Thursday, October 11, 2007

Prosecutors charge 2 with murder in missing boaters case

AP Legal Affairs Writer

MIAMI - Federal prosecutors accused two men Wednesday of killing the captain and three crew members of a charter fishing boat they hired for a quick trip to the Bahamas and then allegedly tried to hijack at sea.

Prosecutors filed criminal first-degree murder complaints against Kirby Logan Archer, 35, and Guillermo Zarabozo, who turned 20 on Monday. Both were rescued from the ocean and are already in custody. They could get the death penalty or life in prison if convicted.

U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the charges were built largely on forensic evidence and "numerous inconsistencies" in statements made by the two suspects to investigators about what happened aboard the 47-foot "Joe Cool" fishing boat.

Prosecutors have no bodies, no murder weapon, no witnesses and no confession, but Acosta said there is still enough evidence to back up the charges.

"We shouldn't shy away from a case simply because it isn't an easy one," Acosta said at a news conference. "These four individuals were doing what they loved. They were out on the seas, on a boat, and they were murdered in cold blood."

Attorneys for Archer and Zarabozo did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment. A hearing is scheduled Thursday in federal court for both men.

Missing and presumed dead are the boat's captain, Jake Branam, 27; his wife Kelley Branam, 30; his half brother Scott Gamble, 30; and Samuel Kairy, 27. All are from Miami Beach and the Branams left behind a nearly 3-year-old daughter and 4-month-old son.

Jake Branam's uncle, Jeff Branam, told The Miami Herald he believes investigators have charged the right people. Jeff Branam did not immediately return a telephone call from The Associated Press.

"We feel these people did it," Branam said. "We're glad they're being charged. We would hate for them to be able to walk on this one."

The boat started out on course for Bimini on Sept. 22 but then turned sharply south and was found abandoned and out of fuel about 30 miles north of Cuba, officials said. Investigators say the two might have been attempting to reach Cuba and had paid $4,000 in cash to make the trip to Bimini.

The men were found floating in the boat's life raft with no sign of the captain and crew after the "Joe Cool" was reported missing. Archer and Zarabozo both claimed after their rescue that they were attacked by Cuban pirates at sea who shot the crew one by one but spared their lives.

An FBI affidavit, however, states that the pair gave conflicting accounts about the hijackers, including how they were dressed and how and where the shootings happened on the boat. Zarabozo claimed he also slept for eight hours after the hijackers left, while Archer said the two were awake and talking the whole time "making sure they were each OK"

Other key evidence detailed in the affidavit includes:

_Four bullet casings recovered on the boat were fired from a Glock 9mm handgun. Zarabozo, who claimed he didn't own a gun, was seen with such a weapon in August and the FBI recovered a receipt in a gun lockbox at his home for the purchase of a Glock 9mm magazine and four boxes of 9mm bullets similar to those found on the boat.

_Archer and Zarabozo told investigators the purported hijackers shot the victims with different guns, but forensic analysis on the casings indicates they were fired from the same Glock 9mm. The two also said the victims were shot in the boat's exterior, but three of the four casings were found in its interior cabin.

_Human blood was found on steps leading from the cabin to the boat's two staterooms. Results of DNA analysis have not yet been made public.

_Neither man could provide any names or details about two purported "girlfriends" they told the "Joe Cool's" crew they were planning to meet in Bimini. They also gave inconsistent accounts about how they met in South Florida, and who stayed with them Sept. 20 at a local hotel.

_Zarabozo claimed the "Joe Cool" was answering a distress call, came alongside a disabled vessel and was then commandeered by the pirates. The Coast Guard has no record of such a call during the time in question.

_A handcuff key was found on the bow of the boat and a second one was found in Archer's luggage on the life raft. An empty handcuff case was found in Zarabozo's home. Knives, a blowgun and darts were also found in Zarabozo's backpack on the life raft. Zarabozo, of Hialeah, has been held since his rescue on charges of lying to a federal agent for claiming he had never been aboard the "Joe Cool."

Archer is in custody as a fugitive from Arkansas charged with stealing more than $92,000 from a Wal-Mart where he had been a manager. Before he left Arkansas in late January, Archer was under investigation for alleged child molestation, according to the FBI affidavit.

Prosecutors say those charges will likely be dropped.

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