In 1961 a freighter sailed around the Bahamas as its crew spotted something incredible in the waters below. It was a young girl, close to death, drifting through the ocean on a tiny cork float. So how had an 11-year-old child named Terry Jo Duperrault come to be lost alone in the Atlantic Ocean? Her story will shock and astound you in equal measure.
After all, little Terry Jo’s visit to this part of the world was meant to be the trip of a lifetime for the Duperrault family. In fact, Dr. Arthur Duperrault, a 41-year-old eye doctor from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and his wife Jean, 38, had been saving their money for this trip for a long time.
Of course, the couple wanted to take their three children – Brian, 14, Terry Jo, 11, and Renee, 7 – on a journey that they would never forget. So they chartered a boat, the 60-foot ketch Bluebelle, to take them on a week’s holiday from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to explore the islands of the Bahamas.
On November 8, 1961, the ship set sail with the Duperrault family safely on board. The captain of the ship was one Julian Harvey, and Harvey had brought his wife Mary Dene along for the ride too. And, for four days, the trip went just as the Duperraults had planned.
In fact, nobody suspected anything when, on the evening of November 12, with a full night’s sailing ahead, young Terry Jo decided to retire to her cabin for an early night. However, she was woken later in the evening by her brother’s cries, and she knew immediately that something was awry.
“I was awakened by my brother screaming ‘Help, daddy, help,’” Terry Jo, who now goes by the name Tere Duperrault Fassbender, told Fox News almost 50 years later. “It was the type of scream that you know that something horrible is happening.”
In fact, Harvey, a 44-year-old military pilot with a troubled past, had chosen that particular night to murder his wife of just four months. The reason? It was later revealed that Harvey had not long taken out a life insurance policy on Mary Dene. Apparently, Harvey intended to dispose of Dene’s body overboard and report her as lost at sea.
However, things didn’t go to plan. In fact, Dr. Duperrault saw what was happening and intervened, only to then be killed by Harvey. Then, desperate to get rid of any other witnesses to his crime, Harvey murdered all of the members of the Duperrault family who had been awake during the altercation. That left just Terry Jo sleeping in her cabin below.
When Terry Jo emerged a few minutes later, she found her mother and brother in a pool of blood on the cabin floor. Assuming they were dead, she climbed up on deck to ask the captain what was happening.
However, Harvey pushed Terry Jo back below decks, where the girl returned to her bunk, cowering in fear. In fact, it wasn’t until water began to fill her cabin that she ventured back up onto the deck.
Then, Harvey, who had opened up the ship’s sea valves with the intention of scuttling the vessel, gave Terry Jo a rope attached to a dinghy to hold. Later, Fassbender’s friend Richard D. Logan would speculate that Harvey planned on murdering the girl as well.
Instead, Terry Jo dropped the rope, and Harvey dove into the sea to catch up with the dinghy. In effect, he abandoned her on the sinking ship – but the newly-orphaned girl was a lot tougher than she looked.
Terry Jo untied a tiny cork float and sailed away on it just as the Bluebelle disappeared beneath the waves. So for the next four days, she drifted in the Atlantic Ocean without access to water or food. After a while, she even began to hallucinate – although she never lost faith that she would be saved.
Eventually, Captain Theo, a Greek freighter passing through the Northwest Providence Channel that cuts through the Bahamas, discovered and rescued Terry Jo. She had a fever of 105 ºF and was suffering sunburn and severe dehydration. One of the crew snapped a photograph of her frail form floating in the tiny boat on a vast ocean, and it susbsequently made headlines around the world.
Three days previously, the coastguard had found Harvey floating in the Bluebelle’s dinghy along with Renee’s dead body. The killer claimed that a sudden storm had battered the ship and sparked a fire, ultimately sinking the vessel, and that he had unsuccessfully attempted to revive the girl after finding her in the water.
However, once news of Terry Jo’s rescue spread, Harvey checked himself into a hotel and took his own life. It seems that he must have known that it was inevitable the truth about the sordid matter would come out soon enough.
For Terry Jo, though, it was just the start of a lifelong ordeal. Indeed, despite taking in Terry Jo, her relatives were advised never to discuss the traumatic events of November 1961. So for 20 years, Terry Jo didn’t speak about the incident to anyone.
Then, in the 1980s, she began to open up to a few close friends about what she had experienced. This led her to seek psychiatric care and later co-author a book with Logan called Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean, in which she discusses her experiences in depth. The book was finally published in May 2010 – almost half a century after Terry Jo’s ordeal took place.
Today, Terry Jo still works around water, and she credits the book as the culmination of her healing process. Furthermore, she hopes that it will help other people looking to overcome incidents of tragedy in their own lives. “I always believed I was saved for a reason,” she said in an interview with 48 Hours. “But it took me 50 years to gain the strength to be able to give other people hope with my story.”