The story of hijacking and murder at sea being told by one of two men who chartered a yacht whose four-member crew remains missing is too far-fetched to be believed, the cousin of the boat’s captain said Thursday.
“The story doesn’t make sense that [hijackers] killed my whole family but spared these two people that chartered the boat, then put them in a life raft with all their luggage,” Jon Branam told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer. “If the boat was to be hijacked, they’d kill everybody and take the boat. None of it makes sense.”
On Sunday, Kirby Logan Archer and Guillermo Zarabozo showed up at the Miami Beach Marina looking to charter a boat to Bimini in the Bahamas, where they said they had girlfriends waiting for them. Archer offered $4,000 cash for the 50-mile trip, and Jake Branam, owner of the 47-foot charter boat Joe Cool, agreed to do the job.
Unknown to Branam, Archer, 35, was a fugitive from Arkansas, where he was wanted on suspicion of stealing $92,000 in cash in January from the Wal-Mart where he worked as a service manager.
A former soldier who had been less than honorably discharged when he went AWOL four years ago, Archer was also under investigation for sexually abusing several boys in Arkansas and Missouri, according to news reports.
Zarabozo, 19, is a native Cuban who now lives in Hialeah, Fla. His family was picked up while trying to flee the island during the 1990s and was housed for a time at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military base on the island. It is believed that Archer, who was stationed at Guantanamo as a military policeman, met Zarabozo then.
Sailing with the 27-year-old captain were his half brother, Scott Campbell, 30; Samuel Kairy, 27; and Branam’s wife, Kelley, 30. Kelley Branam normally did not crew on the boat, but decided to go along for the ride.
Jake and Kelley have two children, a 3-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son, who are being cared for by relatives.
Jon Branam normally crewed for his cousin, but with Kelley going along, he wasn’t needed and decided to stay behind to ride his Jet Ski. He even followed the boat out of the harbor to see them off, he told Lauer.
“My family and friends, they were just laughing and having a good time like we always do,” Jon said. “Every time we go out, we enjoy life. They were just as happy as can be.”
Global positioning records show that the boat headed on a direct course for Bimini but then turned due south, headed toward Cuba. On Monday, Archer and Zarabozo were found adrift in the Joe Cool’s life raft 12 miles north of the charter boat;
The yacht was found abandoned, in disarray and with no sign of the crew.
Archer initially told investigators he had never seen or been on the Joe Cool, according to news accounts.
When his Arkansas ID card was found on the boat, he told the story of hijackers taking over the boat, killing the captain and crew and then ordering Archer to throw their bodies into the sea before setting him and Zarabozo adrift with their luggage in the life raft.
Both Archer and Zarabozo are being held without bail while the Coast Guard and FBI attempt to discover what happened to the crew. The FBI has reported that the interior of the boat was in total disarray and a substance that appears to be blood was found on the stern. A handcuff key was also found, along with several marijuana cigarettes.
Jon Branam said investigators have told him nothing.
“Everybody’s very tight-lipped,” he said. “They’re trying to build a case. I know the FBI’s working very hard. I know the Coast Guard is working very hard. Right now they’re not releasing any information. I’ve been giving them all the information I know,” he said.
Branam said he’s operating on the assumption and hope that Archer and Zarabozo threw the crew overboard and left them to fend for themselves in the water.
“I still have hope,” he said. “I’m conducting a private search. I’ve got planes up in the air searching the islands.”
If his family and friends have been in the water since Sunday, he said, the odds that they’re still alive are very low.
“I’m hoping they’re on an island. I’m hoping they’re just grasping on [to] life,” he told Lauer. “I’m doing everything in my power — my whole family is doing everything in its power — to bring them home.”