Miami charter a murder mystery

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Two men are accused of killing the crew, though no bodies or weapons found

A routine charter to the Bahamas turned sinister this fall after the charter yacht was found abandoned, its four-person crew missing, and two clients — one a fugitive — were picked up in a life raft 12 miles away.

The charter clients say pirates attacked the boat, killed the crew and spared the two of them — a story that authorities and the family of the missing aren’t buying. “If you’re going to pirate a boat, you kill everybody and take the boat,” says Jonathan Branam, another captain with Sissy Baby Sportfishing Charters, of Miami Beach, and cousin of two of the missing crewmembers, Capt. Jake Branam and Jake’s half-brother Scott Gamble.

On Oct. 10 the FBI charged Kirby Logan Archer, 35, and Guillermo Zarabozo, 19, of Hialeah, Fla., the pair who chartered the yacht, with murdering its crew, though neither the bodies nor a murder weapon had been found. Authorities also charged Archer, a former customer service manager at a Batesville, Ark., Wal-Mart, with flight to avoid prosecution for allegedly stealing $92,600 from Wal-Mart last January. Zarabozo also faces a charge of making a false statement to the FBI. The two were being held without bond.

FBI agents found four 9 mm shell casings on the charter yacht, a 1988 47-foot Buddy Davis named Joe Cool, and a gun shop surveillance video showed Archer and Zarabozo buying a magazine for

9 mm ammunition before the charter, according to complaints filed in U.S. District Court in Miami. The pair also had knives, a blow gun and blow-gun darts with them when they were picked up in the raft, the complaints say.

The investigation continued while hopes of finding the crew — dead or alive — dimmed. The Coast Guard scoured waters from Daytona Beach on Florida’s east coast to Cay Sal Bank, a cluster of tiny islands 40 miles off Cuba’s north coast, where the sportfishing yacht was found. The missing crew are Branam, 27; his wife, Kelley Sue, 30; Gamble, 35; and Samuel Kairy, 27, Branam’s first mate. Coast Guard Petty Officer James Judge says searchers thought the crew might have drifted northeast in the Gulf Stream after their disappearance Sept. 23. Rescuers suspended their search after five days.

This is the story Archer and Zarabozo told investigators, according to court documents. En route to Bimini, Capt. Branam changed course to assist a disabled vessel after hearing a distress call over the VHF radio. When Joe Cool pulled alongside the disabled vessel, a hijacker jumped aboard Joe Cool and commandeered it as two others jumped aboard. The hijackers immediately shot and killed the captain, and then his wife when she became “hysterical.” When the other two crewmembers refused to throw the bodies in the water, the hijackers shot them, too, according to Zarabozo. The pirates then demanded Zarabozo dispose of the bodies, and he said he complied. The two said the hijackers ordered Archer up to the flybridge to run the boat south toward Cuba. When Joe Cool ran out of fuel, the hijackers radioed a third boat that picked them up and sped away.

Archer and Zarabozo represented themselves as employees of a survey company when they first approached firstmate Kairy at the Miami Beach Marina Friday, Sept. 21, and asked about chartering Joe Cool for a trip to Bimini, according to the complaints. The two said their girlfriends were waiting for them on a yacht at the Bimini Big Game Resort and Yacht Club. Archer said his girlfriend had packed his passport in her bag, so he couldn’t fly to the islands. He planned to meet her at the dock and retrieve the passport, and offered to pay $4,000 for the 2-1/2-hour trip across the Gulf Stream.

It was a lot of cash, but “the guy [Archer] was really polite,” with an easygoing Southern drawl, says Jonathan Branam, Jake’s partner and the company’s business manager. “You didn’t suspect anything.”

Branam says Jake invited him and other family and crew to go along since this wasn’t going to be a typical fishing charter, but Joe Cool already was full so Jonathan stayed home. He says he escorted the yacht out Government Cut on a PWC as it left Miami about 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22. Branam expected Joe Cool to be back at its slip by noon the next day to prepare for a Monday morning charter, but he didn’t worry when that hour came and passed. “Jake planned on fishing on the way home,” Branam says. “When Jake gets into a school of fish, he doesn’t quit.”

By 5 p.m. the Coast Guard had been alerted that Joe Cool was late returning. A helicopter spotted it adrift later that evening, 11 miles southwest of Anguilla Cays, about 160 miles south of Bimini. The chopper found the bright orange raft with Archer, Zarabozo, their luggage and some personal effects aboard about a dozen miles away the following morning, according to the complaints.

Court documents say that when the Coast Guard boarded Joe Cool, the team found it “in disarray.” They found, among other things, Zarabozo’s Florida identification card, six marijuana cigarettes, a number of half-opened packs of cigarettes, a laptop computer, computer accessories, luggage, a daily planner, clothing, cameras and a cell phone. They also found a handcuff key and what appeared to be blood on the stern, the complaint says. Branam says none of Joe Cool’s thousands of dollars worth of fishing gear was gone. The Coast Guard towed the sportfisherman to its Miami Beach station, where FBI agents combed the vessel for evidence.

Based on information gleaned from the yacht’s GPS/chart plotter, an FBI investigator says in the court filings that Joe Cool set a course for Bimini, but 20 to 25 miles from Miami — about halfway to the Bahamian island — it veered off on a course of 190 degrees, then 170 degrees to Dog Rock in the northern Cay Sal Bank, where it appeared to begin drifting.

