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U.S. Couple Vanish from Yacht in the Caribbean: ‘It Looked Like a Robbery, or Something Much Worse’

Kathy Brandel and Ralph Hendry are presumed dead. The three fugitives believed to be connected to their case have been arrested but are not formally charged

<p>Will Knoll</p> Ralph Hendry and Kathy Brandel

Will Knoll

Ralph Hendry and Kathy Brandel

A catamaran captain was paddle-boarding along the St. Vincent shore when he came across a ransacked yacht with a broken, unrolled sail last month.

“It was not a very typical place to drop anchor,” Bernat Buj tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview in the latest issue, on newsstands Friday. “And that caught my attention.”

Concerned, he boarded Simplicity, calling out three times in the hope of finding someone on board.

There was “a great mess throughout the ship, and I thought it was the scene of a robbery,” Buj says. “But when I entered a cabin and saw blood, I thought it could be something much worse.”

<p>Bernat Buj, captain of Two Oceans catamaran</p> SV Simplicity was recovered by authorities Feb. 21 with an unrolled and broken genoa sail.

Bernat Buj, captain of Two Oceans catamaran

SV Simplicity was recovered by authorities Feb. 21 with an unrolled and broken genoa sail.

Related: A Complete Timeline of the Missing American Sailors Case

He found two American passports belonging to Kathy Brandel and Ralph Hendry.

Kathy – a retired real estate agent who would have turned 71 on Feb. 21 – and Ralph – a 66-year-old financial advisor who worked from their yacht – had been cruising in Grenada when they suddenly stopped communicating with family on Feb. 18, according to their sons, who stayed in touch with PEOPLE throughout the search for their parents.

<p>Courtesy of Nick Buro</p> While ashore, Kathy and Ralph (front) often took road trips with his son Bryan (in white T-shirt) and her son Nick and his partner Kerri Fennelly (rear left).

Courtesy of Nick Buro

While ashore, Kathy and Ralph (front) often took road trips with his son Bryan (in white T-shirt) and her son Nick and his partner Kerri Fennelly (rear left).

For more on the unfolding case of the missing American sailors in the Caribbean, subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

After finding the couple’s abandoned yacht – 80 miles from their last reported mooring – in Wallilabou Bay, St. Vincent, the captain reported the "unoccupied sailing vessel" to the local Coast Guard Service Feb. 21.

“The entire interior of the vessel and its decks were ransacked,” the Coast Guard’s commanding officer wrote in an internal memorandum – obtained by PEOPLE – to the country's police commissioner.

<p>Bernat Buj, captain of Two Oceans catamaran</p> Authorities believe that three fugitives escaped their holding cell at a police station in Grenada, hijacked the couple's yacht and rode it some 80 miles to neighboring St. Vincent in the late hours of Feb. 18 into early Feb. 19.

Bernat Buj, captain of Two Oceans catamaran

Authorities believe that three fugitives escaped their holding cell at a police station in Grenada, hijacked the couple's yacht and rode it some 80 miles to neighboring St. Vincent in the late hours of Feb. 18 into early Feb. 19.

Related: American Sailing Couple Disappears in Caribbean. Their Yacht Is Found 80 Miles Away

Missing from the internal correspondence was the working theory between police forces in Grenada and St. Vincent that three Grenadian inmates who had escaped their holding cell the same day the couple went missing, had allegedly hijacked their yacht and thrown them overboard en route to St. Vincent.

The three fugitives – sailor Ron Mitchell, 30, Abita Stanislaus, 25, and Trevon Robertson, 19 – who had been arrested for a violent robbery in December, were re-apprehended on St. Vincent on Feb. 21.

<p>Royal Grenada Police Force</p> Ron Mitchell, Trevon Robertson and Abita Stanislaus were deported to Grenada March 4. They were not criminally charged in St. Vincent.

Royal Grenada Police Force

Ron Mitchell, Trevon Robertson and Abita Stanislaus were deported to Grenada March 4. They were not criminally charged in St. Vincent.

Related: Missing American Sailing Couple Is 'Presumed' Dead After Boat Found Ransacked in Caribbean: Police

Video of one arrest, published by local media, includes shouts of “Gun! Gun! Gun!” and an escapee in his underwear, blood streaming down his legs as an official rounds him into the back of a pick-up truck.

An insider close to the investigation alleges to PEOPLE that at least two of the men have confessed to Ralph’s and Kathy’s murders.

Related: American Sailing Couple, Presumed Dead After Alleged Hijacking in Caribbean, Remembered as 'Special People'

The men, who were deported to Grenada on March 4, have not been officially charged in the case.  Although the couple’s bodies have not been found, they are presumed dead.

Buj says he is still holding out hope. “I wish this story could have a happy ending,” he says.

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