Ghost Boat

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

Ghost Boat

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.

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.

By the time Kelley attended community college at age eighteen, 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 — especially 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. "Someday," 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, and her daughter was doing well in her new home. The 26-year-old worked as a waitress at a 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. Jake was 23, three years younger than Kelley, but she loved hearing his stories of sailing around the Caribbean and reeling in big catches. He was studying for his captain's license, and his dream was to own a fishing boat charter service. Kelley envisioned herself onboard with Jake, diving into the blue water or angling for tarpon.

A bonus: Jake's family was super-rich. His grandparents founded and owned LR Alliance Manufacturing, a business they started in the '70s that made metal trash cans, benches and other products in Opa-Locka. The Branam clan lived in a mansion worth more than $10 million on Star Island — where Gloria Estefan lives — one of the area's most exclusive addresses.

Jake lived in that mansion, Kelley told her mother, the same white beauty she had seen years before. Kelley and Jake's relationship evolved at warp speed, and 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 in a soft, Mom-knows-best voice. "Honey, nothing's ever free."

As Jake and some relatives prepared to launch the 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. What Jake had called "the beach house" was really an apartment above the garage. It was mildewy and moldy, and the toilet 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. Property records showed the family had bought the place for only $250,000 in 1976, and Kelley would often joke that she lived at the "Star Island Trailer Park" or the "Star Island Ghetto," family members later recalled.

Then there were the disconcerting details about Jake's relatives, many of whom lived on Star Island. First was Jeannette Branam, his grandmother. A short woman with wild, curly blond hair and a white streak in the middle like Cruella DeVille, she and Jake's grandfather, Harry Branam, had finished a nasty divorce in 1997; according to court documents, she had been arrested for DUI after the split. (The charge was later dropped.) And Jeannette had 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 also divorced. His mother, Shirley Clow, lived in Edinburg, Illinois — a few hours from Leanne. Shirley had left Florida after divorcing Jake's father, Joe, in 1991, but allowed her son to stay in Miami. Kelley had adored Joe, who 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 bursting 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 would later say, and Jeannette refused to help. Taylor was born November 26, 2004, a five-pound eleven-ounce girl with a sweet disposition and a shock of dark hair.

Kelley spent the next two years caring for the baby. Jake realized his dream when his grandfather gave him $220,000 to buy and refurbish a 47-foot Buddy Davis yacht located 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 the young woman arrived in St. Louis, she was severely dehydrated and had to be hospitalized briefly. She flew back to Miami in early October. A few days later, she called her mom. "Jake and I are getting married," she said. "We need to get insurance for the baby."

Kelley and Jake were wed on a beach somewhere in Miami — Leanne doesn't know the location — on October 14. Kelley borrowed a dress 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 for this story were unsuccessful.) Several 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 his pregnant wife and their baby to stay behind on Star Island.

Kelley spent only a month in St. Louis before returning to Miami in November. For much of that time, she was depressed 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 stuck together; Jake, Kelley and Taylor lived on Star Island as 2007 dawned. And on May 16 of that year, Kelley gave birth to a calm baby boy with sandy hair. They named him Morgan.

Another drama unfolded in early 2007, this one in Batesville, Arkansas. It was a little colder than usual the night of January 26. Around 9:30, Kirby Archer, the customer service manager at the local Wal-Mart, prepared to finish his evening shift. He asked a cashier ($92,000, investigators would later discover) to help collect money from the registers and put several bags of cash into a shopping cart. The 34-year-old Archer then did something odd, according to the cashier: He told her to clock out and go home. Usually she escorted Archer to a back room for safety.

As soon as she left, he took a new microwave oven to the back room and stuffed the money inside the box. Next he toted it through the store to a cash register, where a co-worker rang it up — including the employee discount. Archer paid in cash, and surveillance video of the parking lot showed him loading it into his Ford pickup. Then he drove to his aunt and uncle's house and put the box in a blue 1991 Dodge Caravan. Finally he sent a text message to his second wife, Michaele: "I really messed up," he wrote. "Remember, I love you!"

Around midnight, Archer was stopped for speeding in Bono, about 30 miles down the road from Batesville. An officer wrote him a citation and let him drive off, not realizing that police a few towns away were already searching for the 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 about his disappearance. In 1993, while living in Arizona, he had been convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor, for keeping the then-fifteen-year-old Michaele out after curfew. Later he seemed to clean his act up by enlisting in the army and serving as a military investigator at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He married a woman named Michelle in 1998. A year later, they had their first child, a boy, and in 2000, Michelle gave birth to a second son.

Three years later, Archer went AWOL from the army and was dishonorably discharged. The family moved to Arkansas, where the marriage dissolved. It was a sordid divorce, according to documents. She confessed to lesbian relationships, claimed Archer had a tryst with a high school boy, and added that he'd had sex with his own niece and fathered a child with her. (During a court hearing, Archer denied sex with his niece but admitted he was listed as the father on the baby's birth certificate.) Then there was the police investigation: Detectives in Arkansas were probing multiple child sex abuse allegations so serious that Archer was prohibited from seeing his own two children unsupervised. Indeed, those claims made it seem likely he would lose a fight for custody of the boys.

