Dark Passage

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


On the morning of September 22, Donna Van Laar's phone rang in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was her granddaughter: "Did you get your present?" Kelley asked, giggling. She had recently taken her kids to Disney World and sent her grandmother photos and a bottle of orange-blossom perfume for her birthday. Donna thanked Kelley. "I love you," Kelley said happily.

Kelley didn't tell her grandmother that Jake had a charter to Bimini booked for that day. She planned to go along to swim in the ocean and fish on the return. She and Jake dropped Taylor and Morgan at Jake's grandfather's home, then headed out to sea.

Jeannette Branam (left) is seeking custody of Jake and Kelley's two children, Taylor and Morgan.
Marco Kornfeld
Jeannette Branam (left) is seeking custody of Jake and Kelley's two children, Taylor and Morgan.
Harry Branam Sr. (right) is seeking custody of Jake and Kelley's two children, Taylor and Morgan.
Marco Kornfeld
Harry Branam Sr. (right) is seeking custody of Jake and Kelley's two children, Taylor and Morgan.

Kelley wasn't the only one excited about this trip. So was Jake; it was his fledgling business' first Bahamas charter. And the clients were Archer and Zarabozo.

The pair had found the Joe Cool at the Miami Beach Marina, where crew from two other ships had already declined their business. They approached Sammy Kairy, the Joe Cool's 27-year-old first mate, and ultimately agreed to pay a fare of $4,000 cash. They were meeting girlfriends in Bimini, they said.

Kairy was a North Miami native, an expert fisherman, a laid-back guy. When he wondered why Archer and Zarabozo didn't just fly to Bimini, Archer explained that his girlfriend had accidentally packed his passport.

On September 22, Jake, Kairy, and the ship's other mate, Scott Gamble, went out for an early-morning fishing charter, returning to the docks around 1 p.m. Gamble, 35, Jake's older half-brother, was born in South Florida; he'd lived in Arizona before returning to Miami in 2006 after a bad breakup. He was very close to Jake, with whom he shared a love of open water and big-game fishing. Kelley joined the three guys at the marina, and they drank some beers as they waited for Archer and Zarabozo.

The pair showed up 15 minutes late, toting six black duffle bags. Jake's cousin Jon Branam, a co-owner of the charter business, stopped by to collect the $4,000. Archer, who had frosted blond hair and a goatee, seemed like a "real nice guy, likable," Jon later recalled. "I didn't really see anything wrong." Zarabozo, dark-haired and handsome, was quiet.

Just before the Joe Cool departed again, Kairy ran to a shop in the marina and bought some bait. Then Jake piloted the boat past Monty's, the luxury condos, and Fisher Island. Halfway to Bimini, a GPS on board would later show the boat turned 190 degrees, back toward Florida. Then it revolved a second time until it was headed 170 degrees south, toward Cuba.

Federal agents believe this was Archer's plan all along: to get to Cuba, which has no extradition treaty with the United States, where he could hide from the child-sex-abuse allegations, the Arkansas grand theft charges, and the custody battle with ex-wife Michelle.

According to a jailhouse snitch, who claims Zarabozo recounted events aboard the Joe Cool while in federal lockup, Archer ordered Jake to head for Cuba but Jake refused. The two men shouted at each other — then Archer pulled out a 9mm pistol and pointed it at Jake. Kelley frantically called to Kairy and Gamble, "Call the Coast Guard! Now!"

Most likely, she watched as Archer shot her husband; then Archer shot her, Kairy, and Gamble.

In the snitch's retelling, Zarabozo tossed the four bodies overboard. Then, as Archer tried to pilot the boat through the chop in the Florida Straits, his plan began to unravel. Archer was infuriated that Zarabozo managed to recover only one shell casing from the 9mm pistol. The pair decided to abandon ship and try to make Cuba on a life raft. They threw the pistol overboard, then got into the rubber vessel. By now, it would have been late Saturday or early Sunday. Jake's family had already told authorities that the boat was late returning. The Coast Guard began searching for it off the Bahamas.

The Coast Guard cutter's crew found the empty Joe Cool after a daylong search. They quickly turned up four 9mm shells, Zarabozo's ID and cell phone, and blood on the boat's stern. About 12 hours later, on the morning of Tuesday, September 25, the Coast Guard found Archer and Zarabozo afloat in the life raft. The pair carried a blow gun, some darts, and $2,200 in $100 bills.

Helicopter rescuers lifted the men from the raft onto the cutter. Interviewed separately, they at first told a wild story of Cuban pirates who came out of nowhere and tried to hijack the Joe Cool, killing the crew but somehow sparing the passengers. "They further described a third boat that subsequently arrived, took the three hijackers off the Joe Cool, and sped away," a federal report said.

But the men hadn't coordinated their alibis properly. "According to Archer, two hijackers wore shorts and T-shirts, while an older hijacker had on dark cargo pants and a T-shirt," the report continued. "[Zarabozo] said the three hijackers were all in polo shirts and jeans... Zarabozo stated that the female was shot prior to Archer being on the fly bridge (the steering area of the boat) and Archer said he was next to the female on the fly bridge when she was shot." Zarabozo also told investigators he was forced to clean up the blood after the shootings. Then, he claimed, he napped for eight hours.

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