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How 11-Year-Old Tere Jo Dupperault Survived Four Days Stranded at Sea to Identify Her Family’s Killer
How 11-Year-Old Tere Jo Dupperault Survived Four Days Stranded at Sea to Identify Her Family’s Killer
Uplifting News

How 11-Year-Old Tere Jo Dupperault Survived Four Days Stranded at Sea to Identify Her Family’s Killer

This incredible survival story proves there is hope after tragedy.

In 1961, an 11-year-old girl was discovered adrift on a small cork raft near the Bahamas. She was burnt, dehydrated, and on the brink of death. So it’s not surprising that she only managed to utter her name before rescuers pulled her out. Then, she collapsed.

It was a severe situation, but miraculously, doctors saved “the sea orphan.” When they discovered her story, however, they learned about a much grizzlier situation than anyone could have ever imagined. Now, that little girl is opening up about her story.

How a Big Family Vacation Turned Into a Nightmare

little girl floating on a small boat in the sea

When Tere Jo Dupperault was 11 years old, her optometrist father chartered a luxury yacht named the Bluebell from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to the Bahamas. It was to be a beautiful family trip for himself, his wife, and his three children. Unfortunately, the man he hired to bring his family on the journey was a murderer.

Julian Harvey was a former marine and World War II veteran who agreed to bring the family on the trip so that he could bring along his new wife, Mary Dene. The trip went well until the fifth night when Tere Jo was woken up by “screaming and stamping” on the deck above.

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When she went up, she saw her mother and older brother lying on the floor with blood everywhere. That’s when she saw Harvey and asked him what was going on. He pushed her down the ladder and told her to stay there.

“I was very trusting and I thought that something bad had happened and that he didn’t want me to see what had happened,” Dupperault recalls to Unseen on Facebook Watch.

So the little girl sat on her bed and waited. Soon, water began filling the boat. At one point, Harvey came down with a rifle, but he didn’t use it. Eventually, Dupperault knew she had to go up and see what was happening, or she would die.

“I decided I couldn’t stay there any longer because the water was making my mattress float. So I waded through and I went on top of the deck again,” she says.

How Tere Jo Dupperault Escaped a Scary Situation

There, the girl saw the man who had killed her family. Without saying a word, he dove into the water and took a life raft. Alone, with the water coming up fast, Dupperault recalled the cork raft she’d seen during the trip. She scrambled to get on it and floated out to sea, just as the Bluebell went under.

“I had a dream that I could see the blue lights of an airport, the landing strip,” she remembers. “And I could see that my parents were waiting for me at the end of [it]. I was going to meet them, I jumped out of the raft, and jumping out of the raft awakened me. Fortunately, I hadn’t let go, and I scrambled back in.”

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For four days, she floated there, unable to lay down or move; otherwise, she would tip over. Fish were nipping at her through the roped bottom, and her feet were bleeding, but there was nothing she could do. She had no food or water, and to make things even worse, the planes and boats that did go by couldn’t see her — the cork raft was white, so it looked like another sea cap.

Alone, losing consciousness, and without hope, all Tere Jo could do was sit there. Then, on Day 4, her luck miraculously changed. A Greek freighter was passing by, and someone on deck realized one cap in the distance never went under. The crew investigated, and they were shocked to discover the little girl.

“The man in the lookout spotted me with his binoculars, and at first thought I was a fisherman,” Dupperault says. “And then [he] realized a fisherman wouldn’t be out in such a little boat.”  

How Tere Jo Dupperault Wasn’t the Only Person Who Survived

The freighter pulled the little girl in right before she lost consciousness. Meanwhile, someone else had successfully come across a ship and been saved: Harvey. He told authorities the boat had sunk and he was the sole survivor, and he was retelling that testimony when news came that Tere Jo had been saved.

The man excused himself, saying he was tired and needed a break from the interrogation. Instead of going home to rest, however, he went to a hotel room, checked in under a false name, and took his own life. A maid discovered him the following day.

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While authorities could only rely on Tere Jo’s testimony to piece together the horrific events, they did speculate Harvey had killed his wife to access her life insurance (he was the sole beneficiary). Furthermore, after some investigation, authorities realized Harvey had a history of insurance fraud, not to mention a first wife who died in a mysterious car accident.

The exact truth will never come to light, but the working theory is that Harvey was going to kill his wife, but either Tere Jo’s mother or father stumbled upon him, and he decided to kill the whole family so there would be no witnesses.

How Tere Jo Dupperault Proved There's Hope After Tragedy

little girl holding a doll in her hands
Terry Jo Dupperault smiles as she talks to her doll while recovering in the hospital from her 3?-day ordeal floating on a life raft in Miami on Nov. 22, 1961. She is the sole survivor of the ill-fated ketch Bluebell. (AP Photo/Pool)

It took a long time for Tere Jo to heal, let alone accept that her family was gone. She went to live with her aunt and uncle and loved her like they were her parents. But there was still a hole in her heart.

“I never wanted to let go of my mom and dad,” she says. “Growing up, it was very difficult. I didn’t believe my father was dead because I had not seen him. I would just pick up and leave on a whim and drive to a beach looking for my dad… I did that for many, many years.”

As she grew older, Tere Jo continued to find herself drawn to the water and even worked with water regulation and zoning as an adult. Today, she feels a strong bond with the very sea that saved her as a child and continues to connect her with her family.

It’s a sobering reminder that sometimes in life, people go through the hardest and most challenging circumstances. But, the human spirit is more resilient than we sometimes believe. Tere Jo will always have her trauma, but she also has a full life and a solid motivation to do something she thinks she was meant to do: help save the ocean.

“If you’re put in a situation that is challenging, you have to adapt to whatever the circumstances are and go with the flow,” she says. “Anybody that does this can survive.”

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