Home News Stories 2009 February Murder on the High Seas

Murder on the High Seas

Murder on the High Seas
The Strange, Sad Tale of Joe Cool

02/26/09

The 47-foot charter fishing boat Joe Cool

The 47-foot charter fishing boat Joe Cool

On a warm Saturday afternoon in September, a fishing boat named the Joe Cool set sail from the port of Miami. Its destination: the beautiful island of Bimini in the Bahamas.

On board were four crew members—a husband-wife team, one of their relatives, and a good friend—along with two men who’d chartered the vessel to visit their girlfriends.

What the crew didn’t know was that this was no ordinary charter cruise. One of the passengers, Kirby Logan Archer, was on the run from the law. And there were no girlfriends waiting in the Bahamas. Only trouble—and tragedy—lay ahead.

The following evening, when the boat didn’t return to port as scheduled and the crew could not be contacted, worried family members called the Coast Guard.

Investigation at Sea

How do you solve the murder of four people when the murder weapon and the bodies have never been found? In the Joe Cool case, our agents used strong circumstantial evidence and the suspects’ own statements:

  • 9mm shell casings found on the boat matched those used in a Glock pistol. The investigation revealed that one of the suspects, Guillermo Zarabozo, owned a Glock, and that he had bought the same type of ammunition that was found on the Joe Cool.
  • Forensic analysis showed that blood on the boat matched several of the victims.
  • Zarabozo and Archer admitted they were on the Joe Cool when the murders occurred, though their original story was that Cuban pirates hijacked the boat and killed the crew.
  • Archer later admitted to two of the murders and agreed to life in prison rather than face trial and the possibility of a death sentence. Zarabozo maintained that he took no part in the murders, that he didn’t know about the plan to hijack the boat to Cuba, and that he had been tricked by Archer. His first trial ended with a hung jury.
  • Subsequent e-mail evidence recovered from a computer hard drive between Zarabozo, his girlfriend, and friends showed that he knew all along about going to Cuba, believing that he was joining a CIA mission. At his second trial, which concluded last week, the jury found him guilty on all counts.

On Monday morning, when agents from our Maritime Seaport Squad were called in, the facts were still hazy, but one thing was becoming clear: a gruesome crime had been committed at sea. There was blood on the deck. All four crew members were missing. And the two passengers—Archer and another man named Guillermo Zarabozo—were soon found adrift in a life raft, telling a wild story about how the boat had been attacked by Cuban pirates.

We took the lead in the investigation, based on federal law regarding crimes on the high seas. After getting the call from the Coast Guard on Monday, September 24, 2007, Special Agents David Nunez and Herbert “Skip” Hogberg in our Miami office knew they had to act fast. It would take a day or more to tow the recovered 47-foot fishing boat back to Miami, and all the exposed evidence would be subjected to the elements—wind, rain, and sea spray that would wash away blood, fibers, fingerprints, and more.

So Nunez, other agents, and representatives of the Coast Guard boarded a jet to the Florida Keys, hopped on a helicopter to a Coast Guard cutter, and from there took a “fast boat” to the deserted Joe Cool, which was about 30 miles from Cuba. They quickly collected and preserved the evidence (see sidebar), and interviewed Archer and Zarabozo after they were picked up from the raft.

Investigators soon realized that the men had planned all along to hijack the boat to Cuba, where Archer hoped to escape the U.S. legal system. He was being investigated in Arkansas for child molestation and was charged with robbing a Wal-Mart of $92,000. Investigators believe Archer duped Zarabozo—described as a “CIA-wannabe”—into thinking he was joining a CIA mission to Cuba.

The pirate story never held up, least of all because credit cards, electronics, and $70,000 worth of fishing gear had been left behind on the Joe Cool. “Pirates would have taken all of that,” Hogberg said.

With their story in tatters and evidence mounting against them, Archer accepted a plea of life in prison rather than face the death penalty at trial. Zarabozo maintained that he took no part in the murders, but a Miami jury last week didn’t buy it and returned guilty verdicts on all counts.

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In the end, nothing about Archer’s plan worked. After the murders, the boat had run out of gas, and he and Zarabozo were forced into the raft, with nothing to do but wait for justice to arrive. And it surely did.