Terry Jo Duperrault

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In 1949, my grandmother was living near the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida when a mysterious accident made the news: a car had skidded off of a rainy highway into a bridge railing and plunged into the bayou below, killing a young woman named Joann Boylen and her mother. However, Joann’s husband, Julian Harvey, had been driving the car and escaped the accident entirely uninjured. Julian’s miraculous survival stunned the highway patrolman and professional diver that investigated the scene, and nearly everyone who had heard of the accident found its circumstances to be particularly suspicious.

Yet, Julian never underwent further investigation. My grandmother, who was only 11-years-old at the time, was fascinated by Julian. “You know, he was just the guy who everyone knew was guilty,” she told me recently over the phone. “And for some godforsaken reason, no one could prove it. At least, that was the case until the Bluebelle incident.”

Ah yes, the infamous Bluebelle incident — or, as my grandmother refers to it, the incredible survival story of Terry Jo Duperrault and the long-awaited demise of Julian Harvey. On November 13, 1961, while cruising through the Northwest Providence Channel in the Bahamas, the Gulf Lion tanker came across a man floating in a dinghy. The man, who identified himself as the captain of the ketch Bluebelle, was Julian Harvey. Tied to his dinghy was a life raft where a little girl lay limp and lifeless. Her name was Terry Jo.

The tale that Julian spun for the Gulf Lion crew was harrowing: while Julian was taking his wife and the Duperrault family of five back to Florida after a week-long cruise through the Bahamas, a storm struck in the middle of the night. The squall destroyed the mainmast of his yacht so terribly that the post thrust into the cabin and hull of the boat and ruptured the gas lines of the engine, thereby causing a fire.

Julian claimed that his wife, Mary Dene, and the Duperrault family were either all caught on board or had jumped ship as the Bluebelle went down. Three days later, Julian told the Coast Guard investigators that he had even attempted to fight the fire himself. However, when his attempts failed to extinguish the flames, he hopped into the dinghy and shouted for his other passengers. When he eventually spotted Terry Jo, she was floating dead in the water.

Harvey suicide
Newspaper clipping announcing Julian Harvey’s suicide, 1961. Chicago Tribune Archives

Just as Julian was finishing his testimony for the investigators, a captain of the Coast Guard ran into the room with unbelievable news: a Greek freighter had found Terry Jo alive. In fact, the child that Julian had been carrying with him was Terry Jo’s seven-year-old sister, Rene. Shortly after hearing of Terry Jo’s rescue, Julian allegedly rushed out of the room and checked into the Sandman Motel in Miami under an assumed name.

The next day, his body was found in his motel bathroom covered in self-inflicted wounds. Julian left behind a suicide note addressed to his friend, stating that “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.” So, what really happened to the Bluebelle on the night of November 12?

When the yacht began its journey back to Florida, Terry Jo had been asleep in the small cabin she shared with Rene below deck. Her sister and older brother, Brian, remained in the cockpit while Dr. and Mrs. Duperrault savored their last moments of vacation with Julian and his wife. All was well until 11 p.m., when Terry Jo was startled awake by her brother screaming, “Help, Daddy, help!” Terry Jo remained in her bed, paralyzed with fear as she listened to sounds of running and stamping above her. When she finally emerged from her bed, she found her mother and brother lying in a pool of blood — dead. When Terry Jo found Julian, he shoved her back below deck.

Despite her undeniable state of shock, Terry Jo had noticed that the weather was calm and that there were no splintered masts or downed rigging. Yet, while she was huddled in her bed, her room began to fill with bilge water. When Terry Jo ran back up on deck, she found Julian had launched the dinghy and life raft. He handed her the line that held the dinghy, but the rope slipped through her hands. Realizing that the escape vessel was floating away, Julian dove into the water and left the 11-year-old girl to die on the sinking boat. Or, so he thought.

Terry Jo found
Terry Jo Duperrault recovering after being found at sea. The LIFE Picture Collection

Terry Jo had managed to find, launch, and hold onto her own life raft for three and half days as she floated along the sea. She survived severe dehydration and sunburns, but was alive and cognizant enough to relay the Bluebelle’s horrific last moments. It is theorized that Julian had attempted to murder Mary — his sixth wife — with the intention of telling his other passengers that she had fallen overboard.

Yet, Dr. Duperrault may have been alerted of the commotion between Mary and Julian and consequently gone over to investigate. From there, Julian likely stabbed Dr. Duperrault and then killed Mrs. Duperrault and Brian. It is hypothesized that Rene drowned, but it is unclear whether or not Julian threw her overboard or forcibly held her under water before dragging her body onto the lifeboat attached to his dinghy.

“And that’s not all,” my grandma told me. “This so-called war hero cashed Joann’s life insurance after the [1949] car crash! And, before the Bluebelle sunk, Julian filed insurance claims for two destroyed boats. Not to mention he was married six times? I bet he tried to kill Mary for the insurance money.” Although it is unclear exactly why Julian caused the tragic events of November 12, 1961 to occur, my grandmother is not the only one to think that he had a pension for calamity and cashing insurance checks. In fact, for those who suspected his culpability in the Bluebelle incident, Julian’s note and subsequent suicide acted as a confession for the murders of Mary Dene and the Duperrault family.

For more information on this case, you can read Terry Jo’s (now known as Tere Jo Duperrault Fassbender) memoir, Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean. Co-written with Dr. Richard Logan, a psychologist and survival expert, Tere delves into the Bluebelle story as well as her adult life as a Water Management Specialist for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. And, if you prefer to consume your true crime fix by way of podcast, My Favorite Murder’s Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff featured this story on their 28th episode (published on August 4, 2016)!


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