Dark Passage

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

Federal agents found that the four spent shell casings matched a box of ammunition Zarabozo had bought in February 2007. They also found an empty handcuff box at his mother's house, and authorities assumed that a small key found aboard the Joe Cool fit a pair of handcuffs.

Local and national reporters swarmed Zarabozo's mother's house. She spoke briefly to America TeVe about how her son met Archer in Cuba. Neighbors told newspaper reporters that Zarabozo was a quiet kid who would never harm anyone.

In Miami, Jake's family began to learn of the horror aboard the Joe Cool. So did Kelley's: In Kalamazoo, Donna Van Laar was making a batch of peanut butter cookies when her husband, David, came up from the basement saying, "I just saw Kelley's picture on TV."

Kelley and Jake Branam boarded the yacht September 21 for the fateful charter.
Kelley and Jake Branam boarded the yacht September 21 for the fateful charter.

The Coast Guard, they would all soon learn, had abandoned the search for bodies after just three days.

U.S. District Judge Paul Huck's court, on the tenth floor of the federal building in downtown Miami, has dark mahogany walls, heavy curtains, rust-colored carpet, and seven round art deco chandeliers. It's an uncomfortably cold room. Huck is best-known for overseeing the trial of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whom he sentenced to five years in prison in the SunCruz casino fraud case in 2006. Global media attention returned to his courtroom when Archer and Zarabozo were charged with murdering the Joe Cool's crew.

When the two men file in for a December hearing, Huck doesn't look up.

Five lawyers represent the two men — three for Zarabozo and two for Archer. Federal lockup has not been kind to Archer: His spine looks like it's been bent into a c shape, and his eyes are narrowed to slits. His once-frosted hair has returned to its natural dull brown. He still has the goatee. He appears to be smirking. Zarabozo looks fresh, tall, and strapping, with latte-colored skin and a neatly trimmed buzz cut. He smiles at his lawyers and at his mother and sister and seems both eager and naive.

Huck and the lawyers debate the admissibility of the snitch's account. Zarabozo and the snitch are both represented by the federal public defender's office, which poses a conflict of interests, prosecutors contend. Greater snags are anticipated as the state attempts to try murder cases without any bodies (although it does have DNA from the blood found on the boat). The trial most likely is still months away. When the hearing ends, Archer is led from the courtroom by federal agents. He passes within a few feet of the Zarabozo family but does not look at them. Guillermo Zarabozo grins, however, and gives his mom a thumb's-up.

A week later and not far away, on the 23rd floor of the county courthouse, Judge Sandy Karlan tries to determine where Taylor and Morgan Branam will live now that their parents have been murdered. There are more lawyers involved here and even more complexities than in the federal murder case. That's partly because Kelley's mom, Leanne, has asked for custody of the little girl and boy, along with Kelley's sister Genny Van Laar. So has their great-grandmother, Jeannette Branam, and her son Jeff. And their great-grandfather, Jeannette's ex, Harry Branam, is also seeking custody.

Currently, Taylor and Morgan are shuttled every four days between Star Island, where Jeannette lives, and Harry's Venetian Isle condo. Leanne and Genny fly in from out of state each month to visit.

The discussion winds in circles, spurred by questions from the judge and six lawyers: Has Leanne filed the proper motions? Will there be a background check of Harry Branam Sr.'s girlfriend, Maria? Is Jeannette too old to care for kids? Should they spend more time on Star Island?

Morgan isn't old enough to know what's going on, reports a court-appointed guardian, but Taylor's full of questions.

"She just turned 3," Karlan says, looking at a file. "I don't know what she understands about 'never again.' "

There are still other issues: Harry and Jeannette Branam have each filed motions containing nasty allegations of past substance abuse as well as bad behavior during their divorce.

"I don't intend to retry the divorce between Harry and Jeannette. Is everybody clear on that?" Karlan says sharply.

At the end of the hearing, Karlan orders psychological evaluations for everyone in the family. Taylor must see a therapist regularly as well; the little girl keeps telling everyone that she needs to return to Star Island "because Mommy and Daddy are coming home."

Leanne, meanwhile, is still trying to find her daughter — somewhere beneath the waves. She has contacted Texas Equu­search, the search-and-recovery outfit that looked for missing U.S. teen Natalee Holloway near Aruba for no charge in 2006 and 2007. Equusearch needs a boat for its equipment, however, and no one has donated a big enough vessel so far, which is making Leanne crazy. "Isn't my daughter as important as Natalee Holloway?" she asks.

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