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Dark Passage

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.

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Tamara Lush