Ghost Boat

Four people disappeared from the Joe Cool. They may never be found.

Two hours before sunset this past September 23, sailors aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter spotted the Joe Cool. The 47-foot fishing boat bobbed atop the waves, its 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 beautiful 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 children, two-year-old Taylor and four-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 teenage boy and a man with a Southern drawl and piglike eyes. The pair had paid $4,000 for the trip.

Kelley Branam aboard the Joe Cool.
Kelley Branam aboard the Joe Cool.
Above: Kelley and Jake Branam boarded the yacht September 21 for the fateful charter.
Above: Kelley and Jake Branam boarded the yacht September 21 for the fateful charter.

But when it was spotted, the boat was about 30 miles from Cuba. It was just a quick motor away from Anguilla Cay in the Bahamas, an uninhabited, scrub-covered atoll famous to divers and fishermen for its mysterious blue holes — pockets in the ocean floor that plunge 1,000 feet down.

No one had heard from Jake, Kelley, Sammy or Scott in two and a half days. As the Coast Guard officers approached the Joe Cool, they should have heard voices. Instead they were greeted with silence. No one emerged from below deck; nobody waved from the cockpit. There were no signs of burnt-out flares. The boat was empty, a ghostly white shell floating on the open sea.

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 initiated a search-and-rescue of the vessel and found its condition 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 the presence of human blood."

Two questions remained: Where were Jake, Kelley, Sammy and Scott? And where were the two passengers?

Only one of those questions would be answered.

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 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 difficult 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 lobby is bustling; business travelers stir their coffee, and sunburned, hungover tourists amble to a nearby breakfast bar. Leanne, who is sitting on a love seat, is oblivious. Lately she's been consumed with trying to find someone to donate a large boat so a search-and-recovery team can comb the Bahamas for the Joe Cool crew. Leanne wonders if they're still alive on a remote island. So far, though, no one has offered help. "Why hasn't anyone donated a boat?" Leanne wonders and then sobs.

She continues in a pleading tone: "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. She's spread out a few photos, a Christmas card and an album. "Here's Kelley's ski pass," she says. "Oh, and here's one of her in braces." The snapshots show a stunning girl with chestnut hair, big brown eyes, and a wide smile — an all-American beauty, athletic and glowing with confidence.

Leanne is 51 years old. A former flight attendant who lives in St. Louis, she looks like a more mature version of Kelley, but with blond hair. Leanne doesn't like Miami — hates the humidity, the bugs, the rude people. Or maybe she loathes the city because it was like a siren song to her daughter, who came here to escape. "Kelley never fit in," says Leanne, 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 enjoyed softball, hayrides and pumpkin patches. "I think she had a really happy childhood," Leanne says.

Kelley loved sports. She saved every penny of her allowance to ski at Timber Ridge, a local slope. She was a tomboy; her favorite superhero was Wonder Woman, and she adored He-Man. She went through an Egypt phase at age seven — she loved 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. She also adored 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 Kelley was a teenager, the stray animals were replaced by needy kids, who often got a free meal, courtesy of Leanne.

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