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Oct. 11, 2007 | Two charged in murder of boat crew

They don't have bodies, guns, confessions or witnesses. But federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged the two men who chartered a Miami Beach boat with murdering its four crew members and dumping their bodies in the Atlantic Ocean.

U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the execution-style killings, which had "torn apart" families and left two young children orphaned, warranted first-degree murder charges.

"They were on the seas, on a boat, and they were murdered in cold blood, " he said.

Authorities described the suspects' tale of murderous pirates invading the boat as an implausible coverup riddled with holes. Acosta said the men -- Guillermo Zarabozo, who just turned 20, of Hialeah, and Kirby Archer, 35, of Arkansas -- gave different accounts about what the hijackers were wearing, how the killings were carried out and how they survived in the hours after the horrific Sept. 22 event.

And although they acknowledge there is no smoking gun, FBI agents found receipts in Zarabozo's apartment for a Glock 9mm magazine and four boxes of 9mm bullets purchased from Lou's Gun Shop and Police Supply in Hialeah.

Agents found four spent shell casings of the same size and brand -- Federal Cartridge, Hydra-Shok 9mm bullets -- on the vessel, Joe Cool. Prosecutors displayed an example of the bullet, standard law enforcement ammunition, at a news conference.

CIRCUMSTANTIAL

In a criminal complaint, prosecutors said there was enough circumstantial evidence to pin the killings on the two men, though they would not speculate on the motive.

Prosecutors filed the preliminary murder charges to buy time as the FBI continues to go over physical evidence -- including human blood discovered inside the vessel's cabin. If a federal grand jury returns a first-degree murder indictment, prosecutors could seek death penalties.

Both men, who are being held at the federal detention center in downtown Miami, are to be arraigned on lesser charges today.

The pair paid $4,000 to charter the boat on Sept. 22 for a trip to Bimini and were rescued two days later in the abandoned boat's life raft. The Coast Guard recovered the 47-foot Joe Cool.

Missing and presumed dead are captain Jake Branam, 27; his wife, Kelley Branam, 30; Branam's half-brother, Scott Gamble, 35, and first mate Samuel Kairy, 27, all of Miami Beach. The Branams leave behind a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son.

Jeff Branam, the captain's uncle, welcomed the charges.

"We feel these people did it, " he said. "We would hate for them to be able to walk on this one."

Archer's mother maintained her son's innocence.

"My son didn't hurt those people, and that's all I need to say, " Betty Archer said in a phone interview from her apartment in Mountain Home, Ark.

Archer's attorney, former federal prosecutor Allan Kaiser, said the charges were hollow.

"They're under the gun, " Kaiser said. "The magistrate judge said last week, 'You better come up with more evidence.' This is the evidence? I don't see a first-degree, premeditated murder case predicated on alleged inconsistent statements."

Zarabozo was being detained on charges of making a false statement to the Coast Guard when he said he did not recognize the Joe Cool. Archer was being held on a separate offense of fleeing prosecution on charges of stealing $92,000 from a Wal-Mart in Arkansas.

The men have told investigators that "three Cuban hijackers" boarded the Joe Cool during the crossing to Bimini and shot the crew.

Last week, at a bail hearing, U.S. Magistrate William Turnoff pressed prosecutors to produce more evidence to justify holding the two men.

SOME DIFFERENCES

This week, Acosta said additional information underscored the suspects' "inconsistent and confused" statements. Among the new details:

* Zarabozo said the Joe Cool had been lured to a "disabled vessel" by a distress signal -- one the Coast Guard says it has no record of.

* The men gave different descriptions of what hijackers were wearing, what weapons they used, in what order the victims were shot and how the bodies were dumped.

* They also had starkly different memories of what happened as they were being held hostage after the killings. Zarabozo said he slept for eight hours on a fly bridge bench next to Archer as the older man operated the vessel. Archer told investigators "Zarabozo was awake" and that he and Zarabozo spoke constantly to make sure "they were each 'OK.' "

MORE PIRATES

The complaint added other new details, including the suspects' claims that a second pirate boat picked up the hijackers after the Joe Cool ran out of fuel near Cuba. At that point, the men say they were allowed to get on a life raft with their personal luggage and $2,200 in cash.

FBI investigators also found a receipt for a cellphone card they say Zarabozo purchased under an alias -- "Michael Zoiou" -- and used to arrange the charter.

The charges, coming five days after a memorial service for the victims in the waters off Miami, brought some comfort to relatives.

"It's the best thing I've heard since all this started, " said Amie Gamble, Scott Gamble's sister and Jake Branam's half-sister.

Despite the "beautiful service" on Saturday, Gamble said her emotional wounds run deep -- a pain she said is compounded by the uncertainity of what happened on the Joe Cool.

"I almost feel like we had these services and we're being forced to move on, " she said. "I still don't have the answers. I still don't have the bodies. We still don't have anything."

Miami Herald staff writer Lisa Arthur contributed to this report.

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