The text message sent to Brenda Street arrived one morning around 11am, succinct and stripped of emotion.
‘This is Ryan Bane, Sarm’s boyfriend,’ it read. ‘Please ring me.’
From her cosy terrace in Ongar, Essex, Brenda dialled the number via a WhatsApp video call, to see Bane — to whom she had not spoken before but who had been dating her daughter for eight months — sitting aboard Siren Song, his yacht anchored off the coast of St John, an island in the Caribbean.
‘He said, ‘Sarm’s missing’. I said: ‘What do you mean?’ she recalls. Bane, 45, told Brenda that he and Sarm had been for a meal on the tiny U.S. Virgin island the previous evening, before coming back to the yacht, docked 120 ft from the shore, and watching a film.
He said he’d fallen asleep and woken up because the anchor alarm — which sounds when movement is detected — had gone off.
‘Once he’d checked it, he said he went down to bed — and she wasn’t there,’ Brenda recalls. ‘He said he’d phoned the police. I felt totally numb.’
That surreal conversation, on March 8, 2021, was the start of an unimaginable nightmare for Brenda, because Sarm Heslop has not been seen since. Despite an investigation that has attracted attention around the world, there are no suspects wanted in connection with her disappearance and no explanation as to why a seemingly happy, healthy 41-year-old, who was a strong swimmer and described by friends and family as independent and conscientious, would simply vanish without trace.
The text message sent to Brenda Street arrived one morning around 11am, succinct and stripped of emotion. ‘This is Ryan Bane, Sarm’s boyfriend,’ it read. ‘Please ring me’. Mystery: Missing Sarm (pictured)
Yet Brenda, in her first in-depth newspaper interview following her daughter’s disappearance, says she is convinced the person who holds the key to Sarm’s whereabouts is the man who reported her missing: American yacht captain Ryan Bane, whose attitude towards the desperate search for his girlfriend has been, by anyone’s standards, baffling.
Despite calling the police at 2.30am, half an hour after he says he found Sarm gone, Bane didn’t follow police advice to contact coastguards, so a search and rescue could begin, until Sarm had been missing for more than nine hours.
Both Virgin Islands Police Department (VIPD) officers and the U.S. coastguard claim he then refused them permission to fully search his 47 ft catamaran. Within days, Bane, who charged clients £1,800 a day to charter his yacht and who police said ‘declined’ to be interviewed, had hired lawyer David Cattie, who has also represented Ghislaine Maxwell.
Cattie said coastguards had conducted an ‘on-site inspection of the vessel’ and an ‘interview without limitation’, and that Bane, ‘devastated’ and ‘heartbroken’ at Sarm’s disappearance, had handed over her personal belongings including her phone, iPad and passport to the police.
Days later, Bane’s American ex-wife, Corie Stevenson, went public with revelations that Bane had a history of violence and had been jailed for 21 days in 2011 for drunkenly assaulting her.
Shortly afterwards, Bane sailed away into the turquoise water and has been traversing the Caribbean ever since.
Currently believed to be in Grenada, he is now described by VIPD police as ‘a person of interest’ but not a suspect in what is still classified as a missing persons case.
Brenda, meanwhile, is sitting in her living room in tears. She breaks down frequently as she recounts her memories of the little girl who won awards as a majorette in a marching band and medals for her swimming.
‘My heart is breaking but I need to see she’s gone before I can say she’s dead. Not knowing is torture.’
Also torture, for the family, is the sense that Bane could hold the key to them finding Sarm so they can bring her home.
‘If your loved one has gone missing, wouldn’t you do everything you could to help? Why would you not?’ Brenda says.
At the crux of this contradictory and confusing investigation, there are only three explanations as to what could have happened that evening to Sarm, a former flight attendant from Southampton.
Either she disappeared of her own volition; she was in an accident; or she has been the victim of a crime.
‘She could have fallen overboard, but she is a very, very strong swimmer,’ says Brenda, 66.
If she had been hurt falling off the boat and unable to swim, surely her body would have been found in the shallow waters of the bay. Had she run away without any of her belongings, Brenda insists her daughter would have let her know her whereabouts. ‘She would not have put her family through this.’
Supporting Brenda is her husband Martyn, 62, a builder, and she also has a son, Jason, 44, with her former husband, Sarm’s father, Peter. ‘Whether it was an accident, or an accident that led to a crime, nobody knows.’
Brenda dialled the number via a WhatsApp video call, to see Bane (pictured) — to whom she had not spoken before but who had been dating her daughter for eight months — sitting aboard Siren Song, his yacht
One thing she does know is that ‘Bane isn’t talking. He’s not helping.’ Sarm, who had worked at the now defunct airline FlyBe, fell in love with sailing in her 30s. She sailed across the Atlantic with friends in December 2019 and spent months island-hopping, but called her mother once a week, when reception allowed.
She met Bane — a graduate from Michigan who worked as an account manager for a technology firm before moving to the Caribbean in 2015 — on the dating website Tinder in July 2020.
‘She said he was generous and loving,’ Brenda says. ‘She sent me pictures of them canoeing, diving, meeting other yacht owners.
In late 2020, Sarm, who had mostly been living off her savings, flew to Malta to try to make some money waitressing and catch up with friends. Yet she missed Bane. ‘She told me: ‘I think I love him. I’m going to fly back — what do you think?’ recalls Brenda, of what was to prove their last phone conversation. ‘I said ‘go with your heart’.’
Sarm messaged her mother to say Bane had picked her up from the airport at St Thomas, the neighbouring island to St John, on Valentine’s Day last year. It was her last message.
