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UPDATE: Boat crew vanishes; mystery deepens

The fate of four missing crew members of a Miami Beach charter boat was in question Monday night after authorities found their two customers — one tentatively identified as a fugitive accused of robbing an Arkansas Wal-Mart — floating in the Florida Straits, near Cuba. A frantic ocean search continues from just north of Cuba to the Bahamas and South Florida for the missing crew — three men and a woman, all from Miami Beach.The Joe Cool, a 47-foot sport fishing yacht, was found Sunday afternoon, a ghost ship floating near the Cay Sal Bank. No one was on board. The two charter clients have been identified as Kirby Logan Archer, 35, of Strawberry, Ark. — on the lam and accused of stealing $92,600 from the Wal-Mart where he worked as an assistant manager — and Guillermo Zarabozo, 19, of Hialeah.

The two were found Monday morning floating on a life raft 12 miles north of the drifting boat. The Coast Guard is not sure why they abandoned the vessel, or whether the boat broke down or simply ran out of fuel. ”Those two jerks probably didn’t know how to run the boat so they had to get off it,” said Jeff Branam, whose family operates the charter boat.

Archer and Zarabozo were being questioned Monday by the FBI onboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. The FBI in Miami was tight-lippged about the case. ”We handle crimes on the high seas and there might be the potential for that here, but that’s all we can say,” FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said Monday.

The main question in this high-seas mystery: What happened to the crew of the Joe Cool — Capt. Jake Branam, 27; his wife Kelley Branam; his half-brother, Scott Campbell, 30; and Samuel Kairy, 27, all of Miami Beach.

Jeff Branam, Jake Branam’s uncle, fears they may have been forced overboard or worse. ”I think that Kirby Archer pirated our boat,” Branam said. “Now, the best-case scenario is if they gave my nephew and the others onboard life jackets and told them to swim for it.”

Orihuela would not elaborate on what happened to the crew, all of whom were last seen as they sailed out Saturday from the Miami Beach Marina behind Monty’s headed for Bimini with their customers. The Joe Cool’s GPS navigational system reveals it was headed steadily for Bimini, then made a sudden, erratic turn south toward Cuba.

When the vessel failed to return to Miami Beach Sunday, Jeff Branam called the Coast Guard. They found the usually ship-shape vessel abandoned 40 miles north of Cuba. They also found signs of distress.

The boat ”was in total disarray,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer James Judge. “Things were thrown around everywhere. ”Its location was also troubling.

”It’s a mystery because the Gulf Stream flows north and this is nowhere near where they intended to go,” Judge said.

WANTED

Arkansas authorities have been seeking Archer since January.

Police say that on Friday, Jan. 26, Archer, a trusted assistant manager at the Wal-Mart store in Batesville, Ark., used a cart to collect the money trays from cash registers and took it to a back room.

He then asked permission to leave work early. A surveillance video showed that Archer purchased a microwave oven that night as he walked out of the store — the last time he was spotted in Batesville.

Police said the money likely was stashed inside the microwave.

Capt. Bill Lindsey of the Independence County Sheriff’s Department in Arkansas said it wasn’t a total surprise that Archer would be in South Florida, near Cuba.

”He served in the military — in Guantanamo Naval Base — and we thought at one point, he might be heading that way,” Lindsey said.

Archer’s name had been entered in a national crime computer, he said, and “if he had taken a plane, he would have set off alarms.”

Archer’s whereabouts were discovered by chance.

In Batesville on Monday, someone on the Internet read a news story about the Joe Cool having gone missing and saw the name of the two men rescued, Archer and Zarabozo.

”Someone saw his name on a story and called us,” Lindsey said. “We contacted the Coast Guard there, and they hooked us up with the FBI.”

Lindsey is sure the FBI has his wanted fugitive.

”We are not 100 percent it’s him, but we’re pretty sure,” Lindsey said. “We didn’t have his fingerprints so we have to wait for the military to run him. But he apparently gave his real name. I don’t know why.”

It’s not clear how Archer and Zarabozo became acquainted. Attempts Monday to reach his relatives in South Florida were unsuccessful.

NO ALARM BELLS

Archer and Zarabozo did not set off any alarms Saturday when they showed up at the marina next to MacArthur Causeway looking for a boat to charter to Bimini, said Jeff Branam.

”They said they had a couple of girls waiting for them in Bimini and wanted to get there; they just wanted to be dropped off,” he said. “They paid me $4,000.”

Saturday night, Branam said he did not hear from his nephew, his wife or any of the other crewmembers.

”I thought he got busy with the boat or something. But then he was supposed to be back by noon to get ready for the Monday charter.” He called the Coast Guard on Sunday.

Jake and Kelly Branam, who live on Star Island, have two young children, a 3-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son relatives are caring for.

Branam relatives said that at daybreak Tuesday they would hire private helicopters to join in the official search. ”We just can’t sit here and do nothing,” Jeff Branam said late Monday.

It’s not the first time this year the Joe Cool had been in the news. In May, its crew helped rescue an Aventura family after the family’s sailboat began to sink.

Six boaters aboard the $1.2 million sailboat noticed the vessel taking on a lot of water about 10 miles off Government Cut. As Miami-Dade and Coast Guard rescuers rushed to the location, the Joe Cool crew also picked up the mayday call and raced to help.

The sailboat sank, but the family — including an infant and a 9-year-old — was saved, in part thanks to the efforts of the Joe Cool crew.

Source: Miami Herald

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One Response

  1. […] East Malling/Ditton/Barming wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThe Joe Cool, a 47-foot sport fishing yacht, was found Sunday afternoon, a ghost ship floating near the Cay Sal Bank. No one was on board…. […]

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