4 guilty pleas to murder in mysterious 'ghost boat' case

MIAMI — An Arkansas man pleaded guilty Thursday to four counts of first-degree murder in connection with the slayings of four Miami Beach charter boat crew as part of a plea agreement that would send him to prison for the rest of his life.

Prosecutors said they intended to prove that Kirby Archer, 36, shot the captain of the Joe Cool, Jake Branam, 27, and his wife, Kelley Branam, 30, after they balked at taking Archer to Cuba.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Gilbert also said that his co-defendant, Guillermo Zarabozo, 20, of Hialeah, shot the two crew mates, Branam's half-brother, Scott Gamble, 35, and first mate Samuel Kairy, 27. All the victims were from Miami Beach.

Both Kirby and Zarabozo initially told federal agents that Cuban hijackers shot the victims.

Archer and his accused accomplice both faced a potential death-penalty trial. Gilbert said prosecutors were not going to seek the death penalty against Zarabozo. Zarabozo's trial is set for Aug. 18; Archer is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 2.

Archer, a former U.S. Army guard from Strawberry, Ark., had fled to Miami after 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, 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.

Prosecutors say that when Archer and Zarabozo confronted the crew about going to Cuba, the captain began acting strangely. After shooting their victims, Archer threw their bodies overboard. The Joe Cool was found drifting near the Bahamas. Archer and Zarabozo were found the next day by the Coast Guard on a raft. Neither the victims' bodies nor any murder weapons were recovered.

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