The best friend of missing Brit Sarm Heslop is begging her boyfriend to talk to police.
Kate Owen says wealthy American sailor Ryan Bane could hold “the missing piece of the jigsaw” in the Caribbean mystery.
Sarm, a former air hostess, vanished on March 8 after leaving a bar with Bane and heading back to his £500,000 catamaran moored off St John in the US Virgin Islands.
At 2.30am Bane – who has a conviction for assaulting his ex-wife in 2011 – called 911 and reported he had been woken by the boat’s anchor alarm and found Sarm missing.
Bane was accused by the US Coastguard of obstructing agents who tried to board after Sarm’s disappearance and has not been seen since.
Giving her first interview, Kate said she texted her friend hours earlier and she “seemed her normal upbeat self”.
Later, about 12 hours after Sarm vanished, a friend of Bane’s phoned her to say she had disappeared.
Kate said: “Just after that I called Ryan, he sounded distressed, but deflated, not what I expected.
“It’s like he had resigned himself that she was gone, not desperate for answers. But then again I was just hearing this and he had been living it for the last 12 hours already.
“I asked him so many questions… he just sounded tired, he answered with ‘I dunno’ and then crying.”
Asked if she wants Bane to work with police, Kate told us: “Absolutely. I did then and I still do now.
“Will it bring Sarm back? I doubt it. But just knowing someone trained and experienced asking him questions might get us some answers.
“Maybe there’s things he hasn’t mentioned that he thinks are irrelevant, but could be the missing piece of the jigsaw.”
Kate and Sarm, 41, both from Hampshire, were pals since working together at FlyBe as cabin crew more than a decade ago and were “like sisters”.
In December 2019, Kate and her fiancé Martin decided to sail across the Atlantic by boat.
Sarm, who was looking for love and wanted to sail and work as a chef, came too. In Grenada she met handsome Bane, 44, on Tinder.
Kate said: “Sarm was super-excited about going. Not one of us had plans.
“The plan was always no plan, enjoy for as long as we can, then come back to reality when we have to. Sarm loved living by those ideals.
“Sarm and Ryan had a few dates then became an item and it then went from strength to strength.
“Ryan was caring, intelligent, interesting and fun. He seemed quiet, which was different from the many Americans we’d met.
“He wasn’t a shouty, flashy guy.
“He is charismatic and was always fooling around with Sarm. They were laughing and he mimicked her British accent and thought some of the things we said were hilarious.
“I never ever saw them on bad terms with each other, I never for a second had any concerns. I genuinely felt he would look after her.”
Bane has claimed he last saw Sarm on his boat after their night out, before waking up and finding she had gone.
But officers say they have been unable to find any evidence Sarm ever returned to the 47-foot catamaran.
Her possessions, including her bank cards and mobile, were still on board.
Reports say that when police tried to search his boat, Bane blocked a doorway. He went on to reject all police requests to talk.
And the investigation has also been hampered by CCTV being knocked out by a freak power outage. Kate said: “I’m frustrated the US Virgin Islands police couldn’t do more.
“I was as shocked as everyone to learn how US law works and realise he can refuse a boat search and it’s up to the authorities to prove a crime has happened before being able to carry out a search and question him.
“But that’s the situation we find ourselves in. It’s a living nightmare.”
Kate looks back fondly on the last time she saw Sarm on Grenada on September 21 last year.
Kate said: “Sarm was leaving Grenada to fly back to Malta for a job to make some money to enable her to come back out to the Caribbean. I was making a big fuss of saying goodbye and hugging her as it was embarrassing her.
“She had mixed emotions about leaving. She had fallen for Ryan, but wanted to see if it was real.
“I think she thought going away from him would be a good test.
“She lasted five months until he had asked her so many times to come back out to him and he paid for her flight in February.
“She was very excited to be reunited with him. I think they spoke every day while they were apart.”
There is now an impasse between police and Bane, who detectives have described as the “only person of interest” in the case.
Kate said: “It’s an unimaginable pain of not knowing. We want to raise funds to get a private investigator out there now to help.”
She added: “Do I think Sarm disappeared through choice? Without a second’s doubt I’d say no. She wouldn’t put friends and family through this.
“Sarm is in all of our thoughts constantly and she’s left such a massive hole in all of our hearts.”
On Thursday Bane’s lawyer David Cattie said: “I personally advised law enforcement of Mr Bane’s movements while in the Territory and about his departure from the US Virgin Islands.
“I further advised law enforcement that if Mr Bane’s presence is legally required in the Territory, he will return upon such a demand.”
He added: “Mr Bane had nothing to do with Sarm’s disappearance and remains heartbroken that she is missing.”
Police say they are working with British officers to try to find out what happened to Sarm.
A spokesman said: “As this is an ongoing investigation, the Virgin Islands Police Department maintains that we would like to interview Ryan Bane, as he was the last person to have contact with Ms Heslop.”