For family and friends of the missing crew of the Joe Cool, the holidays brought no joy -- only tears for four lost loved ones and worries that a suspect's "confession" may not stand up in court.
While it warmed aching hearts to see 3-year-old Taylor Branam beam at a bike she got for Christmas, it was wrenching to hear the little girl make imaginary telephone calls to her mother, Kelley Branam, presumed shot aboard the Miami Beach charter boat and dumped into the dark Atlantic Ocean three months ago.
"It's heartbreaking to watch, " said Leanne Van Laar, Taylor's grandmother and Kelley's mother.
Van Laar flew from St. Louis to spend Christmas with Taylor and her 7-month-old brother, Morgan, at the Branam family home. She said guests choked back tears over an ill-fated voyage that cost the lives of Kelley, 30; her husband, boat captain Jake Branam, 27; Jake's half brother, Scott Gamble, 35; and first-mate Samuel Kairy, 27, all of Miami Beach.
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"Having the children made it easier, but we miss our family members very much, " said Jeff Branam, Jake's uncle.
The two men charged with the cold-blooded slayings at sea -- Kirby Archer, 36, of Strawberry, Ark., and Guillermo Zarabozo, 20, of Hialeah -- remain in the Miami federal detention center in downtown Miami, awaiting a trial not expected to begin for several months.
They've told federal authorities that "Cuban hijackers" stormed the boat, shot the crew and later let them go free in a life raft. But prosecutors believe Archer and Zarabozo, who paid $4,000 for what was supposed to be a one-way charter to Bimini on Sept. 22, intended to take the boat to Cuba all along and killed the crew en route.
With no witnesses or weapons directly linking the murders to Archer or Zarabozo, prosecutors and relatives have hoped one of the men would crack. That hasn't happened. But according to a court document unsealed last week, Zarabozo has fingered Archer for pulling the trigger -- but to an inmate in an adjacent cell, not to federal authorities.
Prosecutors won't discuss the unidentified inmate's statement, but defense attorneys questioned how a convicted felon who has previously aided authorities wound up next to Zarabozo, according to court records.
"[T]he manner in which the former client came to be in any position to claim knowledge of Mr. Zarabozo's activities and statements is highly suspect and suggests that any alleged statements were obtained in violation of Mr. Zarabozo's [constitutional] rights, " public defenders Anthony Natale and Faith Mesnekoff wrote in court papers.
Attorney Allan Kaiser, a former federal prosecutor who now represents Archer, said credibility issues make it uncertain whether the inmate will even be called as a witness.
According to the jailhouse snitch account: Both Zarabozo, a former Florida security guard, and Archer, an Arkansas fugitive wanted on charges of stealing $92,000 from a Wal-Mart, planned to take the boat to Cuba where Archer hoped to settle. Zarabozo claimed Archer -- using Zarabozo's firearm -- shot the crew after arguing with "the driver of the boat" about changing the destination. Zarabozo then agreed to throw the bodies overboard and clean up the scene.
After searching for shell casings and finding only one, the inmate claims Zarabozo told him, the men decided to deploy the boat's life, toss their guns in the sea and "float to Cuba." Instead, the Coast Guard picked them up adrift in the raft, with their luggage aboard, about 30 miles north of Cuba.
Both Archer and Zarabozo entered not guilty pleas Dec. 18 to a 12-count indictment that includes several counts that make them eligible for the death penalty.
For relatives of the victims, the "confession" wasn't the signed one they hoped for, but it still rings of truth, with key elements that match Zarabozo's previous statements.
"I don't know if we're all just grasping at straws, but we pretty much believe it, " said Amie Gamble, Scott Gamble's sister and Jake Branam's half-sister. "I've been to the court hearings. I've watched their body language. I've watched their every movement. At least Zarabozo seems a little remorseful. I think Archer did the dirty work."
Gamble said her family tried not to talk about details of the case over the holidays -- the emotional wounds run too deep.
"Everyone is on edge, " she said. "I sat there and watched my grandmother get up and go into the bedroom and cry and then my grandfather."
Sammy Kairy's family, still too distraught to speak publicly, has issued a statement: "We can't accept that such a brutality could occur in our society and even less in our own family. All that we ask now is for justice."
Complicating the families' struggle of getting through the holidays is a continuing legal fight over the Branam's two children.
Two branches of the Branam family -- Jake's grandmother Jeannette Branam, 74, and uncle Jeff Branam, 51, of Star Island -- seek custody. So does the childrens' great-grandfather, Joseph Harry Branam, 76, of Venetian Isle. Van Laar, 51, of St. Louis, Mo., and her other daughter, Genny Van Laar, 33, of Michigan, also want to raise the kids.
Currently, the Branams share custody. A Miami-Dade judge may decide in the next 60 days with whom the children should live.
Jeff Branam said there are no ill-feelings between the family members, despite the legal battle. "We all want what's best for the children."
Like her granddaughter, Leanne Van Laar said she is not ready to accept that her daughter Kelley is gone. She has hired a company that specializes in long-short searches to look for traces on Bahamian islands in deep ocean waters, but the company has yet to contract a deep-dredge vessel.
'GLIMMER OF HOPE'
"I still have a glimmer of hope that she's somewhere out there, alive, " Van Laar said.
Shirley Clow said she spent a dreary Christmas in bed, knowing she would get no calls or visit from her sons, Jake and Scott, or daughter-in-law, Kelley, but most days she tried to comfort herself with the belief that "the kids are in a better place."
"My faith has been strengthened. They died doing what they loved to do and I know my kids are happy where they are, " said Clow, who raised the boys in Miami Lakes but moved to small-town Edinburg. Ill, four years ago.
"It's a tragedy, of course. I just hope they didn't feel any pain."