Around this time, he wed Michaele, the girl from Arizona.

After the theft at Wal-Mart, Archer's family, friends and new wife didn't know where he had gone. It was as if he had vanished. He eventually surfaced 1,100 miles away, in Hialeah, Florida, a mostly Hispanic Miami suburb. There he visited the Zarabozo family, whom he had met in the early '90s in Guantánamo. He was especially close to the youngest son, Guillermo, who was only eight when they bonded at the refugee camp. The pair had kept in touch; the boy had even visited Archer's home in Arkansas. After graduating from Hialeah Senior High School in 2006, the then-eighteen-year-old lived with his mother in a shabby pink condo and worked as a security guard.

It's unclear where Archer lived after arriving in Hialeah. Some say he stayed with the Zarabozos, while others contend he resided at the home of another Cuban family in the Miami area. No one is sure how he spent his money or how often he saw Guillermo Zarabozo, but a September 12, 2007, meeting was captured on tape. An in-store camera recorded the two men walking into Lou's Police Supply and purchasing two gun cartridge clips, court records show.

Eight days later, on Thursday, September 20, Zarabozo bought cell phone airtime and a SIM card under the name Michael Zoiou at a local phone store. That evening, the twosome hung out at Monty's, a bar overlooking the Miami Beach Marina. With luxury condos looming above and million-dollar yachts docked just feet from them, Archer and his young friend were a world away from their scruffy lives.

That night the pair checked into 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?" asked Kelley, giggling. She had recently taken the kids to Disney World and then sent her grandma photos and a bottle of orange blossom perfume for her birthday. Donna thanked Kelley for the gift. "I love you," Kelley said happily, and they hung up.

Here's what Kelley didn't mention to her grandmother: 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 two-year-old Taylor and four-month-old Morgan off at Jake's grandfather's home and then headed out to sea.

Kelley wasn't the only one excited about the trip. So was Jake; it was his fledgling business' first Bahamas charter. The clients, later identified as Archer and Zarabozo, would pay the $4,000 fare in cash. They said they planned to meet up with girlfriends in Bimini. The two guys had found the Joe Cool while wandering around the Miami Beach Marina, looking for a ride. At least two charter services refused them. Then they came upon Sammy, the 27-year-old first mate, who was hanging out on the boat alone when they approached.

Sammy was a South Florida native, an expert fisherman and a laid-back guy. Friends describe him as unbelievably funny and a fan of the movie Scarface. When the two guys inquired about going to Bimini, Sammy asked why they couldn't fly. Archer explained his girlfriend had accidentally packed his passport.

On September 22, Jake, Sammy and the other first mate, Scott, headed out for an early-morning fishing charter and returned around 1 p.m. Thirty-five-year-old Scott, Jake's older half-brother, was born in Miami, moved to Arizona, and then returned to South Florida in 2006 after a bad breakup. He was like a best friend to Jake, sharing a love of the open water and big-game fishing.

Kelley joined the three men, and they all drank beer while awaiting Archer and Zarabozo. The pair showed up fifteen minutes late, toting six black duffel bags. Jake's cousin, Jon Branam, a co-owner of the charter business, stopped by to collect the fares. Jon later recalled Archer seemed like a "real nice guy, likable ... I didn't really see anything wrong." Archer had frosted blond hair and a goatee; Zarabozo was quiet, dark-haired, and handsome. Before they left, Sammy ran over to a shop at the marina to buy some bait.

Jake piloted the boat past Monty's, the luxury condos and Fisher Island. Halfway to Bimini, an onboard GPS 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. This was likely Archer's plan all along, federal agents believe: Go to Cuba and hide out from the child sex abuse allegations, the Arkansas grand theft charges and the custody battle with his ex-wife. After all, the Caribbean nation has no extradition treaty with the United States, and he could live well there off of the duffel bags of cash.

What happened next is something of a mystery, but the following version would come from a jailhouse snitch, who claims Zarabozo recounted events aboard the Joe Cool while he was in a federal lockup:

Archer told Jake to turn the boat around. He refused. They began to shout at one another. Archer pulled out a 9 mm pistol and pointed it at Jake. Kelley yelled frantically to Sammy and Scott. "Call the Coast Guard! Now!"

The young bride likely watched as Archer shot her husband. Then he fired at Kelley, Sammy and Scott.

Zarabozo tossed the four bodies overboard while Archer tried to navigate the boat through the choppy Florida Straits. At that point, his plan collapsed. Maybe he found that piloting the Joe Cool was difficult. Plus Archer was incensed that Zarabozo could find only one shell casing. They decided to abandon ship and float to Cuba on a life raft.

They threw the gun into the ocean and climbed aboard the rubber vessel. It was probably late Saturday or early Sunday; by that time, Jake Branam's family had informed authorities of the yacht's tardiness. The Coast Guard began searching the waters off the Bahamas.

