Details of Disappearance
Kelly and her husband, Jake, were last seen on September 23, 2007. They left Miami Beach in Florida in Jake's 47-foot fishing vessel, the Joe Cool, with Jake's half-brother, Scott Gamble; a friend, Samuel Kairy; and two others, Kirby Logan Archer and Guillermo Zarabozo. A photograph of the Joe Cool is posted with this case summary.
They planned to take Archer and Zarabozo to the Bahamas to meet their girlfriends, then return to Miami the following day. Archer and Zarabozo paid them $4,000 for the trip. The Branams, Gamble and Kairy have never been heard from again. Photographs of Archer and Zarabozo are posted with this case summary.
Between 4:00 and 5:45 p.m. September 24, Jake's uncle contacted authorities to say Kelly, Jake, Gamble and Kairy had not arrived back in Miami as scheduled. They were expected to return no later than noon.
Authorities discovered that a patrol boat had already located the Joe Cool at 6:00 p.m. on September 23, adrift in the Straits of Florida, 20 miles from Cuba and nearly 160 miles off its course. There was no one on board. The boat was in disarray and the life rafts were missing; it appeared as if the occupants had left hurriedly. A search was launched for the missing captain and crew.
Zarabozo and Archer were found in a life raft at 9:45 a.m. on September 27, not far from where the Joe Cool had been located. They were rescued and questioned by investigators. Zarabozo was later charged with making false statements to a federal agent.
Investigators discovered Archer had a warrant out for his arrest; in January 2007 he allegedly stole $92,000 from a Wal-Mart store in Arkansas where he had been an assistant manager. He was charged with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. An extensive search turned up no sign of the others from the boat.
On October 10, Archer and Zarabozo were charged with four counts each of first-degree murder, one for each of the missing individuals from the boat. Authorities stated both suspects made inconsistent statements: they could not agree how and when they met one another or what exactly happened on board the Joe Cool, and they could not provide any information about the girlfriends they planned to meet in the Bahamas.
Zarabozo told investigators that three armed men had hijacked the boat and shot the Branams, Kairy and Gamble. He said he threw the bodies overboard himself and cleaned up the mess. However, evidence aboard the boat contradicted Zarabozo's story.
He claimed the victims had been all shot outside the cabin of the Joe Cool. Four spent 9-millimeter bullet casings were located on the boat, but three were from inside the vessel's cabin. A blowgun with darts, knives, cellular phones and two pairs of leather gloves without fingers were found in a backpack on Zarabozo and Archer's life raft. Zarabozo later changed his story and said Archer had committed the shootings.
In July 2008, after having asserted his innocence for nearly a year, Archer agreed to change his plea to guilty and testify against Zarabozo. In exchange, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against him; instead, he was sentenced to five terms of life in prison without parole. Archer stated he and Zarabozo had each killed two of the people on the ship.
At Zarabozo's first trial, in 2008, a jury convicted him of weapons charges but could not reach a verdict on the other charges. The judge threw out those convictions due to faulty jury instructions.
Zarabozo was retried and convicted of sixteen charges, including the four murders, in February 2009. He was sentenced to five life sentences plus eighty-five years. He maintains his innocence, saying Archer committed the murders and threatened to kill him too if he told.
Kelly and Jake have two children together. Jake is described as an experienced, very capable seaman. An extensive search of the ocean did not turn up any of the victims' bodies. Foul play is suspected in Kelly, Jake, Gamble and Kairy's cases due to the circumstances involved.