Published September 23, 2008
MIAMI – A 20-year-old Hialeah man carefully plotted with an older Arkansas fugitive to hijack the "Joe Cool" charter boat last September and fatally shot two of the four people killed on the high seas, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday in closing arguments at the man's trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Gilbert scoffed at Guillermo Zarabozo's claims that he didn't know the violence was about to take place when they boarded the vessel out of Miami. Zarabozo blamed 36-year-old Kirby Archer for the crimes, contending he was in the boat's bathroom when the four victims were shot.
"It's all made up. None of that ever happened," Gilbert said of Zarabozo's testimony. "It was a joint effort. They were acting together."
Their goal, she added, was to take the boat to Cuba, where Archer could hide from Arkansas authorities investigating allegations that he had sexually molested children and stolen $92,000 from a Wal-Mart he managed. The boat ran out of fuel about 18 miles from Cuban waters.
"The defendant and his co-conspirator were one more hour of fuel away from getting away with this crime," Gilbert said.
Zarabozo faces life in prison if convicted of conspiracy, murder, kidnapping, robbery and other charges in a 16-count indictment. Archer previously pleaded guilty and also faces life behind bars.
Zarabozo's attorneys were scheduled to give closing arguments later Tuesday. Jurors will then begin deliberating.
Testimony showed that Archer chartered the "Joe Cool" on Sept. 22, 2007, for $4,000 in cash for a trip to Bimini, about 50 miles east of Miami in the Bahamas. Archer said he and Zarabozo were planning to meet girlfriends on a yacht in the islands who had their passports, which is why they claimed they couldn't take a cheaper flight, witnesses said.
The vessel failed to return on time and the Coast Guard later discovered it abandoned and adrift far south of its destination. Guardsmen also found Archer and Zarabozo, along with their luggage, a few miles away in the boat's life raft.
Missing and presumed dead are the boat's captain, Jake Branam; his wife, Kelley Branam; and crew members Scott Gamble and Samuel Kairy. Archer and Zarabozo initially claimed they were attacked by Cuban pirates at sea, but Zarabozo admitted that was a lie.
Gilbert said Archer shot Branam and his wife on the boat's upper decks and that Zarabozo killed Gamble and Kairy below.
Authorities never recovered their bodies or weapons and have no witnesses who saw what happened on the boat. But they had evidence that Zarabozo brought his 9mm Glock handgun aboard and had recently purchased ammunition identical to four shell casings found on the "Joe Cool."
The pair also sought to cover their tracks, authorities said. They bought a cell phone in a false name and stayed at multiple hotels. Coast Guard rescuers said the two didn't seem happy when they were rescued.
Prosecutors also were able to show using global-positioning and current drift data that the boat takeover took only about 1 minute 18 seconds, far too quick for one man to do it alone, Gilbert said.
"The only way there is a very quick overtaking is if there is a plan in place — a conspiracy," she said.