The cutter's crew found the empty Joe Cool after a daylong search. They quickly turned up four 9 mm shells, Zarabozo's ID and cell phone and blood on the boat's stern. About twelve hours later, on the morning of Tuesday, September 25, the Coast Guard found Archer and Zarabozo in the life raft. They were carrying a blow gun, some darts and 22 $100 bills.

Helicopter rescuers lifted the men from the raft onto the cutter. Interviewed separately, they told a wild story of Cuban pirates who came out of nowhere and attempted to hijack the yacht, 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. "He was sure of the length of time he had slept because he had set his stopwatch."

Other disturbing details emerged. Federal agents discovered 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 the small key found aboard the Joe Cool fit a pair of handcuffs. Meanwhile, local and national reporters swarmed Zarabozo's mother's house. She spoke briefly to America TeVe, a Miami-based network, about how her son met Archer in Cuba; neighbors told newspaper reporters that Zarabozo was a quiet kid who would never harm anyone.

Jake Branam's family in Miami began to learn of the horror about 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. "I just saw Kelley's picture on TV," he said. The Coast Guard, they would all soon learn, had given up the search for bodies after only three days.

U.S. District Judge Paul Huck's court is on the tenth floor of the federal building in downtown Miami. The walls are dark mahogany, and the carpet is the color of rust. Seven round Art Deco chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Heavy curtains cover the windows. It's uncomfortably cold.

Judge Huck is best known for overseeing the trial of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whom he sentenced to five years in prison for the SunCruz Casino fraud case in 2006. But worldwide media attention returned to his courtroom when Archer and Zarabozo were charged with murdering the Joe Cool's crew.

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

Five lawyers represent the men — three for Zarabozo and two for Archer — and everyone huddles around two tables facing the judge. Federal lockup has not been kind to Archer: His spine is rounded, almost in the shape of the letter C, and his eyes have shrunk into narrow slits. His once-blond hair has turned a dull brown. He wears a perpetual smirk and a goatee that appears ridiculous in the serious courtroom.

Zarabozo, on the other hand, looks fresh. He's tall and strapping, with latte-color skin and a neatly trimmed buzz cut. He smiles at his lawyers and turns to grin at his mother and sister, who are sitting on benches a few rows back from the defense table. He looks like a Labrador puppy, eager and naive. And naive he may be: During this court hearing, the lawyers and the judge discuss whether to admit as evidence his description of the crime to the jailhouse snitch.

Both Zarabozo and the snitch (whom identified as a "Miami thug" named Antwan Hall) are represented by the federal public defender's office. Prosecutors claim this is a conflict of interest. More snags are anticipated. The state must try a murder case with no bodies — just DNA from the blood on the boat and circumstantial evidence.

The trial is months away, so relations between the government and the defense are still cordial. "You're all great lawyers," Judge Huck gushes. "That's the great thing about this case."

When the hearing ends, Archer walks from the courtroom first, led by federal agents. He passes within a few feet of Zarabozo's family but doesn't make eye contact.

Guillermo Zarabozo grins and gives his mom a thumbs-up.

A week later, on the 23rd floor of the county courthouse, a less-watched drama is playing out. Judge Sandy Karlan ponders where Taylor and Morgan Branam will live. There are more lawyers and even more complexities involved in this action than the federal murder case. Leanne as well as Kelley's sister Genny filed for custody. So did Jeannette Branam — the children's great-grandmother — and her son Jeff. Great-grandfather Harry Branam Sr. is also seeking custody.

The discussion goes in circles: Social workers should study Genny's one-bedroom apartment in Michigan before she is considered, says the judge.

But Genny is moving into a four-bedroom home in a month, her lawyer responds.

What about Genny's fiancé, asks the judge. Who will evaluate him?

Then there are more questions from the judge, and from the six other 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 the kids? Should they spend more time on Star Island?

Morgan isn't old enough to know what's going on, but Taylor is full of questions, reports the guardian ad litem.

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

There are other issues. Harry and Jeannette don't look at each other in the courtroom. Each has filed motions containing nasty allegations of past substance abuse and bad behavior during their divorce. "I don't intend to retry the divorce between Harry and Jeannette. Is everybody clear on that?" Judge Karlan says, sharply.

Everyone nods.

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

At the end of the hearing, Judge Karlan orders psychological evaluations of everyone in the family. And Taylor, she says, must see a therapist regularly. The girl keeps telling everyone she needs to return to Star Island permanently. Her explanation: "It's because Mommy and Daddy are coming home."

Leanne is also focused on finding her daughter. She has contacted Texas EquuSearch, the search-and-recovery outfit that looked for missing Alabama teen Natalee Holloway near Aruba for no charge in 2006 and 2007. But EquuSearch needs a boat for its equipment, and so far no one has donated a vessel large enough, which drives Leanne crazy.

"Isn't my daughter as important as Natalee Holloway?" she asks.

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