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Missing American couple allegedly hijacked on yacht in Grenada were likely thrown overboard and are presumed dead, police say

By Polo Sandoval, Elizabeth Wolfe and Sahar Akbarzai, CNN

(CNN) — The American couple allegedly hijacked by escaped prisoners while on their yacht in Grenada last week were likely thrown overboard, Royal Grenada Police Force Commissioner Don McKenzie said during a news conference Monday.

The pair is “presumed dead,” according to a separate Monday statement from the Royal St. Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force.

According to that statement, three suspects, who escaped a prison in Grenada before allegedly hijacking the yacht and sailing off to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, committed “several criminal acts including bodily harm to the couple” while sailing. When authorities eventually recovered the yacht, the scene was “consistent with signs of violence,” the police force said.

“Several items were strewn on the deck and in the cabin and a red substance that resembled blood was seen on board. There was no discovery of bodies on board the yacht,” that statement added.

Information suggests the escapees “disposed of the occupants” while traveling between Grenada and St. Vincent, about 80 miles away, McKenzie said in the news conference.

Still, police said they cannot conclusively confirm the current status or whereabouts of the couple, Kathy Brandel and Ralph Hendry. In spite of a “low probability,” they hope “they may turn up alive somewhere,” McKenzie said.

The grim updates come as police in the Caribbean have been investigating the disappearance of the American couple and as their family braces for the possibility “they aren’t with us” after the violent scene suggests they may have been killed.

The Virginia couple, identified by their sailing club, were living out a long-held dream of cruising the Caribbean in their sailing yacht, Simplicity. The vessel was found abandoned Wednesday off the coast of St. Vincent with the husband and wife nowhere to be found, according to the club, the Salty Dawg Sailing Association.

Police said a trio of prisoners escaped from custody in Grenada last Sunday, February 18, and were recaptured three days later. Evidence suggests the escapees hijacked the yacht and may have killed its two American occupants in St. George as they fled to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Royal Grenada Police Force said in a statement.

Police said they are in contact with the US representative in Grenada. After the capture, a five-member team was dispatched from Grenada to collaborate with St. Vincent authorities for a “complete and thorough investigation,” the commissioner said.

Possibilities of bribes or collusion among police and the three escapees will be investigated, McKenzie said. An investigation is underway to see if the escape was a “system failure” or if it “was a case that somebody did slip up,” he said.

The suspects in the hijacking – Ron Mitchell, 30; Trevon Robertson, 19; and Abita Stanislaus, 25 – were cooperating with investigators, Royal St. Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force Superintendent Junior O. Simmons said. Prior to the escape, all three had been charged on suspicion of robbery with violence and Mitchell faced other charges, including rape and indecent assault, the Royal Grenada Police Force said.

The suspects went in front of a St. Vincentian judge Monday over immigration-related charges that they all pleaded guilty to, according to the Royal St. Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force.

The search and investigation related to the couple will continue, police said.

The US State Department said Friday it is “aware of these reports involving US citizens. We are monitoring the situation and seeking additional information.”

‘It was their home,’ son says

Hendry’s son, Bryan Hendry, and Brandel’s son, Nick Buro, released a joint statement on Tuesday, remembering their parents for living with love, faith and sailing.

“Ralph and Kathy lived a life that most of us can only dream of, sailing the eastern coast of the United States, living on their home Simplicity, making friends with everyone they encountered, singing, dancing and laughing with friends and family – that’s who Ralph and Kathy were and that’s how they will be remembered in our hearts,” the statement read.

“If we have learned anything from this tragic event, it’s that we know they left this world in a better place than it was before they were born.”

Buro and Bryan Hendry called their parents the strongest people they will ever know, saying they “strive to be even half as wonderful as them.”

“While the end of their life may have been dark, they brought light, and that light will never be extinguished from the hearts and minds of the people who knew, loved and cared so deeply about them,” the statement read.

The sons said they both “remain optimistic” about the ongoing search, despite how authorities found their boat.

“The boat itself was ransacked and everything was strewn about in the entire cabin, so clearly there was an altercation of some type that took place on the boat,” Buro told CNN Sunday. “We are concerned for their safety overall because it does appear that they were likely injured.”

Wednesday, the day the abandoned boat was discovered, was Brandel’s 71st birthday, Buro said. March 2 will be Ralph’s 67th birthday, his son Bryan Hendry told CNN.

Buro said his mother and stepfather were veteran boaters who had been planning the trip – their first cruise of the Caribbean – for years.

“They were super careful to be safe all the time,” Buro said. “Everywhere they went everything they did, safety was their top, top concern. So this unfortunate accident, I think, it came out of nowhere for them.”

The couple sold their home and bought Simplicity years ago, throwing themselves into an enthralling life on the water, he said.

“It was their home. Everything they had, they owned, was on that boat. It was their life,” he said. “Kathy worked her whole life and then retired. Ralph worked in financial services and continued to work from the boat. But really what they did was … choose a lifestyle that most of us would never imagine could be done. And they loved every minute of it and they saw many parts of the world and just lived a life of joy and love.”

Boat found abandoned by ‘good Samaritan’

The Salty Dawg Sailing Association said it was contacted Wednesday by a boater who spotted the Simplicity anchored and abandoned off the south coast of St. Vincent.

“The good Samaritan had boarded the boat and noted that the owners, Ralph Hendry and Kathy Brandel, were not onboard and found evidence of apparent violence,” the group said. The person also contacted the coast guard, who notified St. Vincent police, the association said.

Grenada police said the escapees were recaptured the same day by the Royal St. Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force.

Ben Osborn, the sailing club’s president, offered his support to the families and said the violence was unheard of.

“This is a very upsetting event and details are still unconfirmed by the authorities, but this does appear to be a tragic event – our hopes and prayers are with Ralph and Kathy and the family who love them,” Osborn said in a statement. “In all my years of cruising the Caribbean, I have never heard of anything like this.”

Seasoned boaters receive outpouring of support

News of Brandel and Hendry’s disappearance has opened a floodgate of support from loved ones, church friends and boating community members who stepped forward willing to help, their families said.

“We want to reach out to the entire cruiser community to express our gratitude for everyone that worked to gather information from eyewitnesses and provide search and rescue support. It means so much to us that so many people cared for Ralph and Kathy as friends and fellow cruisers that they are willing to stop and help in whatever way possible,” Buro and Bryan Hendry said in a statement shared by the sailing club.

They also asked that any boaters not affiliated with the official investigation stand down on their search efforts.

“The only way we feel this situation could be worse would be if anyone was hurt or endangered trying to conduct searches,” the statement read.

The couple also had close ties to their local Christian community, and a prayer service was held Saturday for them, Buro said.

GoFundMe campaign has been established on behalf of Nick Buro to help fund the recovery of the yacht and the couple’s belongings, funeral costs and support.

CNN’s Sharif Paget, Abel Alvarado, Chris Boyette and Jillian Sykes contributed to this report.

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