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Lost at Sea


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A couple of men chartered the Joe Cool for a trip to the Bahamas. The boat was found floating north of Cuba, its crew missing—and feared dead. Two men are in custody. A ghost-ship story.

Sept. 27, 2007 - Jake and Kelley Branam’s lives were full of promise. Earlier this year, Kelley, 30, gave birth to the couple’s second child, Morgan (their first, Taylor, is 3). Around the same time, Jake, 27, started a charter-fishing-boat company in Miami Beach, Fla., with his uncle Jeff and cousin Jonathan. The outfit’s first vessel: a beautiful, refurbished 47-foot sport fisher they christened the Joe Cool. It was a dream come true for Jake, who grew up working on fishing boats and loved nothing more than chasing big catches in the open sea. Though the couple lived with Jake’s grandmother in a $10 million, eight-bedroom waterfront home on Miami Beach’s Star Island—with such celebrity neighbors as Rosie O’Donnell—they “were very down-to-earth,†says Kelley’s grandmother, Donna Jean VanLaar. Kelley was “an outdoor girl,†who loved nature and fed and nurtured a pet raccoon.

But the Branams’ idyllic lives were apparently clipped short this week. They, along with Jake’s half brother and the boat's mechanic, Scott Gamble, 35, and his friend and first mate, Samuel Kairy, 27, disappeared at sea, while taking two clients to the Bahamas. Authorities believe that the four-member crew was murdered. Those likely topping the list of suspects are the pair who hired them: Kirby Archer, 35, who’s accused of stealing more than $92,000 from a Wal-Mart in Batesville, Ark., and Guillermo Zarabozo, 19, an acquaintance of his. The Coast Guard found both men Monday morning, drifting on a life raft not far from the Joe Cool, which was missing its crew and in disarray. Though Zarabozo told the FBI that hijackers seized the boat and killed the crew, authorities are skeptical of his account. On Wednesday, the U.S. attorney in Miami charged Zarabozo with making false statements and Archer with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution in the theft case. Neither has been charged in connection with the disappeared crew, and on Thursday evening, the Coast Guard called off its search without finding any bodies. Both are awaiting arraignment and have yet to enter pleas.

Archer and Zarabozo first approached the Joe Cool's first mate last Friday at the Miami Beach Marina, according to the Branam family. The pair said they wanted to charter a boat for a one-way trip to Bimini in the Bahamas, where they said their girlfriends awaited them. The first mate agreed, and the next day, Archer and Zarabozo arrived at the dock with six bags. Pulling a wad of cash out of his pocket, Archer paid the $4,000 fee with $100 bills. He was “Southern, polite and likeable, not an arrogant jerk,†says Jonathan Branam, who was there but did not make the trip. His father, Jeff, who accepted the payment, says he didn’t find it odd that Archer paid in cash, since Miami Beach is “a rich man’s playground.†Though Kelley didn’t usually travel on jobs, she decided to join the Joe Cool this time, because it was the weekend and only a one-way charter (she left the kids with Jake's grandfather). The crew set off on Saturday afternoon; it was the fledgling business's first-ever charter to the Bahamas.

Archer and Zarabozo first approached the Joe Cool's first mate last Friday at the Miami Beach Marina, according to the Branam family. The pair said they wanted to charter a boat for a one-way trip to Bimini in the Bahamas, where they said their girlfriends awaited them. The first mate agreed, and the next day, Archer and Zarabozo arrived at the dock with six bags. Pulling a wad of cash out of his pocket, Archer paid the $4,000 fee with $100 bills. He was “Southern, polite and likeable, not an arrogant jerk,†says Jonathan Branam, who was there but did not make the trip. His father, Jeff, who accepted the payment, says he didn’t find it odd that Archer paid in cash, since Miami Beach is “a rich man’s playground.†Though Kelley didn’t usually travel on jobs, she decided to join the Joe Cool this time, because it was the weekend and only a one-way charter (she left the kids with Jake's grandfather). The crew set off on Saturday afternoon; it was the fledgling business's first-ever charter to the Bahamas.

Continuing its search for crew members, the Coast Guard found Archer and Zarabozo the following morning on an inflatable lifeboat about 12 miles away from the Joe Cool. According to the criminal complaints, Zarabozo claimed that unknown armed hijackers seized the boat at sea. They shot and killed the captain, he recounted, then shot the captain’s wife “because she was hysterical.†Zarabozo said the hijackers ordered each of the two remaining crew members to throw the bodies overboard—killing them too when they refused. When the hijackers asked him to jettison the bodies, Zarabozo claimed, he complied. Yet authorities had reason to doubt his truthfulness. When they asked him to identify the Joe Cool, which was being towed behind them as they returned to land, he responded that he didn’t recognize it—despite the discovery of his ID card on board. For his part, Archer told authorities he was aware that a warrant had been issued for his arrest by Arkansas authorities.

Archer had apparently been on the run for months. Prosecutors in Arkansas accuse him of robbing the Wal-Mart in Batesville where he worked as a customer-service associate and was known for being “a loner,†according to store manager Thomas Baxter. On Jan. 26, authorities allege, Archer collected cash and checks from various registers as part of his customary duties. Then, they say, he stashed the loot in a microwave oven, paid for the oven at a checkout counter and disappeared from town less than 24 hours later. The following day, a court in Independence County, Ark. issued a warrant for Archer’s arrest on a felony charge of property theft.

Archer left behind a wife (his third), two kids and an apparently troubled past. His wife, Michelle Archer, says she hasn’t heard from her husband since he disappeared in January. Still, she describes him as “a great father†and “a very passionate man.†But Kirby Archer’s previous wife, Michelle Rowe, paints an entirely different portrait. The couple’s bitter 2005 divorce is described in lurid detail in an Arkansas Court of Appeals ruling that initially awarded custody of their two kids to Archer. Among the allegations the couple leveled at each other: that Archer’s father had sought oral sex from Rowe; that Rowe was involved in a lesbian relationship; that Archer had a gay partner and would sometimes “make out†with another man in front of the children, and that Archer once gave Rowe a black eye. The appellate judges sounded appalled in their ruling: “While we agree with the trial court that the conduct of both parties has been less than stellar and in some cases reprehensible, we cannot say that the trial court’s decision to grant custody to Kirby is clearly against the preponderance of the evidence.†Eventually, however, Rowe won custody. Interviewed by NEWSWEEK, she said she “really didn’t know him when I married him, and obviously I don’t know him now.â€

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21019200/site/newsweek/

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