The evening of Sunday March 7 on the tropical island of St John in the US Virgin Islands was warm: a balmy 76F (24C), typical for early spring when the island, with its white sands, tropical palms and coral reef, is possibly at its best.
At one of the wooden tables of the 420 to Center Bar – where locals go to eat crab, shrimp and burgers – sat Sarm Heslop, a 41-year-old brunette from Southampton, with a wide smile and easy manner, enjoying dinner and drinks with her American boyfriend, Ryan Bane, 44.
The pair may have been celebrating the end of a day’s yacht charter; Bane’s 47ft $500,000 catamaran, Siren Song, was regularly hired for more than $13,000 a week. Heslop exchanged a few upbeat messages with friends during the evening.
As night fell, no one noticed the couple, who apparently met on Tinder last July, leave. The CCTV wasn’t working either – power outages are not uncommon on this tiny island, just 20sq miles in size. Later that evening, a dog walker on the shore heard a single scream.
Since then, no one has seen or heard from Sarm Joan Lillian Heslop, a former cabin attendant for Flybe. She has vanished, lost – as the saying goes – at sea.
Two months on, despite the involvement of the American FBI, the US Virgin Islands Police Force, the Foreign and Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and the Hampshire Constabulary, there remains not a single clue to the whereabouts of Sarm Heslop.
But she is very much not forgotten.
This week, Heslop’s parents Peter and Brenda made a direct appeal to Ryan Bane for help. “They say time heals,” Peter Heslop said, “but not when your daughter is missing. How can you move on when you have no answers?” Brenda added: “We want, need and deserve answers as to what happened to our daughter, sister and friend. We ask Bane to come forward to help us find those answers.”
In May, Heslop’s friends launched a $10,000 reward for information about the case in conjunction with the Virgin Islands Crimestopper task force.
For Heslop’s family and friends – and the wider sailing community – there is still a desperate need for news of Sarm, a woman universally described as kind, funny, generous and loyal, a colourful shoulder tattoo of an entwined butterfly, seahorse and flower offering more than a hint of an adventurous nature.
One of those friends is Andrew Baldwin, who has known Heslop for more than 25 years after the two studied tourism in Hertford, where they both grew up.
Baldwin, 41, who works for a cruise company and lives in Southampton with his wife Hayley, helped to establish the collective of friends who set up the #FindSarm information website and social media campaign.
“We are trying to understand the facts,” he says. The hope is we find her, of course. But we want to know what happened in the hours before and after she went missing.”
Their appeal coincided with the publication of coastguard records from the night. For the first time, those presented fresh clues to what happened.
According to that report, Bane, who has a 2011 conviction for domestic violence against his then-wife Cory Stevenson, claimed the couple had returned to the yacht where it was moored in Frank Bay by dinghy at about 10pm. He had watched Netflix for a bit in the main cabin before falling asleep, while Heslop slept in a separate cabin. He stated the couple had been drinking during the evening.
At 2.30am, Bane said he was woken by the anchor alarm going off, only to discover Heslop was missing. He took the dinghy to the island and reported her loss to police who told him to return to the yacht and contact the Virgin Islands coastguard. That call was not made until 11.46am the next day, some nine hours later.
Coastguard agents then visited the Siren Song twice that afternoon, but Bane refused to allow them into the main living space. When asked to answer questions to help the search for his girlfriend, he refused, saying his lawyer had told him “to remain silent”. Bane did, however, offer the police Heslop’s purse, passport and phone.
Somewhat stymied, the coastguard and police searched the waters using divers surrounding the boat, which are usually clear and not much more than 11 metres in depth. There was a close search of the coast line too, with drones employed. No clues emerged at all.
At some point in the next two to three weeks, Bane, who had claimed Heslop might have fallen overboard, left his mooring for another nearby and left the Virgin Islands altogether; the local police force had no grounds to restrain him and he chose to leave.
Since then, Bane, too, has vanished.
Kate Vernalls, who has known Heslop for 13 years, has never met or spoken to Bane. But she says: “We had no reason to think that Sarm wasn’t happy with him. In photographs, she was beaming. There was always positive correspondence; she was excited about the future.” Indeed, Bane spoke to one of Heslop’s friends, who had previously sailed the Atlantic with Heslop, to break the news of the disappearance.
Vernalls, 39, a customer support manager, adds: “We’ve all spoken as a group of friends and no one had any indication to doubt anything was wrong.”
The two women had lived together as flatmates on and off for eight years. “She is a really great person,” says Vernalls. “We hit it off at once. She had such an open attitude to life with great energy.”
It was Andrew Baldwin who shared the awful news more widely via Whatsapp on March 8; he had long been one of Heslop’s emergency contacts.
“I’m quite pragmatic,” says Baldwin, “but my initial thought was that this sounded worrying. It was so unlike her to disappear and not be in touch with any of her friends. I just wanted to get on a plane but obviously with Covid, I couldn’t do that.”
Heslop’s mother and father, Brenda and Peter, also expressed their frustration that they simply could not get to St John, because of pandemic restrictions.
By March 11, Vernalls knew in her heart something was badly awry. “I thought: ‘She hasn’t left of her own free will.’
“The thing about Sarm is that she is smart. She is one of the most organised people I know. This is someone who sailed across the Atlantic without incident – only to disappear 100 feet from shore. The pieces in the puzzle don’t add up.”
What is clearly so hard for Heslop’s friends is the absence not just of information, but of any action they can take.
“Being in the UK,” says Vernalls, “your hands are tied.”
She cannot get over the fact that Bane’s yacht has never been searched. She says, “Bane told the coastguard they couldn’t look around the yacht.”
But, she adds: “It is Bane’s prerogative, of course."
The FCDO has confirmed that it is supporting the Heslop family with Consul General Nicolette Brent raising the case on a visit in late April. A spokesperson says: “[Brent] personally raised the case with the authorities and police on the island. We remain in contact with the UK police supporting the investigation.”
Hampshire Constabulary says it is providing operational support to the US Virgin Islands Police Department investigation but “cannot comment further on another force’s investigation”.
Andrew Baldwin is keen to stress that everyone is working towards the same result and not risk interfering with the police work.
He points out, however: “There’s not many people who can help. Ryan Bane was the last person to see her alive.
“If I had a message to Ryan, it would be just to ask him for any information he can give that could help. He is the only person who can answer the outstanding questions. I think he owes it to Sarm to tell us what was happening that night.”
“None of us discuss the possibility that Sarm is not still alive,” says Vernalls. “I don’t think that would be any good. We instinctively know that as a collective, what matters is keeping momentum and staying strong for one another.”
What’s hard, says Baldwin, is “the unknown, the not knowing where she is and what has happened”.
He says: “We are all upset. We are emotionally drained, but we need to do what we can to find her. I hope everyone will have seen just how much she means to all of us – we just miss her and want her back.”
Baldwin wants to tell Heslop “how loved she is”.
Vernalls has a message, too: “I would tell Sarm that I love her and how amazing she is.
“I don’t think I told her before enough how proud I was of her living those dreams.”
Anyone with any information can contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 911 in the US, the Criminal Investigation Bureau at (340) 774-2211, or Crime Stoppers USVI at (800) 222-TIPS. Click here to view the GoFundMe page