Joe Cool Highjacker Gets Life, and Then Some

Boat-killer accomplice sentenced in Miami

A judge sentenced a former security guard Wednesday to five consecutive life prison sentences plus 85 years for taking part in the 2007 hijacking of the "Joe Cool" charter boat and killings at sea of its captain, his wife and two crew members.

A life sentence was mandatory following the conviction of Guillermo Zarabozo, 21, on 16 charges in February. But U.S. District Judge Paul Huck sided with prosecutors who wanted a more severe sentence, even if stringing together multiple life terms was essentially symbolic.

Zarabozo testified at his trial that he did not kill anyone, instead blaming the hijacking and murders on his confederate Kirby Archer. Archer, 37, pleaded guilty and is also serving five life terms. Zarabozo repeated his claims in court Wednesday.

"When I got onto that boat, I didn't know what Archer was going to do," Zarabozo told the judge. "I had no intention of hurting anybody."

Huck, however, called Zarabozo's statements and testimony "largely a fabrication" clearly contradicted by the evidence and Zarabozo's decision to bring a gun and other weapons board.

"It was so obviously not true," Huck said.

Prosecutors said Zarabozo wished for a life of adventure and got involved because Archer claimed connections with the CIA and made promises of a lucrative career filled with undercoverexcitement.

Zarabozo, a security guard who once aspired to a police career, was convicted in February of kidnapping, murder and other charges. Trial testimony showed that he and Archer paid $4,000 cash to hire the "Joe Cool" in September 2007 for a purported trip to Bimini, Bahamas, then fatally shot all four people and tried to make it to Cuba. The plot failed when the boat ran out of gas a few miles from Cuban waters.

Killed were boat captain Jake Branam, 27; his wife, Kelley Branam, 30; crew members Scott Gamble, 35, and Samuel Kairy, 27. The Branams left two small children now being cared for by relatives.

Friends and family members of the victims and Zarabozo packed the courtroom. Maria Gagliardo, partner of Jake Branam's grandfather Joe Harry Branam Sr., read two lengthy statements that repeatedly called Zarabozo a "monster" who had wrecked the families.

"Life for you will be long and unpleasant and you will die a convicted murderer," she said. "You are a coward. You chose to take innocent lives."

Zarabozo's mother, Francisca Alfonso, repeated her son's claims of innocence but also expressed sympathy for the victim's families.

"There have been two families that have been destroyed. I feel their pain," she said.

When Zarabozo and Archer were first rescued floating in the "Joe Cool" life raft, they claimed the boat had been set upon by Cuban pirates who had committed the slayings. But investigators believed otherwise, and pieced together a case based on circumstantial evidence such as the discovery of shell casings that matched a 9mm handgun owned by Zarabozo.

Archer, a former military policeman who had been stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was a fugitive from Arkansas when he hired the boat. He was under investigation for child molestation and was wanted for stealing $92,000 from a Wal-Mart where he had been a manager.

Zarabozo's first trial ended in a mistrial when jurors failed to agree on verdicts on the most serious counts but convicted him on underlying weapons charges. Huck threw out the weapons verdicts and ordered a second trial, finding the jury was confused by faulty instructions on the law.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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