BY CASEY WOODS, [email protected]
Michaele Archer has left the home she once shared with her husband in the small Arkansas town of Strawberry, moving an hour north to a white three-bedroom house in hills that seem perpetually covered in a soft mist. Archer's things -- the Army uniform, his dog tags, his collection of white tiger statues -- are carefully packed in a metal trunk. Pictures of their merged family -- including his two boys and her two sons and daughter -- line the wood-paneled walls.
''This is definitely something I never thought I'd be in the middle of,'' Michaele, 30, said. 'You think `That won't ever happen to my family,' and then it does.''
Archer, 36, and Hialeah resident Guillermo Zarabozo, 20, have been charged with the September murders of the four crew members of the 47-foot Joe Cool -- boat captain Jake Branam, 27; his wife, Kelley Branam, 30; Branam's half-brother Scott Gamble, 35; and first mate Samuel Kairy, 27, all of Miami Beach.
Prosecutors say the two men chartered the boat for $4,000 for a trip to Bimini. In fact, they meant to use the Joe Cool to flee to Cuba, authorities say.
Michaele has not seen her husband since January, when Archer fled after his shift as an assistant manager at an Arkansas Wal-Mart.
He was later charged with stealing $92,000 from the store.
At the time of his disappearance, he was under investigation for alleged sexual abuse of several boys in Missouri and Arkansas.
Found on a raft at sea with Zarabozo by the Coast Guard on Sept. 24, Archer has called his mother several times from Miami federal detention center, but he has not called Michaele.
She was saving money to visit him, though in Archer's first letter to her two months ago -- his first contact with his wife since his disappearance -- he indicated he didn't want anyone to come visit until his trial.
''I don't think he wants us to see him that way,'' said Michaele, who has postponed her travel plans. ``He said he was planning on coming home in October but ran into a detour from hell.''
Archer's troubles have wrecked the family that Michaele had waited for years to build with him.
When she talks of that life, she sometimes cries and clenches her laced hands. ''When all that happened, I was devastated forever, it seemed like,'' she said. ``I kind of slipped backwards again since he got caught.''
LIFE AS A FUGITIVE
In his eight months as a fugitive, Archer lived in Hialeah with an unsuspecting Cuban family he befriended a dozen years ago while stationed at the Guantánamo Bay Naval base.
In the details of his life with them, Michaele sees echoes of the life she lost.
When she hears he regularly cooked for the Hialeah family, she remembers the Italian dishes he loved to make for her.
When she learns he told the family he was working as a private investigator and he regularly put on a suit and tie to head to ''work,'' Michaele sees him heading out the door to Wal-Mart. ''That's totally Kirby, always wearing dress clothes,'' she said. ``He was probably the best-dressed man at Wal-Mart.''
Hearing he slept in a baby's room, surrounded by Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals, makes her wonder.
''I want to know if it made him think about his kids and what he's left behind,'' she said.
Michaele and Archer met in Tucson, Ariz., when she was a 15-year-old high school student and Archer was a 21-year-old Arizona National Guard reservist.
Archer worked at the same nursing home as Michaele's mother, Nancy Braun, and Archer spent hours at Michaele's house with the family's group of friends. They listened to country music, went to Kenny Rogers concerts and drove Archer's silver Ford Festiva to the Taco Bell to hang out.
Because of the difference in ages, Braun disapproved of Archer. In 1993, she sent police officers to his house because Michaele was there past the 10 p.m. curfew for minors.
Archer was arrested on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and was sentenced to six months probation, public records show.
''She was just too young, and I told her if he really loved her, he'd wait until she was older,'' Braun said. ``He ended up waiting fifteen years for her.''
When he left Arizona, the pair lost touch for several years. He joined the Army and moved abroad. They each had children, and both married and survived bitter divorces.
`IT WAS FATE'
''I think it was fate that brought us together again,'' Michaele said.
Staying together has not been easy.
Archer was ordered to move out of their house last January when the child abuse allegations emerged, a turn of events that left him depressed and withdrawn.
''As the level person and father he was, and after us being friends for so many years, I can say I don't see him doing that to any kid,'' she said.
The picture that federal prosecutors now paint of a cold-blooded killer is even farther from the thoughtful husband she knows, Michaele says.
''He was great, always cooking dinner and making sure the house was clean if I had to work late,'' she said. ``He really did his half of the work in the family.''
Archer's only vices were sodas and nicotine, Michaele said. ''All he did was smoke his cigarettes and drink his Dr. Peppers,'' she said. ``That's all he needed in life other than family.''
Michaele still has Archer's last text message on her phone, one he sent the night he fled Arkansas. ''I really messed up,'' it reads. ``Remember I love you!''
Despite all his troubles, Michaele -- who once hoped to have children with Archer -- believes a future with her husband is still possible.
''It would be a long process, because there's a lot of trust issues that need to be resolved,'' she said.