Jonathan Branam says the boat’s forward fuel tank — one of two on the yacht — was about 3/4 full when it left Miami Beach. He says that was plenty for it to make Bimini and return but not enough to get much beyond Cay Sal.

The murder complaints show inconsistencies between Archer’s and Zarabozo’s stories. Zarabozo claimed not to own a gun, but evidence recovered from his home shows the purchase of gun clips and ammunition, and witnesses saw Zarabozo with a Glock pistol as recently as mid-August. Neither defendant could give consistent details about how and when they met each other, or the identities of the girlfriends they were supposed to meet in Bimini. Also, Zarabozo said he slept on the flybridge for eight hours after the hijacking while Archer was at the helm; Archer said the two talked continuously on the flybridge to reassure each other. Both defendants said all four victims were shot outside the cabin, yet agents found three of the four 9 mm shell casings inside Joe Cool’s cabin.

In an Oct. 10 press release, U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta says forensic analysis of markings on the four casings suggest they were shot with a Glock firearm. He says investigators found a gun lockbox at Zarabozo’s home that contained a receipt for the purchase of a Glock ammunition magazine and four boxes of Federal Casing 9 mm bullets. The Glock-fired casings recovered from Joe Cool had the Federal Casing brand stamped on them. Also, he says agents found a handcuff key at Joe Cool’s bow and another in one of Archer’s pieces of luggage. An empty handcuff case was found at Zarabozo’s residence.

Archer’s Miami attorney, Allan Bennett Kaiser, says in published reports that the alleged inconsistencies aren’t much to hang a first-degree murder charge on.

A former military policeman, Archer served a tour at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo, Cuba, where, according to a report in the Miami Herald, he met Zarabozo and his family, who emigrated to Miami in 1999. An Independence County Court of Appeals decision giving Archer custody of his two young children after his June 2005 divorce from Michelle Archer said he had gone AWOL — absent without leave — leaving the military with an “other-than-honorable” discharge. He also is alleged in the appellate court papers to have abused his wife and engaged in homosexual affairs while he was married to Michelle.

Archer was under investigation for sexual battery of a minor when he disappeared from his home in Arkansas last January, according to the complaints. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Capt. Jody Dotson says Archer’s two children were turned over to the Arkansas Department of Human Services during the investigation. “We interviewed him, and he denied the allegations,” Dotson says. He says Archer was cool under interrogation. “We hit him pretty hard, and it didn’t faze him the tiniest little bit.”

Archer agreed to take a polygraph test but twice failed to appear for it, each time making an excuse for missing the test. After passing on a third appointment he dropped out of sight, according to Dotson. “That’s when he [allegedly] skipped out with all that money from Wal-Mart,” Dotson says.

Archer fled Batesville, Ark., last January after allegedly stealing $92,600 from a Wal-Mart where he worked.

“We have warrants out on Kirby Archer for felony theft,” says Independence County Sheriff Keith Bowers. As night customer service manager, Archer helped collect cash register trays at the end of the shift. “He had access to the money bags,” Bowers says. One night after collecting the money, he is alleged to have taken a microwave oven from the shelves, removed the oven from its box, and stuffed the box with money, Bowers says. After checking the box through a cashier and paying for the microwave, “He left with the box full of money, got in a vehicle and drove off,” Bowers says. “That’s the last we heard of him until now.”

Jonathan Branam says he and Jake had purchased Sissy Baby Sportfishing Charters at the Miami Beach Marina last March, a family decision they all hoped would lift Jake’s spirits after the loss of his dad, Joseph H. Branam Jr., last year to a heart attack. Jonathan left his other passion, racing cars, to go into the charter business with Jake, former captain of a yacht, headboat and salvage team who also was certified as a sailing instructor and dive master. “We were partners — 50-50. I was the nerd and did the books,” and Jake was the fishing captain, Branam says. “That was his dream.”

They had just bought a second 47-foot Buddy Davis, Sissy Baby, with a powder-blue hull that looked just like Joe Cool, also for charter out of Miami Beach. Jake and first-mate Gamble planned to run Joe Cool; Jonathan — also a licensed captain — and first-mate Kairy would run Sissy Baby. “We were going to do battle with each other,” Branam says, to see who could catch the biggest fish, the most fish, the first fish.

“I just lost my whole team,” he says. “I lost my whole family. I lost my best friends. I lost my buddies. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” He hoped to keep the charter business going to honor the dead.

Branam says the loss raises difficult issues for charter captains. “Everybody in the charter boat community are easygoing guys. We don’t do background checks,” he says. “I’m the only one [among the Sissy Baby crew] who carries a firearm. Jake didn’t like guns. He hated them.”

David Matagiese, of the International Game Fish Association’s School of Sportfishing, says the dark mystery surrounding Joe Cool has left its mark on the charter fishing community. “You just have to be very vigilant,” says Matagiese. “Almost all the charter captains carry firearms.” But most of them have their hands full running the boat and overseeing the fishing, so it can be hard to keep on their guard against surprise threats, according to Matagiese.

Jake and Kelley Sue Branam leave behind a 3-year-old daughter and 4-month-old baby boy. “This is such a sad, sad story,” Branam says.