MIAMI – Unlike most boats returning from the high seas, the sport fisher Joe Cool had no tales to tell. Three days earlier, the 47-foot boat had departed for the island of Bimini, four crew members and two passengers aboard. A day earlier, it had been found, doing circles and dragging anchor, on a lonely stretch of the Florida Straits about 30 miles north of Cuba.
With no crew.
And no passengers.
As a Coast Guard cutter towed it slowly back into Biscayne Bay, a hush fell over its home, the Miami Beach Marina.
In the slips, men ceased buffing the pearly hulls of multimillion-dollar yachts. Dock boys stopped zipping about in EZGO carts. Even the Shih Tzu-walkers in their Gucci sunglasses and clogs paused as the white vessel glided without a murmur up the channel.
Along the docks and the palm-lined pier, "Everyone stood there and followed the boat with their eyes," Valerie Kevorkian, a dive shop operator and scuba instructor, recalled, "and then there was only emptiness ... a ghostly feeling."
Indeed, the Joe Cool had returned with no souls or story — only clues, tantalizing to be sure, to a high-seas mystery full of twists, discrepancies, revelations and contradictions.
As on an episode of "CSI," investigators would pluck from the vessel some valuable evidence: four 9 mm shell casings; a tiny key that might or might not unlock handcuffs; splotches of human blood, inside and outside the cabin.
They would also find, drifting in an orange life raft 12 miles north of the ghost ship, two seemingly incongruous men who had chartered the Joe Cool — a 35-year-old suspected thief on the run from police in Arkansas, and a clean-cut, 19-year-old Cuban-American training to become a private security guard.
They would interrogate these survivors, take down a story that three pirates had hijacked the boat and coldly shot each crew member, and then, for some reason, let these two go in a life raft with their luggage and about $2,200 in cash.
Investigators didn't buy the story. On Wednesday, prosecutors charged the suspects with first-degree murder in the high-seas killing of the Joe Cool's young, four-member crew: the captain, Jake Branam, 27; his wife, Kelley, 30; Jake's half-brother, Scott Gamble, 35, and their friend and first mate, Samuel Kairy, 27.
What law enforcement would not immediately provide — may never fully provide, perhaps — are what the relatives and friends of the four most desire: Answers and, by extension, closure.
For a week after its return, the Joe Cool sat in dock at a Coast Guard station directly across the channel from the marina. No one was allowed near the vessel — except the forensics experts who combed it for clues — but the boat's graceful hull and vaulting flybridge were visible, and haunting, to all.
"This could have happened to any one of us, and whenever you looked at that boat over there, it reminded of you of that," said Greg Love, 51, who runs Club Nautico South Beach, one of the marina's five charter businesses.
Kevorkian, whose dive shop is next door, caught herself many times that week, gazing beyond the boat lifts at the tied-up Joe Cool.
"It just looked empty. Like a shell," she said. "There was no feeling, no soul in it anymore."