Man gets life in 'Joe Cool' boat slayings

/ Source: The Associated Press

Kirby Archer sat stone-faced Tuesday while listening to the families of the four people he killed aboard a fishing boat describe how the slayings ruined their lives.

"Our hell is on earth and it began with you," sobbed Amy Gamble, the half-sister of the boat's captain, Jake Branam.

When the relatives finished their anguished testimony, a judge sentenced Archer to five consecutive life terms. The 36-year-old pleaded guilty in July to first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping, conspiracy and hijacking the 'Joe Cool' yacht in September 2007 after it left Miami for the Bahamas. Archer was sentenced to one life sentence for each count of murder and a fifth for the conspiracy count.

He stood up and addressed his victims' families.

"For the family, I wish that, um, I wish I could take back what happened," he said slowly. "I wish I could show a little more emotion. But I'm not built that way."

Guillermo Zarabozo, a second man accused in the slayings, was convicted last month on lesser firearms charges and could face life in prison. A mistrial was declared on 12 other charges, which included kidnapping and first-degree murder with a second trial set for next year.

Theft at Wal-Mart
The story began in January 2007 in Batesville, Ark., when Archer — who was under investigation on child molestation charges there — stole $94,000 from the Wal-Mart where he worked and made a beeline to Florida. He hid out for months and by September, had befriended Zarabozo, an 18-year-old Cuban-American, prosecutors said.

Archer and Zarabozo booked the 47-foot "Joe Cool," at the Miami Beach Marina for a phony trip to Bimini, Bahamas, but intended all along to hijack it to Cuba, prosecutors say. The two men paid $4,000 in cash to go to Bimini.

The boat was owned by 27-year-old Jake Branam. His half brother, Scott Gamble, and a buddy, Sammy Kairy, worked as crew members.

On Sept. 22, Branam's wife, 30-year-old Kelley, dropped off the couple's children — then six months and 2 years old — at their great-grandparents' house so she could go on the trip.

Empty boat discovered
A day later, when the boat and crew were overdue, Coast Guard officials found an empty Joe Cool floating in the azure waters some 30 miles from Cuba. Officials found Archer and Zarabozo a few miles away in the yacht's life raft.

They initially told rescuers a tale about being attacked by Cuban pirates who killed the four aboard, but both later admitted it was a lie.

Prosecutors said Archer killed Branam and his wife on the upper decks while Zarabozo shot the two crew members in the cabin. Authorities say their bodies were dumped overboard. Zarabozo at his trial denied killing anyone. Phone and e-mail messages to his attorneys Tuesday for a comment on the sentencing and how it might affect Zarabozo were not immediately returned.

Relatives say they don't have closure, in large part because the bodies were never found.

"The only grave we have is the ocean," said Amy Gamble.

In the months following the killings, an expensive and often contentious custody battle over the Branams' young son and daughter dragged on in family court. Kelley's sister is now caring for the children. Taylor, who is now 3, pretends to phone her mother and ask, "Mommy, when are you coming home?"

No one was surprised, including Archer, that Judge Paul Huck would sentence him to life behind bars.

'I deserve the death penalty'
"There's nothing I can say to fix it or take it back," said Archer, who has grown pale and puffy in prison. "I deserve to sit in jail the rest of my life. I deserve the death penalty, no question about that."

His plea deal precluded him from being executed.

Archer admitted the four aboard didn't deserve to die.

"These people were good people," he said. "They didn't do any wrong to me."