Coastguards call off search for bankrupt British lawyer missing at sea

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The Independent US

A British shipping lawyer and his son were feared dead last night after the search for their yacht which disappeared in stormy waters off the US coast four days ago was suspended.

Jacek Bielecki, 56, who was struck off by the Law Society five years ago after an investigation into his finances, has not been heard from since Thursday when he used a satellite phone to call his stepdaughter in New York.

Mr Bielecki, originally from Orford, near Woodbridge in Suffolk, was on his yacht, Free Spirit, with his 19-year-old son Jack, his son's American girlfriend, Molly Finn, 21, and a friend, Briton, Richard White, 34.

The US Coastguard called off the search after combing 15,000 square miles of the Atlantic. "Suspending a search is one of the hardest decisions," Rear Admiral David Pekoske, who led the search operation, said.

"I understand how difficult it is for family and friends to move forward when a search is suspended without the hoped-for outcome."

The search began after the lawyer sent a distress signal to the US Coastguard from the 41ft yacht. Free Spirit set sail a week ago from Newport, Rhode Island, to Europe when it is thought to have run into tropical storm Alberto. Weather experts said it might have been hit by the remnants of Alberto and faced 115mph winds and 30ft seas.

The yacht's last distress call was made 200 nautical miles south of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and 290 nautical miles east of Chatham, Massachusetts.

However, on Saturday the yacht was still believed to be sending out a distress signal. Rescuers located the signal to within half a mile but thought it may have been submerged.

The ex-lawyer bought Free Spirit several months ago, intending to sail round the world. He emigrated to Newport with his son last year after separating from his wife, Tanya, neighbours said. The couple had lived in the area for 10 years with their three children.

But a report in The Sunday Times yesterday suggested his life may have been a sham. It cited a notice that appeared in a local newspaper declaring Mr Bielecki bankrupt for a second time. He used to practise with a maritime law firm, Hughes Hooker & Co, but was struck off by the Law Society in 2001.

He was declared bankrupt for the first time in the High Court weeks after being struck off by the regulatory body. He had reportedly run up debts of £1.3m.