Sea Orphan: The Story of the Duperrault Family

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When the Captain of a yacht was rescued in the Atlantic Ocean, he told a story about how everyone else perished when the yacht sank. Then one of the other members of the party – an 11-year old girl – was rescued and told the truth. And the story that little Terry Jo Duperrault told was very different than the Captain’s. She had experienced a harrowing scene of murder, then lived at sea for days before her rescue. In this episode, we tell the story of the Duperrault Family and the little girl who came to be known as the “Sea Orphan.” Then we play the quiz with my wife Alison!

Duperrault Sea Orphan

Survival at sea stories have to be some of the most heroic tales of just absolute sheer will and determination to live. In 1983, Tami Oldham Ashcroft and her fiancé Richard Sharp sailed into Hurricane Raymond. They were trying to sail from Tahiti to San Diego. Richard Sharp was lost to the ocean, but Tami, who was injured from taking a blow during the hurricane, stayed afloat in the wreckage of the boat and was rescued after 41 days at sea.

During World War II, Air Force Captain and Olympic Distance runner Louis Zamperini floated on a life raft for 47 days before he was picked up by a Japanese ship and sent to a series of prisoner of war camps. His story is told in the book and film Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

Jose Salvador Alvarenga drifted 8,000 miles when his fishing boat was disabled. When he was finally rescued, the 37 year old Alvarenga had been lost at sea for over a year.

But our story today is about a girl who was adrift at sea for only about 4 days. And yet her tale is absolutely gut wrenching. This is the story of Terry Jo Dupperault.

Have you ever been on a cruise ship or flying in an airplane over the ocean and watched the white caps on the water? Sometimes your brain can almost fool yourself into believing you’re seeing something floating on the surface of the ocean, only to realize its just another white cap. 

When the Greek Freighter named the “Captain Theo” was sailing around the Bahamas, the Second Officer thought he saw something white floating in the ocean. At first he couldn’t tell if it was just a white cap or some sort of debris. They were cruising through the Northwest Providence Channel in the Bahamas and the Second Officer continued to watch the white spot in the ocean and realized it wasn’t a white cap. It was too small to be a boat and too large to be floating trash or debris. He yelled to the Captain to change course in order to get nearer to it in order to see what it was. When they came up next to it, they were shocked. Floating there in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean was a tiny white raft…holding a tiny white girl. Terry Jo Dupperault – the girl on the raft – was only eleven years old.

When the Greek Freighter Captain Theo picked up the 11 year old Terry Jo Duperrault, they had no idea the horrors she had been through. 

Her nightmare began on November 8, 1961. Terry Jo’s father Arthur chartered a yacht from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas. The ship was called the Bluebelle, a 60-foot, twin masted sailing ketch. The whole family went on the voyage – Arthur, his wife Jean and their three children: Brian, Rene, and Terry Jo. The trip was a lifelong dream for Arthur. He had taken the journey from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas during his service in World War II and always dreamed of making the journey again. They lived in Green Bay, WI, so the idea of a journey in the warm Bahamian waters of the Atlantic sounded like a perfect vacation. Arthur had saved for years to afford the trip and that winter, they had finally planned it out. They planned to spend a week on board the yacht, but left room to make it longer if they wanted. The cost of the Yacht rental in 1961 was just $515, plus the money they had to pay the Captain. 

The Captain of the ship was actually a friend of Duperrault’s – an experienced yachtsman by the name of Julian Harvey. Duperrault offered Harvey $100 a day for the trip and even allowed him to bring his wife, Mary, who would also serve as a cook on the yacht. 

They set sail on November 8 and were having an amazing vacation. They stopped at Bimini and Sandy Point, bought souvenirs, collected shells on the beach, went snorkeling and ate like kings. Mary fixed a fancy chicken cacciatore dinner for the group. On the night of November 12, Terry Jo was feeling tired so she went below deck to sleep while the rest of the party stayed up. 

But she was awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of screams. She heard her brother yelling “Help! Daddy Help!” And she heard stomping and rumbling. Then nothing. Absolute silence. Eleven-year-old Terry Jo had stayed in her bed, scared during the whole ordeal. After a few minutes, she raised the courage to leave her cabin and return above deck. It was then she saw her mother and brother lying in a pool of blood inside the main cabin. They were dead.

