Murder on the High Seas
Murder on the High Seas
The Strange, Sad Tale of 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
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.
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.