On March 7, Sarm and Bane went for dinner at the restaurant 420 To Center, where they were seen by witnesses. Bane says they returned to the yacht anchored in Frank Bay via a dinghy at 10pm — although police can’t be sure Sarm returned to the Siren Song at all.
It was around 6am local time when Bane texted Brenda to ask her to video-call him, and he told her Sarm was missing. ‘Immediately — I don’t know why — I said: ‘But you loved her,’ ‘ Brenda recalls. ‘And he said ‘yes, I love her,’ but all the time he was speaking he wasn’t really looking at me. He didn’t seem agitated or upset.’
Later that day, Brenda messaged him to ask: ‘Where’s my daughter?’ He responded, ‘I’m out there looking.’ Brenda and her ex-husband Peter, 79, who lives in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, reported Sarm’s disappearance to the Foreign Office and the UK police.
Unable to fly to the Caribbean because of lockdown regulations, they had a few meetings over Zoom with the VIPD in the first weeks after Sarm’s disappearance, but none provided the answers they craved: ‘I felt powerless. They said they’d been to court to get a warrant to search the boat, but it was denied. Bane wouldn’t give them permission.’
As a territory of the U.S., most American laws apply to the islands, although the investigation sounds shambolic. Under American law, police needed ‘probable cause’ for a warrant to search the boat and, as Bane would not co-operate, they weren’t granted it.
While Bane’s lawyer David Cattie — who declined the Mail’s request for comment this month — said coastguards conducted an ‘on-site inspection of the vessel’, the coastguards claim they, and the police, were then ‘denied access to the interior’ hours after Sarm’s disappearance.
Fun-loving girl: A smiling Sarm enjoying a boat trip at sea
Bane was subsequently handed ‘a citation for obstruction’, a written notice of non-compliance which does not result in a criminal record and certainly did nothing to persuade him to allow his boat to be inspected.
Bane’s attitude floored Brenda. ‘Why wouldn’t you clear your name?’ she asks. ‘He’s left it open for people to throw daggers at him.’ Within a fortnight of Sarm’s disappearance, Corie Stevenson, Bane’s ex-wife who was married to him between 2008 and 2014, gave an interview in which she revealed how he’d assaulted her after a night out drinking, slamming her face to the ground and leaving her with a chipped tooth.
Brenda was horrified: ‘Didn’t that give the police another reason to bring him in, to push more?’
Yet despite the FBI joining the VIPD to help in the hunt for Sarm — a search that deployed divers, drones and dogs — authorities were powerless to prevent Bane sailing off at the end of March.
‘At the beginning I couldn’t talk about Sarm at all. It hurt too much,’ says Brenda, who was prescribed antidepressants, suffered panic attacks and became agoraphobic. ‘I wouldn’t answer the door. I didn’t sleep much. I felt guilty for waking up.’
She resisted the urge to contact Bane again — ‘I wanted to scream and shout at him’ — until last October, she could hold back no longer and sent him a text demanding: ‘Where’s my daughter?’ It was then she found out he had blocked her mobile number.
Last November, Bane was pictured looking tanned and relaxed, moored at Grenada’s Le Phare Bleu Marina, where a source claimed he was enjoying a ‘playboy lifestyle’. It was reported he had renamed his yacht Orion’s Belt and put it up for sale at £220,000. Addressing him directly, Brenda says: ‘You should be there — you loved her — why are you not there?’
She and Peter flew to the Caribbean in March this year to mark the anniversary of Sarm’s disappearance. On arriving at St John, Brenda says, ‘I went into the sea, laid on my back and cried, because I felt she was with me. I made a wreath of knitted flowers — she loved that I could knit — and we threw it in the water.’
The British consul in the U.S had helped set up meetings with coastguards and police, whom she describes as ‘absolutely useless’.
Unbeknown to Brenda for months, police revealed there was footage of the evening Sarm disappeared and played it at their meeting. It showed a couple who appeared to be Sarm and Bane walking along a promenade on to the dock, where dinghies would take them to the yacht.
In the footage, she says, Sarm was wearing ‘either a skirt or shorts and a T-shirt or blouse’ — not the black dress with flowers that Bane told Brenda she had been wearing.
Brenda watched it three times, but believes she was given a ‘shortened version’, saying: ‘They stepped down to the dinghy dock and were about to step down when the officer shut the video off.’
The VIPD, which declined to comment on the investigation to the Mail, has so far refused to release the CCTV footage to Sarm’s family so the media might play it in the hope of finding new leads, claiming it would jeopardise the ongoing investigation.
Brenda, meanwhile, says island residents were reluctant to speak. ‘The locals put posters up but now they’ve scrubbed out her name. When the British consul told a shopkeeper who we were, she wouldn’t say anything to us other than ‘yes’ and ‘no’. When we went to the bar to see where Sarm had been before she went missing, the manager told the barman he wouldn’t speak to us. Why, and who has stopped them talking?’
She keeps the sailor doll with pigtails she knitted for her daughter — Sarm carried it around the Caribbean — in her bedside drawer and thinks of her daughter constantly.
She says: ‘I’ll never stop looking for her. I need to find her.’
Yet there is scant contact from the VIPD or Foreign Office these days. ‘The last email I had [from the Foreign Office], last week, they said they were trying to set up six-monthly meetings,’ says Brenda. ‘It’s unacceptable. I need to know someone is doing something. We’ve got so many unanswered questions.’
The question she would ask Bane, had he not blocked her number, remains the same: ‘Where is my daughter?’