A tenth Somali man pleaded guilty to piracy Thursday for his role in the February hijacking of a yacht off Africa that ended with the deaths of four Americans, although none of the men who have pleaded guilty are believed to have been the ones who fired the fatal shots.
Mahdi Jama Mohamed and the nine others who pleaded guilty over the course of the past week did so as part of a plea deal that could result in them serving less than life in prison, the mandatory sentence. Two of them have said they tried to stop the shooting once it started aboard the sailing vessel Quest.
All ten men _ who are between 20 and 35 years old _ face sentencing this fall. Five others still face charges in the case.
Each of the men who have pleaded guilty said in court documents that they didn't instruct anyone to shoot the hostages, who were being held with the intent of bringing them back to Somalia so they could be held for ransom. Hostages are typically ransomed for millions of dollars and the pirates said they intended to split the money among themselves and with an interpreter, while an unnamed financier would get 35 percent of the money.
They were the first U.S. citizens killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years, despite an international flotilla of warships that patrol the area.
Four American warships were shadowing the Quest when the owners of the sailboat, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were shot to death several days after being taken hostage several hundred miles south of Oman.
The Adams had been sailing full-time on their 58-foot yacht since December 2004 after retiring. Around Christmas, the Quest joined the Blue Water Rally, an around-the-world race. But race organizers said the Americans had left the race before the hijacking.
Others pirates in the case have said they boarded the yacht while it sat still in the water and the Americans were sleeping.
"The Quest unwittingly crossed the pirates' path, but it was Mohamed's own avaricious behavior that led to his involvement in this deadly plot. With this additional plea, the FBI reaffirms its commitment to investigating and prosecuting all acts of violence against Americans, whether domestic or abroad," said Janice Fedarcyk, of the FBI's New York office.
Two of the men who pleaded guilty to piracy were aboard a U.S. warship trying to negotiate safe passage for them and the Americans to Somalia when shots broke out. The Americans were being guarded by five men in the ship's steering wheel house at the time. Two of the guards died.
The pirates had wanted to reach shore so that one of the charged men _ Mohammad Saaili Shibin _ could negotiate a ransom. Shibin never boarded the yacht and as a land-based interpreter is considered the highest-ranking pirate the U.S. has ever captured. He has pleaded not guilty to piracy charges.
The others charged in the case who don't have plea deals scheduled include the three men identified by other pirates as those who shot the Americans. Prosecutors have said more charges could be forthcoming.
The ten men who pleaded guilty and could eventually be deported back to Somalia are expected to help prosecutors in this case and possibly others. Court records say Shibin acknowledged negotiating a ransom for a German ship, although no charges have been filed in that case.
The fifth man who has not made a plea deal is Mounir Ali, a Yemeni who was on board a boat the Somali pirates had previously seized and held hostage. Court records say Ali elected to join the Somalis when they left the Yemeni boat and boarded the American yacht in return for a share of the ransom money.
In all, 19 men boarded the American boat. Four of those men died on board. One person was released by authorities because he is a juvenile.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis