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Crime News Deadly Waters with Captain Lee

What Happened to the Crew of a Florida Boat Found Abandoned at Sea — Pirates or Murderers?

When the Joe Cool was found 140 miles off course of the Miami-Bimini route sans crew or passengers, investigators questioned a fugitive who once posed as a C.I.A. agent.

By Jax Miller

Six Americans boarded a charter fishing boat in Miami Beach, Florida, heading for the western Bahaman shores of Bimini. But when the vessel, dubbed Joe Cool, failed to make its return, friends and family feared the worst, as featured in the season premiere of Deadly Waters with Captain Lee.

What happened to Joe Cool?

How to Watch

Watch Deadly Waters with Captain Lee on Oxygen Saturdays at 9/8c and next day on Peacock. 

On September 22, 2007, the 47-foot fishing vessel left the Miami Beach Marina, planning to make the 50-odd-mile trip east to the Bahaman coast. On board were the boat’s captain, Jake Branam, his wife, Kelley Branam, and two crewmen: Scott Gamble, Jake Branam’s half-brother, and first mate Samuel “Sammy” Kairy, a close friend of the family. All four were well-versed in the world of fishing and boating, said those who knew them best.

That day, two men booked the Joe Cool to take them for the roughly two-and-a-half-hour ride to Bimini. They paid $4,000 to Branam, and though the crew suggested the pair could take a much cheaper flight, the men claimed their girlfriends accidentally stowed their passports in inaccessible luggage, and therefore, they wanted to book the Joe Cool.

Jake Branam featured on Deadly Waters With Captain Lee Episode 101

Jake Branam’s uncle and Joe Cool owner, Jeff Branam, reported the party “overdue” to authorities the next day.

“When a vessel is reported as overdue, that means the boat did not meet its scheduled return, but overdues happen all the time,” said Deadly Waters host Captain Lee of Bravo’s Below Deck franchise. “The fish are biting, and passengers want to stay out longer, or people drink too much in Bimini and need to sleep it off, which causes a delay.”

It should have been a straightforward trip to Bimini and back. Branam reportedly planned to drop the men off on a boat that carried their girlfriends and then squeeze in some fishing on the way back. But what struck loved ones as odd was that Branam — who shared two children with his wife — had business to attend the following day, according to true crime author Carol Cope.

“It was important to Jake to be back the next day in time for another charter that he had planned,” Cope told Deadly Waters.

According to Jake Branam and Scott Gamble’s sister, Amie Gamble, Jake Branam was well on his way to finding success.

“In 2007, Joe Cool was doing amazing,” said the sister. “Jake knew where to go to find the fish, so so many people were contacting him, and his charter boat business began to really, really take off.”

Authorities search for missing boat Joe Cool

The United States Coast Guard (U.S.C.G.) sent out a PAN-PAN message, the equivalent of what a Be On the Lookout (B.O.L.O.) means on land. When officials failed to contact the Joe Cool, an official search and rescue operation, which included searches by air and sea, commenced, according to now-retired Edwin Daniels of the U.S.C.G. Miami Sector.

Scott Gamble featured on Deadly Waters With Captain Lee Episode 101

“We knew that something was wrong,” Daniels told Deadly Waters.

Authorities were aware the waters between Miami and Bimini were no stranger to drug smuggling and piracy — especially out of Cuba — but there was still no sign of the Joe Cool along the well-traveled route.

Then, about 36 hours after the group left on the Joe Cool, Commanding Officer Jonathan Carter of the U.S.C.G.’s Cutter Pea Island — which guarded the Key West — was alerted by a deck officer about a “target of interest” on the horizon.

The vessel’s conning tower told Carter that the boat was used for sports fishing, but it was spotted in an “unusual” location, about 30 miles north of Cuba and 140 miles off-course of the Joe Cool’s planned route.

“Sports fishers don’t need to run that far south and burn that much fuel to find fish,” Carter told Deadly Waters.

Another disturbing observation was that the 75-foot anchor lines had been “let out” despite the boat being in “well over 200 feet of water.” The stern door of the Joe Cool was open and swinging about.

Authorities, learning the boat was the missing Joe Cool, believed it was intentionally left there. According to Captain Lee, fast-moving Gulf currents surged north, making it impossible for a boat to drift south where it was discovered.

“If the Joe Cool had a mechanical problem, the current would have pushed it north at a very rapid rate, meaning that the only way the boat could have ended up at the location where it was found is if someone intentionally piloted the vessel in that direction, going against the current,” said Captain Lee.

“A crime scene floating in the middle of the ocean”

The U.S.C.G.’s boarding team circled the vessel, cautious of possible hijackers on board. After getting clearance from their X.O. (Executive Officer), they boarded the Joe Cool and found no one.

Inside, car keys, wallets, and fishing poles in their fishing positions were “clear indications” that passengers had no intentions of leaving, according to Carter. Officers also found blood on the scene, and though the blood might have been from caught fish, they called in the F.B.I. for assistance.

A missing life raft highlighted that survivors could still be out there and possibly injured.

“At this point, the U.S. Coast Guard called the F.B.I. in this matter because the F.B.I. has primacy in crime on the high seas as it relates to U.S. persons and citizens,” said F.B.I. Supervisory Special Agent David Nunez. “It’s a very unique situation where your crime scene is floating in the middle of the ocean. You have to think very carefully about the strategy you’re going to use and how you’re going to investigate this.”

Kelley Branam featured on Deadly Waters With Captain Lee Episode 101

Some of the Joe Cool passengers are found

Urgency only grew at the threat of an impending monsoon, and officials scanned sea and land through the night, including along Anguilla Cay, about 11.5 nautical miles north of where the Joe Cool was found. Authorities tasked with protecting the crime scene towed the boat back to land in light of the forecast.

“We still had hope,” said Amie Gamble.

The following day, air searchers spotted a covered lifeboat south of Anguilla Cay with the stenciled name “Joe Cool” on the side. The wind formed by the helicopter blades blew the tarp off, exposing two people inside.

The U.S.C.G. lowered baskets into the water and saved the two passengers. Since noise prevented helicopter passengers from hearing one another, one of the saved men wrote on a piece of paper: “West Bimini. We were abandoned in the boat. Hijacking. Four Killed.”

With the new information provided by the passengers, later identified as 18-year-old Guillermo Zarbozo and 36-year-old Kirby Archer, searches for the Branams, Gamble, and Kairy were called off.

“Not having any closure, there’s no grave to go to,” Amie Gamble told Deadly Waters. “The only place we can go is the ocean.”

A second search of the Joe Cool

Authorities conducted a second search of the Joe Cool once it made land, where they found four 9mm spent shell casings, which supported the men’s statements. But in what F.B.I. Special Agent Nunez called an “odd crime scene,” a blowgun, darts, throwing stars, and a handcuff key were also found on site, and expensive fishing and electrical equipment had been left behind.

“It looked ransacked, but it didn’t appear that anything was stolen,” Nunez told Deadly Waters.

“By definition, pirates are robbers who travel by sea,” said Captain Lee. “What pirates don’t do is board a boat, kill and remove the crew and passengers, and then leave without taking all of the valuables.”

As the surviving passengers headed back to dry land with authorities, Zarbozo — seeing the Joe Cool — commented to a federal agent that he’d never been on the boat, which “didn’t make sense” since he was found in the Joe Cool lifeboat, according to Nunez. It signaled that he was lying.

“So, at this point, we had reason to detain,” said Nunez. “Had it not been for that, they would have walked off that Coast Guard cutter.”

Interviews with Guillermo Zarbozo and Kirby Archer

In F.B.I. interviews, Zarbozo claimed three Cuban pirates killed Jake Branam, Kelley Branam, Scott Gamble, and Sammy Kairy before forcing Kirby Archer to drive the Joe Cool toward Cuba, running out of gas about eight hours later. However, Zarbozo’s story didn’t match Archer’s, as there were inconsistencies with what the purported hijackers wore when leaving on a second boat and in what order they murdered the victims.

But, according to U.S.C.G.’s Edwin Daniels, “Nothing can explain why you get in a life raft on a boat that’s perfectly seaworthy.”

The Joe Cool was well-equipped with communications gear that anyone could easily use in case of an emergency. Furthermore, investigators wondered why alleged pirates would kill four people and let two live while also leaving items of value behind.

Federal Prosecutor Karen Gilbert helped examine the survivors’ backgrounds, finding that  Zarbozo lived with his family in South Florida and had no criminal history. The teen worked as an armed security officer and reportedly had aspirations of one day working in law enforcement.

Kirby Archer, on the other hand, had a pending warrant for his arrest out of Arkansas, where he reportedly worked as a Wal-Mart customer service manager before allegedly stealing from his place of employment. Author Carol Cope said he was accused of stealing upward of $92,000 before going on the run.

This, F.B.I. Special Agent Nunez told Deadly Waters that gave Archer a motive, and it was enough for the Feds to keep him in custody. But for Guillermo Zarbozo, prosecutors needed something to stick.

“It’s very difficult to prosecute a murder case at sea, and if we can’t charge him right away, we were very concerned that he would flee to avoid prosecution,” Prosecutor Gilbert told Deadly Waters.

Kirby Archer Confesses to Murder

Shell casings found on the Joe Cool lined up with a receipt found in Zarbozo’s Florida home, showing a purchase for 9mm ammunition made by the same brand of ammo found on the boat. Agents confronted the suspects with the ballistics results and,, coupled with the threat of prosecutors seeking the death penalty, Archer agreed to talk.

Archer told investigators that he and Zarbozo met at an auto body shop where the latter worked as a security guard. Archer presented himself as a C.I.A. agent, recruiting Zarbozo to help him with a job in Cuba, according to Cope.

“Zarbozo wanted to get into law enforcement,” Gilbert said. “Kirby Archer was telling him that if he successfully did this mission, he would get him a job with the C.I.A.”

Investigators believe Archer was attempting to flee to Cuba to avoid charges in the other cases against him.

Archer claimed he first shot Captain Jake Branam and then his wife, Kelley. He said it was Zarbozo who killed Gamble and Kairy before throwing all four victims overboard.

Their bodies have never been found.

Ultimately, Archer pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty, though Zarbozo maintained that the quadruple murder was “part of a covert C.I.A. operation,” according to Captain Lee.

Zarbozo went to trial on a 16-count indictment, which included facing charges of murder, robbery, overtaking a vessel, and other firearm charges. A jury unanimously found him guilty on all counts.

Archer and Zarbozo are now serving five consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. Jake Branam and Scott Gamble’s sister, Amie Gamble, told Deadly Waters that the men’s punishment was “such a relief.”

“As the years have gone by, you’re reminded every holiday that you don’t have the hugs, and the joy, and the love from the ones we’ve lost,” she said. “We’ll never have that again. There’s still a hole that will never go away.”

Watch all-new episodes of Deadly Waters with Captain Lee, airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen.