Dark Passage

Six set sail on the Joe Cool hoping for better luck. Only two saw land again.

By the time Kelley attended community college, when she was 18, Leanne had moved to St. Louis because her second husband was transferred there. Kelley stayed in Michigan, near Leanne's parents, and worked as a van driver at a home for the disabled. She met a guy named Sean and dated him for a few years. When he dumped her, a heartbroken Kelley headed south to a place where a friend had settled. It was 2001.

Ever the small-town girl, she was amazed by Miami — by the blue water, the beach, and the ostentatious wealth. One day while driving to Miami Beach across the MacArthur Causeway, she looked to her left at Star Island. There, on the tip, was a white mansion, all columns and arches. She called her mother. "Some day," she said, "I'm going to live in a house like that."

Leanne thought it odd that Kelley would say that. Her daughter was no gold-digger.

Sammy Kairy was first mate aboard the Joe Cool.
Photos courtesy of
Sammy Kairy was first mate aboard the Joe Cool.
Scott Gamble, Jake's half-brother, was also aboard.
Photos courtesy of
Scott Gamble, Jake's half-brother, was also aboard.

Though they were close, Leanne didn't visit Kelley much in Miami during those years; she had a busy life in St. Louis. Her daughter was doing well in her new home. The 26-year-old worked as a waitress at a Coconut Grove bar and hung out there too. Sometimes she'd challenge the regulars to a game of pool. That's how Kelley met Jake Branam in 2003.

Jake had longish curly hair that was bleached blond by the sun. There was usually a few days' stubble on his chin. He was tan because he often fished. At 23, Jake was three years younger than Kelley. She loved hearing his stories of sailing around the Caribbean and reeling in big catches. He was studying for his captain's license, hoping to one day own a fishing charter service. Kelley envisioned herself on a ship with Jake, diving into blue water or angling for tarpon.

There was a bonus: Jake's family was superrich. His grandparents founded and owned LR Alliance Manufacturing, an Opa-locka business started in the '70s that made metal trash cans, benches, and other items. The Branam clan lived in a Star Island mansion worth more than $10 million, in Gloria Estefan's neighborhood, at one of the area's most exclusive addresses.

Jake lived in that mansion, Kelley told her mother, that same white beauty she had seen years before while driving over the MacArthur Causeway.

Kelley and Jake's relationship evolved quickly. Within a few months, he asked her to move to Star Island to live with him in what he called the "beach house." That was late 2003.

"It's free, Mom," she told Leanne.

"Honey," Leanne replied, "nothing's ever free."

As Jake and some family prepared to launch a charter boat business, Kelley worked part-time at a veterinary hospital in Miami Beach. Her life was seemingly blessed: a small-town girl living in a waterfront mansion with her dashing sea-captain boyfriend.

But it wasn't that simple. They lived in an apartment above the mansion's garage, with mildew and mold and a toilet that rarely worked. Even what the family called the "big house" — the huge white mansion that looked so elegant from afar — had electrical problems, plumbing issues, and rats scurrying around the foundation. Kelley would often joke that she lived in the "Star Island trailer park" or the "Star Island ghetto."

Then there were the disconcerting details about Jake's family members, many of whom lived on Star Island. First was Jeannette Branam, his grandmother. A short woman with wild, curly blond hair, with a white streak in the middle à la Cruella DeVille, she and Jake's grandfather, Harry Branam, finished a nasty divorce in 1997. According to court documents, Jeannette was arrested for DUI after the split (the charge was later dropped). And Jeannette filed a restraining order against her ex, alleging he had been violent with her. She also consulted regularly with a Jamaican fortuneteller, which made Kelley uneasy.

Jake's parents were divorced. His mom, Shirley Clow, lived in Illinois near the Missouri state line. She'd left Florida after divorcing Jake's father, Joe, in 1991, although she allowed her son to stay in Miami. Kelley adored Joe. He died of a sudden heart attack in 2006.

Then there were the others on Star Island: Jake's older brother, Jeff, who ran the family manufacturing business; their half-brother, Scott Gamble; and Sammy Kairy, Jake's friend. The place had a communal feel about it, with guys busting into Jake and Kelley's apartment at all hours of the day and night, eating their food, watching their TV, lounging on their sofa. When Leanne came to visit, she was shocked: My daughter has no privacy, she thought. And Jeannette treated Kelley like a country bumpkin unworthy of her grandson.

Kelley became pregnant in early 2004. Though she lived on Star Island, she signed up for Medicaid because she had no health insurance. Jake had no money, family members said, and Jeannette refused to give him any. Taylor was born November 26, 2004, a five-pound, 11-ounce girl with a sweet disposition and a shock of dark hair.

Kelley spent the next two years caring for the baby. Meanwhile, Jake realized his dream when his grandfather gave him $220,000 to buy and refurbish a 47-foot Buddy Davis yacht then in North Carolina. In late September 2006, while Jake began installing $30,000 of fishing equipment on the boat, Kelley went to St. Louis to visit her mother. She was pregnant again.

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