In 1974, a yachting couple from San Diego, California, Malcolm "Mac" Graham III, 43, and Eleanor LaVerne "Muff" Graham, 40, sailed a 38-foot ketch to Palmyra Atoll — 1,200 miles south of Honolulu — hoping to find it deserted and to pass an idyllic year or more there. The wealthy Grahams overcame their disappointment at finding other sailors already on Palmyra, including two male Canadian scientists. The couple found the two men amiable and intelligent, and stayed.
Also on Palmyra were Buck Walker (a.k.a. Wesley G. Walker) and Stephanie Stearns (referred to as "Jennifer Jenkins" in the book), who had sailed there together from Hawaii on Stearns' sailing vessel Iola, a deteriorating, patched-together wooden sloop that lacked a reliable auxiliary engine. In contrast, the Grahams' ketch, the Sea Wind, was beautifully finished and impeccably outfitted, with an onboard machine shop equipped with a lathe and acetylene welding torch.
Walker was an ex-convict fleeing a drug possession charge and had come up with the idea of growing cannabis on Palmyra to support himself. The Grahams were a happily married couple touring the world, and Mr. Graham ran his business remotely. The Grahams had brought more than a year's supply of food for their voyage, but Walker and Stearns quickly consumed their own meager supplies and resorted to harvesting the island's few coconuts, often by chopping down entire trees, leaving scars on the island habitat. As Walker's method of farming became unsustainable, he and Stearns were forced to plan a voyage in the rickety Iola, against prevailing winds and currents, to Fanning (Tabuaeran), a nearby atoll in Kiribati, to restock — a voyage that was somewhere between difficult and impossible without a working auxiliary engine.
According to Stearns, the Grahams disappeared sometime between August 28 and August 30, 1974, and the young couple found the Grahams' Zodiac rigid inflatable dinghy upside down. On September 11, 1974, after days of searching and waiting for the Grahams to return to their boat, Stearns said she and Walker scuttled the Iola and sailed for Hawaii on the Sea Wind. Once in Hawaii, the couple had the Sea Wind repainted and also renamed it, which according to boating superstition brings bad luck. This act aroused suspicion; acquaintances of the Grahams easily recognized the distinctive Sea Wind despite its new paint job. Stearns was arrested in the lower level of the Hawaii Yacht Club for the theft of the Sea Wind, but Walker was able to escape and avoid capture by using a motorized dinghy to race up the "400 row" of the Ala Wai Harbor. It was believed he fled on foot after leaving the dinghy at the loading dock near the Ilikai Hotel.
Early one morning in 1981, other visitors to Palmyra, sailors Robert and Sharon Jordan, from Durban, South Africa, found Muff Graham's skull and other skeletal remains in the surf near a large metal container. The remains showed signs of dismemberment and burning (possibly by Mac Graham's acetylene welding torch), and the body appeared to have been concealed underwater in the container.
Buck Walker was tried and convicted of Muff Graham's murder. He was incarcerated at United States Penitentiary, Victorville, in California. Although Walker never testified, the defense claimed that he and Stearns were attempting to return the Sea Wind to Hawaii with the Iola in tow, but the Iola ran aground on the reef as they exited the lagoon and had to be abandoned. During the voyage back to Hawaii, it was claimed that a large swordfish damaged the Sea Wind's hull below the waterline, necessitating her repair and subsequent repainting and renaming.
Stephanie Stearns was tried separately in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco. After Bugliosi argued that Buck Walker had committed the Palmyra murders himself without Stearns' participation or knowledge, and following her testimony at the trial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
The book was adapted into the 1991 TV movie And the Sea Will Tell, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace which aired on CBS As a 4 hour film (Part 1 aired on February 24, and Part 2 was aired 2 days later on the 26th that month.)
The trial lawyer who represented Walker, Earle Partington, sued Bugliosi for defamation, claiming that both the book and the docudrama portrayed Partington in a negative light. The court found for Bugliosi, ruling that this was his protected opinion.
Walker was released on parole in September 2007 at the age of 69, after serving 22 years of a life sentence, and died of a stroke on April 26, 2010 at the age of 72. Prior to his death, Walker had been living in a trailer home in Willits, California. Walker (writing as Wesley G. Walker), claimed in a book about that case that he had been seduced by Mrs. Graham and, in the midst of lovemaking, had been caught by Mr. Graham, who shot his wife and attempted to shoot Walker.
Malcolm Graham's body has never been found.