Shivering and scared, Terry Jo continued to walk around the Bluebelle and saw more blood and a knife. Julian Harvey saw Terry Jo and yelled at her to get back below deck. She ran back to her cabin, but it wasn’t long before the next part of the nightmare began. Her cabin began filling with oily smelling water. The ship was sinking. 

Once again, she found the courage to get out of bed and ran down the hallway under the boat, where she saw Captain Harvey, holding a rifle. By this point, the water was up to her waist and she yelled to the Captain to ask if the ship was sinking. He replied that it was and asked her to hold the line to the yacht’s dinghy. She accidentally let the line go and the dingy drifted away from the yacht. Captain Harvey jumped into the ocean and swam for it. Young Terry Jo was all alone. She had seen her mother and 14 year old brother Brian on the ground, but hadn’t seen her younger sister René, her father or Harvey’s wife Mary. The sinking yacht was eerily quiet as the Captain disappeared into the distance.

She didn’t have time to think about anything but getting off of the boat. She saw a small white life raft – just a tiny little cork raft barely bigger than the girl. It was a 2 foot by 5 foot float. She threw it into the ocean and climbed aboard. She watched, shivering and cold in the pitch black night as the Bluebelle disappeared into the ocean beneath her.

By noon the next day, Captain Harvey had been rescued. The oil tanker Gulf Lion saw him yelling and waving his arms. He was screaming at them that he had a dead baby on board. When they rescued him, they found the body of young Rene Duperrault, Terry Jo’s younger sister.

He told the crew of the Gulf Lion his version of the story. It was a very detailed story about how the ship sailed into a storm, flipping the Bluebelle onto its side and snapping one of the masts. He described a series of events in detail, but said eventually the ship caught fire and sank. He said he wasn’t able to rescue his wife or any of the passengers.

Captain Harvey was taken to Nassau to speak to authorities. He told the same story in details, but there were some questions that he couldn’t answer. Why had he loaded up the dinghy with some survival supplies? How did the young girl make it into the dinghy? Was she living when she entered? He claimed at that point that he found the young girl’s body floating in the ocean and wasn’t able to revive her. They didn’t have any proof that he was lying about his account, so they released him and he returned to Miami, where he would be questioned once again – this time by the U.S. Coast Guard.

In the meantime, another rescue was happening. It was 4 days after the young Terry Jo entered the water that Captain Stylianos Coutsodontis of the Greek ship “Captain Theo” steered his boat toward the tiny life raft at the direction of his Second Officer.

They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. A young blonde-haired girl wearing a white blouse and pink corduroy pants. When they pulled her onto the freighter, she was dehydrated, confused and could hardly speak. After recuperating for a while, she was able to tell her story in pieces before once again suffering from the dehydration and sun exposure. She collapsed and slept. The Coast Guard sent a helicopter for her and she was brought to a Miami Hospital in critical condition. Over the next few days, she was able to tell authorities about what she had seen on the ship. She confirmed for them that there was no fire. No storm. Captain Harvey’s story was falling apart. And he had no idea there was even a survivor.

When they told Julian Harvey that Terry Jo had survived and been rescued, he said “Oh my God! Isn’t that wonderful!?” He was then told he’d be wanted for further questioning. That’s when Julian Harvey drove to a nearby motel, wrote a suicide note, and took his own life. He slashed arteries in his thigh, ankle and jugular vein and died there in the Sandman Hotel. 

Harvey’s note didn’t explain why he did what he did. Only that he “got too tired and nervous and couldn’t stand it any longer.”

Mary had been Harvey’s sixth wife. And the theory was that Harvey, who had been finding difficulty getting work and was in serious debt, took out an insurance policy on Mary’s life and killed her to collect the money. He was most likely caught committing the act by the Duperrault family and that’s why things escalated. Investigators found prior instances of Harvey committing insurance fraud. Had Harvey lived, he most likely would have been charged with the murders of the Duperrault family, his wife Mary and the attempted murder of Terry Jo. He had drowned Mary, probably gotten caught and then stabbed to death all of the other members of the Duperrault family. No one is quite sure why he didn’t kill Terry Jo. 

Terry Jo is still alive today. She lives and works in Wisconsin and still enjoys being near the ocean. She gave an interview about her survival to Matt Lauer. I’ll leave you with her quote from that interview. She said she doesn’t want people to look at her and think”Gee, that poor little girl”, 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.”

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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