Kirby Archer, the Arkansas man who admitted killing four people aboard the Joe Cool charter boat on the high seas last year, on Tuesday was sentenced to life in prison -- five times. Archer, 36, was given consecutive life terms by U.S. District Judge Paul Huck during a hearing in Miami federal court. He had pleaded guilty this summer to four murder counts and one conspiracy offense to take over the vessel, resulting in the deaths. Family members and friends sobbed during the emotional proceeding.
The judge's actions marked the end of one chapter in the mystery of how four members of the Miami Beach charter boat were shot and dumped at sea on Sept. 22, 2007.
A second defendant, Guillermo Zarabozo, 20, of Hialeah, will go to trial for the second time on murder and kidnapping charges in January after the judge declared a mistrial in the first trial. Zarabozo was convicted on only four counts of providing the gun used to kill the four people. But jurors deadlocked on whether he took part in their kidnapping and murder. Prosecutors contend that Zarabozo knew his accomplice planned to hijack the Joe Cool and use it to flee to Cuba at any cost to avoid arrest in the United States. Archer did not testify at Zarabozo's trial.
Archer's sentence came as no surprise since he had already pleaded guilty in July to murder and kidnapping charges to avoid a possible death sentence. At the time, family members told The Miami Herald they were satisfied with the guilty plea by Archer but had hoped prosecutors would go to trial to get the death penalty.
Killed in the incident were 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.
A former U.S. Army guard from Strawberry, Ark., Archer ended up in Miami-Dade as a fugitive on the run for stealing $92,000 from a Wal-Mart where he worked. Archer looked up friends in Hialeah he had met while stationed at the Guantanamo Naval Base and hid out for months. On Sept. 22, 2007, he and Zarabozo showed up at the Miami Beach Marina and chartered the 47-foot sport-fishing boat for a one-way trip to Bimini. They paid $4,000 in cash. Something horrible happened during the trip. The Joe Cool was found drifting empty near the Bahamas -- everyone on board had disappeared. Archer and Zarabozo were found the next day by the Coast Guard drifting away on a raft. Neither the victims' bodies nor the murder weapons were recovered. Prosecutors say the two defendants intended to go to Cuba, where Archer wanted to hide from his fugitive arrest warrant. After Zarabozo and Archer were rescued at sea, both told the Coast Guard and FBI agents that Cuban hijackers killed the charter boat crew and later let the two men go free. But Zarabozo later told investigators that Archer reached into Zarabozo's bag on board the Joe Cool and grabbed his gun to kill the four victims -- before they both dumped the bodies into the Atlantic Ocean. The government's case was viewed at first as mainly circumstantial because it lacked the victims' bodies, murder weapons or other direct evidence to link the slayings to Archer and Zarabozo. But Zarabozo's admission implicating Archer for the killings bolstered the prosecution's case -- assuming he was going to testify against his accomplice at trial.