Two hours before sunset this past September 23, sailors aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter spotted the Joe Cool. The 47-foot fishing yacht bobbed atop the waves, the white hull glowing against the azure water.
The Joe Cool was 100 nautical miles off-course. By 5 p.m. that Sunday, it should have been securely docked at the Miami Beach Marina. Its captain, 27-year-old Jake Branam; his wife, Kelley; and the two first mates — Sammy Kairy and Scott Gamble — were supposed to have been unloading a bounty of yellowfin tuna. Then Kelley and Jake had plans to pick up their kids, 2-year-old Taylor and 4-month-old Morgan, at Jake's grandfather's house.
Jake, Kelley, Sammy, and Scott were supposed to have returned from Bimini, where they should have dropped off two passengers: a handsome teenaged boy and a man with a Southern drawl and porcine eyes. The pair had paid $4,000 for the trip.
But when it was spotted, the boat was about 30 miles from Cuba. It was just a quick motor away from Angulla Cay in the Bahamas, an uninhabited, scrub-covered atoll famous to divers and fishermen for its mysterious blue holes — pockets that plunge 1,000 feet into the sea floor.
No one had heard from Jake, Kelley, Sammy, or Scott in two and a half days. As Coast Guard officers approached the Joe Cool, they should have heard voices. Instead, they were greeted with silence. There were no signs of burnt-out flares. The boat was empty, a ghostly white shell floating on the open ocean.
The officers boarded the ship and found the first clues to Miami's biggest murder mystery in years. According to the official report, the Coast Guard found the Joe Cool "in disarray. The search revealed, among other things, an identification card, six marijuana cigarettes, multiple half-opened packs of cigarettes, a laptop computer, computer accessories, luggage, a daily planner, clothing, cameras, and a cellular telephone.
"A handcuff key was also found on the vessel's bow, as well as a substance on the vessel's stern that subsequently tested positive for... human blood."
Where were Jake, Kelley, Sammy, and Scott? And where were the two passengers?
Leanne Van Laar-Uttmark is sobbing in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. She pulls a pack of tissues from her purse, slowly extracts one, and dabs at her eyes. Her mascara is running. She crumples the Kleenex in her right hand and holds it tightly.
Two months have passed since her 30-year-old daughter, Kelley, disappeared from the Joe Cool. Leanne is headed for a lifetime without her baby, which is hard to accept. "I haven't given up hope," she says. "I don't think she's gone. I think I would feel it."
It's 9:30 a.m., and the Marriott lobby is bustling. Business travelers stir their coffee as sunburned and hungover tourists hit the nearby breakfast bar. Leanne, sitting on a love seat, doesn't seem to notice the commotion around her. Lately, she's been consumed with trying to find someone who can donate the use of a large boat so a search-and-recovery team can comb the Bahamas for the Joe Cool crew; Leanne thinks they might still be alive on a remote island.
"Why hasn't anyone donated a boat?" Leanne says. Then she sobs. "The FBI asked me, 'Could Kelley have just run away?,' and I said, 'No, absolutely not.' "
Leanne looks down at the small table in front of her, where she has spread out a few photos, a Christmas card, and a small album. "Here's Kelley's ski pass," she says. "And here's one of her in braces." The snapshots show a stunning girl with chestnut-colored hair, big brown eyes, and a wide smile — an all-American beauty, athletic and glowing with confidence.
Leanne is 51. A former flight attendant who lives in St. Louis, she looks like a more mature version of Kelley, but with blond hair. Leanne says she doesn't like Miami — she hates the humidity, the bugs, the rude people. No doubt she loathes the city too because it summoned her daughter, who came here to escape.
"Kelley never fit in" at home, Leanne says, shaking her head. "She was like a fish out of water."
Kelley Van Laar was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on July 11, 1977 — 7/11/77: a lucky date, her mother thought. Along with older sister Genny, she had softball, hayrides, pumpkin patches — "a really happy childhood," Leanne says.
Kelley loved sports. She saved her allowance to ski at Timber Ridge, a local slope. She was a tomboy; her favorite superhero was Wonder Woman. She adored He-Man. She went through an Egypt phase when she was 7, fascinated by the "Mummy Room" at the Kalamazoo Public Library. The rambunctious girl was a cheerleader in junior high school and even played on the boys football team. Kelley also loved pets. "I cannot tell you how many stray animals came into our house," Leanne says. "If they died, we would have these elaborate funerals. Kelley would make us sing 'Amazing Grace.' " Later, when she was a teenager, the stray animals were replaced by needy kids, whom Leanne often fed.
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.
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.
When Kelley arrived in St. Louis, she was severely dehydrated and had to be hospitalized briefly. She flew back to Miami in early October, then called her mom after a few days. "Jake and I are getting married," she told Leanne. "We need to get insurance for the baby."
