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Charter boat murder trials come to a head

The alleged ringmaster of a quadruple murder aboard a Miami Beach chartered sportfishing yacht was sentenced to five consecutive life terms while his partner was found guilty of lesser charges.

Kirby Logan Archer, 36, who pleaded guilty to killing all four victims, and a conspiracy charge for taking over the vessel Joe Cool, was sentenced Oct. 14. Archer pleaded guilty to avoid a death sentence.

A Miami jury found Guillermo Zarabozo, 20, guilty Sept. 30 of carrying the gun that was used to kill four crew on Joe Cool, but they deadlocked on 12 other charges, including four counts of first-degree murder. A second trial on murder and kidnapping charges, on which the judged declared a mistrial, is scheduled to begin in January.

The seven-man, five-woman jury deliberated five days before delivering their verdict in a difficult case built largely on circumstantial evidence. Investigators never recovered the bodies of Joe Cool’s 27-year-old captain, Jake Branam, his wife, Kelley, 30, Jake Branam’s half-brother, Scott Gamble, 35, or first mate Samuel Kairy, 27.

The four were presumed murdered Sept. 22, 2007, during a charter from Miami Beach to Bimini aboard Joe Cool, a 47-foot Buddy Davis yacht. What investigators did find on the yacht were four spent 9 mm shells that they linked to a Glock handgun Zarabozo used in his job as a Hialeah security guard.

Archer, a former customer service manager at a Wal-Mart in Batesville, Ark., pleaded guilty July 24 in federal district court in Miami to shooting Branam and his wife on Joe Cool’s flybridge, within eyesight of Bimini. About the same time he shot the Branams, Archer said in his confession he heard gunshots from the cockpit, where Gamble and Kairy were with his partner Zarabozo.

Prosecutors in the Zarabozo trial had tried to convince jurors that the then-19-year-old was a willing conspirator with Archer, a fugitive alleged to have stolen $92,600 from the Arkansas Wal-Mart. They said the two first planned to steal a boat and flee together to Cuba, but when that seemed unworkable the pair decided to charter Joe Cool to Bimini (for $4,000), commandeer it, then take it to Cuba.

The defense countered that a gullible Zarabozo had been duped into thinking Archer, a former military policeman assigned to Guantanamo Naval Base, used CIA contacts to secure both of them lucrative jobs in the Bahamas as government bodyguards, according to press reports. Zarabozo told the jury he was in Joe Cool’s head when Archer pulled the 9 mm Glock out of Zarabozo’s  bag, shot all four crew and forced Zarabozo to clean up the mess and throw the bodies overboard.

Joe Cool’s GPS showed the vessel went straight from Miami Beach to within 9 miles of Bimini, headed north about 270 feet, then turned south and ran another 140 miles on various headings before running out of fuel 30 miles north of Cuba. Zarabozo said Archer then forced him into a life raft and climbed in with him, hoping they could make their way to Cuba, but the U.S. Coast Guard — alerted that Joe Cool was missing — found the boat and raft first. The pair told their rescuers they were attacked by pirates, who killed the crew.

As that story unraveled, Archer confessed to killing two of the crew, but said Zarabozo killed the others. Zarabozo maintained his innocence. A psychiatrist testified he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the murders, helping explain why he went along with Archer in trying to cover up the shootings both before and after their rescue.

Zarabozo was convicted of four counts of possessing a weapon during the commission of a violent crime, which in this case were murder, kidnapping, robbery, piracy and hijacking. He was not himself convicted of any of those charges, a fact criminal attorneys thought could be a basis for appeal.

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.