A federal judge sentenced two Somali men to life in prison on Monday for their roles in the hijacking of a yacht off the coast of Africa that left all four Americans on board dead.
The owners of the Quest, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were shot to death in February several days after being taken hostage several hundred miles south of Oman.
They were the first Americans to be killed in a wave of piracy that has plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years.
"Armed attacks on the high seas carry a very real threat of death to those taken hostage, a threat that was tragically made evident in this case," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a written statement.
Their 58-foot sailing vessel had been boarded by 19 men looking to bring the Americans to Somalia so they could be ransomed. But the pirates' plans fell apart when U.S. Navy warships started shadowing them.
"As the government said, it's difficult to imagine what must've been going through the minds of the four victims," U.S. District Judge Mark Davis said before handing down the mandatory life sentence to Muhidin Salad Omar. "They were probably terrified and confused and to some extent in disbelief as the events unfolded."
Omar was the pirates' skiff driver and was one of two pirates on board a U.S. Navy ship when the Americans were killed. The Navy offered to let the pirates take the yacht in exchange for the hostages, but the pirates said they wouldn't get the kind of money they wanted for it. Hostages are typically ransomed for millions of dollars.
"Although the defendant was not on the Quest at the time of the deaths of the American hostages, he must remain accountable for their murder as he willfully engaged in the piracy of the Quest. The boarding of the Quest by nineteen armed and desperate men, unwilling to negotiate and intent on a ransom for the Quest and its crew, certainly set the stage for the violence and murders to follow," prosecutors wrote in the government's position on Omar's sentencing.
The other man sentenced Monday, Mahdi Jama Mohamed, was a guard aboard the boat, although prosecutors said he was cooking pasta with other pirates when the shooting started. Mohamed said through an interpreter that he wanted to express "deep sorrow" for the victims' deaths and that he hopes the victims' families will forgive him. He said it wasn't his expectation or intention for anyone to die.
"I'm just a poor guy trying to support his family," said Mohamed, a former fisherman and tailor who was recruited to join the expedition after delivering a boat engine.
Davis said while Mohamed didn't fire his weapon and he understood that Somalia's lawless society likely contributed to his piracy involvement, it was also no excuse for the pirates' behavior.
"I think he understood what could have happened when he engaged in this conspiracy," he said.
Omar expressed similar sentiments and asked for forgiveness.
"He is not here today to make any excuses for his actions," said Omar's court appointed attorney, John Gardner.
None of the victims' family members was in court Monday, but they had sent letters detailing the painful losses they felt. Davis remarked that by all accounts the victims were loving and generous people. The Adams had been known to deliver Bibles around the world as well as clothing and school supplies.
Omar and Mohamed are among the 11 men who have pleaded guilty for their roles in the case and are the fourth to be sentenced. Two more are scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday.
Three other men are charged with murder and a series of other charges that could bring the death penalty. Another man who never boarded the Quest and operated as a land-based negotiator also is facing piracy charges. U.S. authorities released one person because he was believed to have been a juvenile. When American forces boarded the boat, all but two men surrendered. Those two were shot and killed by U.S. forces. Another two men also died aboard the boat.
Those who pleaded guilty have agreed to help prosecutors in those cases and possibly others in exchange for the possibility of eventually having their sentences reduced and being deported.
Mohamed's attorney noted in court documents that he has agreed to help Navy investigators as they develop a new profile of pirates.
Online: Brock Vergakis can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis