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Details emerge on fatal Miami boat heist

A fugitive alleged to have stolen $92,600 from an Arkansas Wal-Mart has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the deaths of four crewmembers aboard Joe Cool, a Miami Beach sportfishing yacht he and a partner chartered to flee the country.

Kirby Logan Archer, 36, a former customer service manager at a Wal-Mart in Batesville, Ark., pleaded guilty July 24 in federal district court in Miami. In court filings, prosecutors say Archer admitted to investigators that he shot Joe Cool’s captain, Jake Branam, 27, and his wife, Kelley Branam, 30, on the flybridge of the 47-foot Buddy Davis Sept. 22, 2007, within eyeshot of Bimini. Around the same time he shot the Branams, Archer says, he heard two gunshots from the cockpit, where Jake Branam’s half-brother, Scott Gamble, 35, and the first mate, Samuel Kairy, 27, were with Archer’s cohort, Guillermo Zarabozo, 19, of Hialeah, Fla. The four bodies were never found.

Zarabozo also faces charges for the murders. His trial was set for Aug. 18. His attorneys say two polygraph tests show he didn’t shoot any of the crewmembers. Prosecutors have asked the judge not to admit the tests on grounds that polygraphs are unreliable and because two earlier tests were inconclusive.

Zarabozo testified at an Aug. 14 hearing that while under way on Joe Cool, Archer went into Zarabozo’s backpack, took the Hialeah man’s 9 mm handgun and shot Joe Cool’s four crewmembers, according to U.S. attorneys’ court filings. Those filings, which argue the government’s case for an FBI search of Zarabozo’s bags after his arrest, say that Zarabozo went on to testify that after the shootings he wanted to stay aboard Joe Cool with his bags, but Archer threw them into the life raft and ordered Zarabozo into the raft with him. A Coast Guard helicopter crew rescued the pair from the raft about 24 hours later.

Archer’s story, detailed in other filings based on investigators’ interviews with him, offer a different account of what happened. Archer planned to sneak into Cuba by boat. He met Zarabozo, a security guard, through a mutual acquaintance and recruited him to help. Archer initially planned to steal a boat, maybe go to Bimini to refuel and provide some cover to their true intentions, then head to Cuba. It was only later that Archer told Zarabozo he was a fugitive evading an outstanding warrant.

Archer bought a .38 caliber semiautomatic pistol; Zarabozo already had a 9 mm handgun. The two canvassed a number of South Florida marinas looking for a boat to steal but eventually decided to go with “Plan B,” chartering a yacht. They talked about what to do with the crew once they were at sea, and, according to Archer, they preferred to drop them on a deserted island.

The pair chartered Joe Cool for a one-way trip to the Bahamas for $4,000. Their cover story was that they worked for a survey company and were going to Bimini to rendezvous with their girlfriends aboard a yacht. They couldn’t fly there because Archer’s girlfriend had packed his bags and taken his passport with her.

Archer says they were expecting only two crewmembers to come along; when four showed up they decided to stick with their plan. With Bimini within sight, Archer says, he noticed Joe Cool’s captain “acting strangely,” so he decided to act immediately. They retrieved their firearms. Archer says he told Zarabozo to wait for a signal, but when he heard a gunshot, he shot the Branams.

Prosecutors say data culled from Joe Cool’s GPS showed the vessel went straight from Miami Beach to within nine miles of Bimini, some 47 miles from Miami. The boat then headed north for about 270 feet and turned south, running another 140 miles on various headings. Joe Cool skirted Cay Sal and stopped 30 miles north of Cuba, where it ran out of fuel and began drifting.

At daybreak Sept. 23, Archer and Zarabozo abandoned Joe Cool and deployed the life raft, hoping the Cuban border guard would find them. Instead, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew — alerted that Joe Cool was late returning to Miami — found the life raft adrift early the morning of Sept. 24. The pair told their rescuers hijackers had seized Joe Cool, killed its crew and set the two of them adrift.

Archer, who is set to be sentenced Oct. 2, faces life imprisonment for four first-degree murder charges and life imprisonment on a charge of conspiracy to commit violence against maritime navigation (piracy).

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.