MIAMI – It began as a case of six missing boaters. Then came the dramatic tale of an attack on the high seas by Cuban pirates, four fatal shootings and the rescue of two survivors from a life raft. Then the two survivors were charged with murder.
Nearly a year after the "Joe Cool" charter vessel set sail for the Bahamas, jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday for the trial of 20-year-old Guillermo Zarabozo on charges of murder, kidnapping, robbery and several violations of maritime law.
Zarabozo faces life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors say Zarabozo and 36-year-old Kirby Archer tried to hijack the boat to Cuba after hiring it in September 2007 for a phony trip to the island of Bimini. When the captain, his wife and crew resisted, prosecutors say the pair shot all four and dumped their bodies into the ocean. The victims were never found.
Archer, who was a robbery fugitive from Strawberry, Ark., pleaded guilty in July and may testify in the case. Zarabozo is expected to testify in his defense, claiming that Archer committed the killings and that he wasn't aware of the Cuba hijacking plot.
At a hearing in August, Zarabozo said he also went along with the story about an attack by pirates because he feared Archer would kill him as well.
"Is it fair to say you felt in fear for your life?" asked Zarabozo attorney Anthony Natale.
"Yes," Zarabozo said. "He had just shot four people."
A psychologist is expected to testify that Zarabozo was so shocked by the killings that he might have appeared suspiciously aloof or insensitive when he and Archer were rescued from the ocean.
Prosecutors, however, say Archer fatally shot "Joe Cool" captain Jake Branam and his wife, Kelley, and that Zarabozo shot crew members Scott Gamble and Samuel Kairy. The Branams left behind two small children, who now live with relatives.
No guns were ever found, but prosecutors say they will prove there was more than one gun on the boat. The FBI did find four 9mm shell casings they say can be traced to an ammunition magazine receipt found at Zarabozo's home in the Miami suburb of Hialeah.
In addition, they say a witness identified in court documents only as "C.M." will testify about how he hooked Zarabozo up with Archer, who wanted someone for "a big job." The witness also will say Zarabozo, who had worked in security, helped Archer buy a gun and that the two of them scouted out marinas and boats for a trip.
Archer was a fugitive sought for the theft of $92,000 from a Wal-Mart in Arkansas where he had been a manager. Authorities say he wanted to go to Cuba because he had served as a military policeman at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay and because Cuba has no extradition treaty with the U.S.
The "Joe Cool" was found abandoned and adrift far south of its course for Bimini. Zarabozo and Archer were picked up by the Coast Guard in a life raft a few miles away. Authorities say the "Joe Cool" ran out of fuel before reaching Cuban waters.