Image: Kirby Logan Archer, Guillermo Zarabozo
Shirley Henderson  /  AP
In this courtroom sketch, Kirby Logan Archer, left, and Guillermo Zarabozo appear in federal court in Miami on Wednesday.
updated 10/10/2007 7:03:08 PM ET 2007-10-10T23:03:08

Federal prosecutors charged two men Wednesday with murdering the captain and three crew members of a charter fishing boat they allegedly tried to hijack after hiring it for a quick trip to the Bahamas.

Suspects Kirby Logan Archer, 35, and Guillermo Zarabozo, who turned 20 on Monday, were rescued from the ocean and are in custody. They could get the death penalty or life in prison if convicted.

The charges were built largely on forensic evidence and inconsistencies in statements made by the suspects to investigators about what happened aboard the 47-foot “Joe Cool” fishing boat, said U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta.

Prosecutors have no bodies, no murder weapon, no witnesses and no confession, but Acosta said there is still enough evidence to back up the charges.

“We shouldn’t shy away from a case simply because it isn’t an easy one,” Acosta said at a news conference. “These four individuals were doing what they loved. They were out on the seas, on a boat, and they were murdered in cold blood.”

Attorneys for Archer and Zarabozo did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment. A hearing is scheduled Thursday in federal court for both men.

Missing and presumed dead are the boat’s captain, Jake Branam, 27; his wife, Kelley Branam, 30; his half-brother Scott Gamble, 30; and Samuel Kairy, 27. All are from Miami Beach, and the Branams left behind a young daughter and infant son.

Boat found abandoned
The boat started out on course for Bimini on Sept. 22 but then turned sharply south and was found abandoned and out of fuel about 30 miles north of Cuba, officials said. Investigators say the suspects might have been trying to reach Cuba and had paid $4,000 in cash to make the trip to Bimini.

The men were found floating in the boat’s life raft with no sign of the captain and crew after the Joe Cool was reported missing. Archer and Zarabozo both claimed after their rescue that they were attacked by Cuban pirates at sea who shot the crew one by one but spared their lives.

An FBI affidavit, however, states that the pair gave conflicting accounts about the hijackers, including how they were dressed and how and where the shootings happened on the boat. It says Zarabozo claimed he also slept for eight hours after the hijackers left, while Archer said the two were awake and talking the whole time, “making sure they were each OK.”

Zarabozo, of Hialeah, has been held since his rescue on charges of lying to a federal agent; authorities say he claimed he had never been aboard the Joe Cool.

Archer is in custody as a fugitive from Arkansas charged with stealing more than $92,000 from a Wal-Mart where he had been a manager. Before he left Arkansas in late January, Archer was the target of a child molestation investigation, according to the FBI affidavit.

Prosecutors say those charges will likely be dropped.

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