Kelley and Jake were wed on the beach in Miami on October 14. Kelley wore a dress she borrowed from a friend. They said their vows before a minister and a witness — no family, because Jake and Kelley feared Jeannette's reaction, Leanne says. (Attempts to interview Jeannette Branam were unsuccessful.) A few days later, Jake called Leanne and asked if Kelley could stay with her in St. Louis for a month or two while he traveled to North Carolina to work on the yacht. He didn't think it was good for the pregnant Kelley and their baby to stay behind on Star Island.
Kelley spent only a month in St. Louis before returning to Miami in November. According to Leanne, Kelley was depressed for much of that time and often fought with Jake on the phone. "I liked Jake as a person, and he was a great fishing-boat captain," Leanne says. "But he really wasn't good husband material."
Still, the young family was intact; Jake, Kelley, and Taylor lived together on Star Island as 2007 dawned. On May 16, Kelley gave birth to a calm baby boy with sand-colored hair, named Morgan.
In Batesville, Arkansas, it was colder than usual on January 26, 2007. Kirby Archer, a 34-year-old customer-service manager at a local Wal-Mart, was finishing his shift around 9:30 that night. Archer asked a cashier to help collect money from the registers. He put several bags of cash into a shopping cart: $92,000. Usually at that point, a cashier escorted him to a back room for safety, but on this night, he did something odd, the cashier said: He told her to clock out and go home.
As soon as she left, Archer brought a new microwave oven to the back room and stuffed money inside the box. He toted it through the store to a cash register, where a coworker rang it up, including an employee discount. Archer paid cash. A surveillance camera in the parking lot showed him loading the box into his Ford pickup. He drove to his aunt's and uncle's house and put the microwave box into a blue 1991 Dodge Caravan. Then he sent a text message to his second wife, Michaele: "I really messed up. Remember, I love you!"
Around midnight, Archer was stopped for speeding in Bono, Arkansas, about 30 miles from Batesville. An officer cited him and let him drive off, unaware that police a few towns away were already searching for the alleged Wal-Mart thief.
After police issued a warrant for Archer's arrest, people in his hometown of Strawberry, Arkansas, a few miles from Batesville, began to whisper.
In 1993, when he was living in Arizona, Archer was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor, for keeping Michaele, then 15, out after curfew. He seemed to clean up his act after that as he enlisted in the Army and served as a military investigator at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In 1998, he married another woman, Michelle. A year later, the couple had their first child, a boy, and in 2000, Michelle gave birth to a second son. Three years later, Kirby Archer went AWOL from the Army and was dishonorably discharged. The family moved to Arkansas, and then the marriage dissolved. It was a sordid divorce, documents show: Michelle confessed to lesbian relationships but also claimed that Archer had a tryst with a high school boy and that he had sex with his niece and fathered a child. In court, Archer denied having sex with his niece. Still, he was listed as his niece's child's father on the birth certificate. And then there was the police investigation: Arkansas detectives were probing multiple child-sex-abuse allegations against Archer. The claims were serious enough that Archer was no longer allowed unsupervised visits with his two children by Michelle, and they imperiled his battle for custody of the boys. It was about this time that Archer married Michaele, the girl from Arizona.
Archer's new wife, family, and friends had no idea where he went after the Wal-Mart theft was uncovered in January 2007; he seemed to have vanished without a trace. Then he resurfaced 1,100 miles away, in Hialeah, Florida. He visited the Zarabozo family, whom he'd met in Guantánamo in the early 1990s. Archer was particularly close to the family's youngest son, Guillermo, who was 8 when he and Archer met and bonded in what was then a refugee camp on the U.S. military base. Archer stayed in touch with the boy after that, with Guillermo at one point visiting Archer in Arkansas. After Guillermo graduated from Hialeah High School in 2006, the 18-year-old lived with his mom in a shabby pink condominium not far from the MacArthur Causeway and found work as a security guard.
After Archer showed up in Hialeah, an in-store security camera captured him walking into Lou's Gun Shop and Police Supply with Guillermo Zarabozo on September 12, 2007; court records show that the pair bought two gun cartridge clips in the Miami store that day. Eight days later, Zarabozo bought cell-phone airtime and a SIM card under the name Michael Zoiou at a Coral Gables phone store. That evening, Archer and Zarabozo went to Monty's, a bar overlooking the Miami Beach Marina, where luxury condos loomed above them and million-dollar yachts were docked just feet away. Then they got a room at a faded Days Inn in Hialeah.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.
- Rick Scott Declares State of Emergency as Tropical Storm Erika Approaches
Fri., Sep. 4, 11:30am
Fri., Sep. 4, 6:35pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 11:30am
Sat., Sep. 5, 7:00pm
- Kim and Kanye Pastor Rich Wilkerson Debuting Reality-TV Show
- Study: Fort Lauderdale Worst City in America for College-Educated Women to Date (Best...