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Ghost Boat: Search for crew called off

Two survivors who say boat was hijacked await legal fate, bail hearing Unraveling what happened aboard the sport fishing boat Joe Cool on Saturday night as it veered off course in the Florida Straits could prove challenging for investigators.

Four people are missing and their bodies may never be found. One of the surviving witnesses is a fugitive. The other told authorities the missing were murdered by pirates and thrown overboard — a story authorities don’t believe.

A day after the Coast Guard called off the five-day search for the four missing crew members of the Joe Cool, those two men, Kirby Logan Archer, 35, of Strawberry, Ark., and Guillermo Zarabozo, 19, of Hialeah, are to appear in Miami federal court this morning for a bond hearing.ghostb.jpg

Where the investigation heads next, according to current and former federal prosecutors, will likely turn on physical evidence found on the Joe Cool and whether it contradicts Zarabozo’s claim that pirates hijacked the vessel and executed the captain, his wife and two crew members.

“They’ll start with the forensic stuff and basically try to figure out if that story holds up or not,” said Miami attorney David Buckner, a former federal prosecutor. “If it turns out the evidence doesn’t go that way, they may start to investigate the two men.”

Should Zarabozo and Archer become suspects in the disappearances, prosecutors could offer lenient treatment to one in exchange for testimony against the other, lawyers said.

For the moment, the two men are in custody on lesser charges — Zarabozo for allegedly making a false statement to a federal agent and Archer for fleeing Arkansas, where authorities say he stole $92,000 from a Wal-Mart. Attorneys for both men declined to comment on the case.

Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, said the charges against Zarabozo and Archer don’t seem to tell the whole story and probably are intended to keep the men in custody while the FBI continues to investigate.

“There will be a massive amount of intelligence coming out as a result of the notoriety of the case,” Lewis said. “That will generate dozens and dozens of investigative leads that authorities will follow up on.”

According to charges filed Tuesday, Archer and Zarabozo paid $4,000 in cash for passage to Bimini, where they said they were planning to meet their girlfriends.

The boat left the Miami Beach Marina on Sept. 22, but about halfway to Bimini, the vessel veered sharply off course toward Cuba, according to a federal affidavit.

Investigators, who boarded the Joe Cool southwest of Anguilla Cay, Bahamas, found blood and a handcuff key, as well as Zarabozo’s identification card, six marijuana cigarettes, a laptop computer and other belongings. Zarabozo and Archer were found 12 miles away in a life raft.

Zarabozo told investigators that unknown people hijacked the Joe Cool and immediately shot the captain, Jake Branam, the affidavit states. They then shot his wife, Kelley Branam, “because she was hysterical,” he said. The two other crew members, Scott Gamble and Sammy Kairy, were shot after refusing to toss out the Branams’ bodies. The hijackers spared Zarabozo because he agreed to throw the bodies overboard, he said.

The Hialeah teen later told investigators he didn’t recognize the Joe Cool as it was being towed to Miami and denied being on the boat.

“The whole thing doesn’t make sense,” said Michael Tein, a former federal prosecutor.

Catching a suspect in a lie can be powerful evidence, but simply poking holes in Zarabozo’s story won’t be enough to support homicide charges, Buckner said.

“You’re still going to have to prove what happened and how,” he said. “If it was homicide, prosecutors have the burden of proving every element of the offense.”

The mystery of the Joe Cool bears echoes of past murder-at-sea cases. In 2005, a federal jury convicted Michael Koblan of murdering a Singer Island couple and dumping one of their bodies at sea. In 1993, two Cuban immigrants were convicted of first-degree murder for killing a charter boat captain in an attempt to steal his boat and return to Cuba.

When such cases go to trial, they tend to rely on circumstantial evidence, such as motive, opportunity and inconsistent statements. Having a body isn’t always necessary, lawyers said.

“They’ve prosecuted plenty of cases without bodies,” said Fred Haddad, a Fort Lauderdale defense attorney. “People don’t just disappear and not call. Not four of them.”

Coast Guard officials called off the search effort Thursday night after scouring almost 15,000 square miles from Daytona Beach to Cay Sal Banks, Bahamas.

“If the crew of the Joe Cool was in the areas we searched, we would have found them,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, an agency spokesman.

As speculation turned to the possibility of foul play, Archer’s ex-wife, Michelle Rowe, said Thursday she didn’t know whether her husband was capable of murder.

“I have not lived with Kirby Archer in over four years and I do not know if he is or was capable of taking the life of another human being,” Rowe said in a statement, issued through her attorney.

Rowe said she does not know Zarabozo. She said Archer, a former military police investigator, occasionally mentioned “a boy from Cuba whose family he apparently befriended while stationed” at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the 1990s.

The statement also says that although Archer initially was awarded custody of the couple’s two young sons after their divorce, a judge in Lawrence County, Ark., awarded Rowe custody in February. The order followed a state investigation into child molestation allegations against Archer, according to the statement.

Source:  SS


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