamed of her father sitting peacefully at a table where he offered her a glass of wine. It was a lovely dream, and she desperately wanted to join him in that glass of wine. All she had to do was let go of the float and allow herself sink into the azure depths. But still she held on.
By mid-morning of her fourth night on the water she dreamed she was drifting in the shadow of a massive whale. She opened her eyes only to realize it wasn’t a whale at all looming over her, but an enormous ship. At first she wasn’t sure this if this was another hallucination, but it wasn’t. Terry Jo had been saved.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the ocean, a different oil freighter came across a small dinghy bobbing in the sea. Inside the dinghy was Captain Julian Harvey and the body of Terry Jo’s little sister Rene. Within two days, Captain Harvey was back in Miami and undergoing an official Coast Guard investigation. In the hearing room, Captain Harvey told the investigators a tale about the Bluebelle getting caught in a storm, shattering the ship’s masts and causing a fire to break out. He said the only person he had been able to save from the ship was 7-year-old Rene, but tragically, the little girl drowned as they swam for the dinghy.
Although what happened next seems like the sort of contrived moment dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter this really happened. While Harvey was just wrapping up telling his phony story to the investigators, a Coast Guard official burst into the room and announced that another survivor had been found.
“Oh my God,” Harvey managed to stammer out, adding, “That’s wonderful.” Then Harvey rose from his seat and hurriedly out of the hearing room.
The next time the authorities saw Julian Harvey, they were staring down at his corpse in a Miami hotel room bathroom. He had committed suicide by slitting his wrists with a razor blade. He left behind a brief suicide note and a ten-dollar-tip for the hotel maid that he pinned to the pillow on his bed. The note read, “I’m a nervous wreck and just can’t continue. I’m going out now. I guess I either don’t like life or don’t know what to do with it.”
The truth had finally caught up to Captain Harvey. As investigators started to uncover what had happened that night, they learned that shortly before embarking on the cruise, Harvey had taken out a $20,000 insurance policy on his wife Mary. As they dug deeper into Harvey’s past they learned that Harvey’s third wife and his wife’s mother had also died in a suspicious car crash while Julian was driving, and that he had collected a large insurance payout then as well.
Back in 1949, while Harvey was living on an Air Force base in Valparaiso, Florida, he was driving home one night from a movie with his then wife and mother-in-law when, according to him, his car skidded out of control and went over the side of a bridge. Both women drowned. Harvey claimed he had been able to throw himself clear of the car moments before it went in the water, but even then investigators doubted him. Divers found that all four car doors were locked, and only the driver’s window was open as if Harvey had swum to safety, leaving the women to drown. But there was no proof that was what happened, so Harvey skated free. It should be noted that a military doctor who interviewed Harvey at the time wrote about him “that underneath his veneer of charm and sophistication was an amoral man with no real empathy for others, a man who could be dangerous.” Or, in other words, a true sociopath.
After collecting the insurance money from his wife’s death, Harvey quickly remarried and went on to purchase a couple of yachts, each of which sunk under mysterious circumstances, and in each instance, also paid out huge insurance settlements.
Investigators believed that Harvey had planned to murder his wife during the voyage, but Terry Jo’s father caught him in the act and tried to stop him, causing the captain to change plans and murder the entire family.
Terry Jo returned to Green Bay and lived with her aunt and uncle. The photo the Greek sailor took of her ended up being used in Life magazine, and for a while she became a media sensation. In fact, it was because of Terry’s case that it became the maritime industry standard for most emergency life jackets and life rafts to be constructed of vibrant colors like bright orange and yellow to stand out against the sea. Terry Jo wanted to avoid the spotlight so she changed her name and for nearly fifty years she avoided talking about the incident, until finally in 2010 when she finally decided to write a book that told the whole story. It was called Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean. In an interview with CBS News she told the reporter, “I 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.”
The Conspirators is written and produced by me, Nate Hale, an entirely fictional identity. If you enjoy the show and want to help it grow, please tell your friends and family about it, and leave me a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening.
Episode 5: The Girl on the Water
- Categories: Transcripts