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Americans whose yacht was hijacked in Grenada were likely thrown overboard and died, police say

Kathy Brandel and Ralph Hendry have been missing since their boat was apparently taken by three escaped prisoners in Grenada on Feb. 19
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Two Americans are presumed dead after they vanished from their yacht in Grenada, leaving behind evidence of a bloody struggle, police in nearby St. Vincent and the Grenadines said Monday.

While loved ones of Kathy Brandel and Ralph Hendry are hopeful that the American retirees and sailing enthusiasts could still turn up alive, St. Vincent and the Grenadines Police Superintendent Junior Simmons offered a more somber assessment.

"Based on the investigation thus far, it is presumed that Ralph Hendry and Kathy Brandel are deceased," Simmons said in a video statement Monday afternoon.

Kathy Brandel, front left, and Ralph Hendry, front right, with family.
Kathy Brandel, front left, and Ralph Hendry, front right, with family members.Courtesy Hendry Family

Hours earlier, police in Grenada said there's still hope to find the couple.

But Royal Grenada Police Commissioner Don McKenzie also said he's offering “condolences” to the family of the two American boaters, who were most likely “disposed of” at sea by escaped prisoners. McKenzie said there's a “low probability” Brandel and Henry might be alive.

Three accused criminals escaped from jail on Feb. 18 before they "commandeered" the couple's boat, called Simplicity, and headed north, McKenzie said. Police have said the escapees boarded the boat while it was docked in the St. George area of Grenada.

"They headed to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Information suggests that while traveling between Grenada and St. Vincent, they disposed of the occupants," McKenzie told reporters.

Asked whether investigators have an idea where the "missing" Americans might be, McKenzie flat-out said, "No."

"We have nothing conclusive to say that the individuals are dead," he added. "We still hold out hope that, in spite of what might be a low probability, they will turn up alive somewhere, that they're alive."

Simmons in St. Vincent and the Grenadines left little doubt of his opinion in the probe “into the disappearance and presumed death of two United States citizens ... Ralph Hendry and his common law wife Kathy Brandel.”

In an interview that aired Monday on NBC Nightly News, Rob Maher, a friend of the couple who acted as their emergency contact, said that the situation was “like a bad Hollywood movie.”

“It’s hard to think of their last moments with the idea that they might have been thrown overboard alive. It’s difficult to conceive for a friend,” he added.

Couple's sons are in the Caribbean

The couple’s sons called the pair’s disappearance “the rarest of the rare occurrences.”

Brandel’s son, Nick Buro, and Hendry’s son, Bryan Hendry, told NBC Washington that they first learned the couple were missing after U.S. consular officials in Barbados contacted them.

A good Samaritan who found the pair’s abandoned boat contacted the Salty Dawg Sailing Association, whose flag was flying on the mast, and word made it to the two sons, too.

They said they were told the couple vanished after three men escaped from police custody Feb. 18 and boarded their boat in Grenada the next day, Buro said.

Buro said they were told an “altercation of violence took place" on the boat, adding that there was evidence of the violence and that the couple’s possessions were "strewn around all over." Items had also been stolen.

McKenzie said, "What I can say to the family is my condolences and we are still hoping for what I consider a positive outcome, which is we still have the hope that our worst-case scenario will not be a reality."

The scene on the couple's boat was "consistent with signs of violence," Simmons in St. Vincent and the Grenadines said.

"Several items were strewn on the deck and in the cabin, and a red substance that resembled blood was seen on board," he said. "There was no discovery of bodies on board the yacht."

The escapees were caught by police in St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Wednesday and are in custody there, according to Buro and officials.

Police told Buro that they have questioned the suspects multiple times, and he said the family expects charges soon.

Buro and Hendry are in the Caribbean and have been speaking with authorities, including the St. Vincent and the Grenadines police and coast guard, and they expressed their appreciation.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said it is aware of the reports involving two citizens missing in the vicinity of Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines but did not identify the couple. The official added that U.S. authorities are coordinating with local law enforcement officials as they carry out their search efforts.

“We are monitoring the situation and seeking additional information,” the spokesperson said. “The Department of State has no higher priority than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad. We stand ready to provide appropriate assistance to U.S. citizens in need and to their families.”

Life on the water

The couple met in Virginia and have been married for 27 years. They raised the boys together in the state, where they lived until 2013, selling their home in Alexandria to trade it in for Simplicity and life on the water.

"They wanted to see the world. They wanted to experience life. They wanted to see what the world had to offer outside of their small window of living in one place and being mobile and being able to have a different adventure every day — that’s like the definition of living," Buro said.

Buro said that the family has always been close and that they talk often. He considers Ralph Hendry his father and Bryan Hendry his brother, and he said he knows Hendry feels the same way about him and Brandel.

The couple “lived with a sense of wonder and love,” Hendry said.

“They loved immersing themselves in different cultures and meeting people and spreading their love wherever they could,” he said.

Buro echoed his stepbrother’s sentiments.

“You’ll never meet more beautiful people than Kathy and Ralph,” Buro said. “They were there for people when they needed it most, and I just, they’re my inspiration for everything, and I can’t express how much I love them, and I know everybody else who knows them feels the same way.”

The couple had been planning the trip down to Grenada — their first to the Caribbean island — for “years and years and years, training themselves, preparing the boat, preparing themselves ... to make the trip,” Hendry said.

It was going to be a “very long trip, not to be taken lightly,” and the couple felt they had “prepared themselves adequately,” Hendry said.

They made the voyage down with the Salty Dawg Sailing Association, and everyone arrived safely, Buro said.

Bob Osborn, the association's president, said the situation was upsetting and tragic.

“In all my years of cruising the Caribbean, I have never heard of anything like this,” he said in a statement.

Yacht 'was their home'

Buro thinks his mother and stepfather could still be alive.

“We still think there’s a chance that they’re out there," he said. Because the investigation continues and St. Vincent and the Grenadines police were "quick to apprehend the suspects and are searching," there is hope.

"We still hope that they are OK and that we can bring them back," Buro said.

He said that the entire situation "is something that is completely unexpected" and that they are trying to understand the "senseless act of violence against two people that were just living their lives in their home."

Buro said the couple worked hard on their dream and had become seasoned sailors. Simplicity “was their home,” he said.

He said the couple’s top priorities were always safety and security, “to make sure everything they did was safe and was going to keep them safe.”

“To have that turn out in a way where something out of their control took that away from them is what’s so horrific about this and so sad, because they were just, this is just something that they’ve always wanted to do, and they did it, and it’s just, it breaks our hearts,” Buro said.