A one-time security guard was convicted Thursday of murder, kidnapping and other charges for his role in the 2007 hijacking of the "Joe Cool" charter boat at sea and killing of four people whose bodies were never found.
Guillermo Zarabozo, 21, sat stonefaced as he was found guilty of 16 charges, including four first-degree murder counts that carry mandatory life sentences.
Zarabozo was convicted of plotting the "Joe Cool" takeover with Kirby Archer, 37, an Arkansas fugitive who previously pleaded guilty. Authorities say they paid $4,000 for what was supposed to be a short trip to Bimini, Bahamas, then fatally shot the boat's captain, his wife and two crew members and changed course for Cuba.
Their scheme failed when the boat ran out of fuel a few miles outside Cuban waters. The two men were eventually rescued adrift in the life raft from the "Joe Cool."
Killed were captain Jake Branam, 27; his wife, Kelley Branam, 30; and crew members Scott Gamble, 35, and Samuel Kairy, 27. The Branams left behind two small children who now live with Kelley Branam's sister.
Jake's cousin, Jonathan Branam, 22, was among the last to see the victims alive. Outside court Thursday, he said the verdict against Zarabozo brought a sense of relief.
"He took four people who were very close to me away from me," Jonathan Branam said. "This is a big closure for me. I'm really happy it's over."
Zarabozo's mother, weeping and visibly distraught, declined to speak with reporters, as did Zarabozo's defense attorneys. U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta issued a short statement praising the efforts of prosecutors Karen Gilbert, Jeffrey Tsai and Michael Gilfarb and investigators from various agencies.
Zarabozo was convicted of conspiracy; four counts each of first-degree murder and kidnapping; robbery; hijacking and violence aboard a ship; and four weapons charges.
U.S. District Judge Paul Huck set sentencing for May 6.
Blamed killings on another
Testifying in his own defense, Zarabozo blamed the killings solely on Archer and said he thought they were going to Bimini for a lucrative security job that would lead to CIA work in Cuba. Zarabozo admitted bringing his 9 mm Glock pistol aboard the boat but said he never shot anyone, and that Archer threatened to kill him as well.
Both men initially told investigators the "Joe Cool" had been set upon at sea by Cuban pirates who had killed the four people, but Archer later admitted that was a lie.
Prosecutors, however, had ample evidence that Zarabozo was a willing participant in the plot. New evidence for the second trial included computer messages and chats between Zarabozo and his friends indicating he was planning a trip to Cuba and might turn up on news reports as a missing person.
Archer, a former military police investigator who had been stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was on the run from the law when he met Zarabozo. He had been accused of molesting children in Arkansas and was fleeing a charge of stealing $92,000 from a Wal-Mart where he was a manager.
Archer previously said in court that he shot the Branams and that Zarabozo killed the two crew members. The bodies, and two murder weapons, were tossed into the ocean.
Zarabozo's first trial last year ended in a hung jury on most counts.
The jury in Zarabozo's first trial failed to agree on any charges except the weapons counts, because he had admitted bringing the gun aboard. Judge Huck threw out those convictions and ordered a new trial because of faulty jury instructions and unclear answers to questions submitted by that first jury during deliberations.