Lawyers for three Somalis say they didn’t fire shots that killed four Americans held on a yacht, but a Navy commander says nobody on his ship opened fire.
By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times
NORFOLK, Va. ‚Äî As heavily armed pirates held an American sailboat off the coast of Somalia in February 2011, Navy SEALs on the bridge of the guided missile destroyer Sterett heard one of the hijackers on the radio threatening the lives of his four American hostages.
“I am holding these people. They are like meat,” he said. “I will eat if you head my way.”
What happened next is providing riveting testimony in a federal courtroom here as three rail-thin Somali men in baggy coats face the first U.S. murder trial of piracy suspects in nearly two centuries.
Prosecutors say the dead Americans ‚Äî boat owners Scott and Jean Adam of Marina del Rey and their friends Robert Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle ‚Äî were shot by pirates who had hoped to hold them for ransom and refused to surrender them to Navy negotiators.
“They were bent on money, bent on avoiding capture and willing to dispose of innocent life to meet these goals,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Brian Samuels told jurors in opening arguments.
Defense attorneys argued that their clients didn’t fire the shots that killed the Americans, and they said the prosecutors’ case relies on other convicted Somalis who agreed to testify in hopes of reduced prison sentences.
The shooting 60 miles at sea occurred after the Sterett, the aircraft carrier Enterprise, the guided missile cruiser Leyte Gulf and the guided missile destroyer Bulkeley responded to help the Americans aboard the 58-foot cruising sloop Quest. Pirates had boarded the yacht five days earlier, on Feb. 18, 2011.
Negotiations broke down and the Sterett moved to block the pirates from steering the Quest toward the Somali coast. A military helicopter circled overhead.
That triggered what defense lawyers called a moment of chaos.
One of the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade toward the Sterett. The rocket sailed over the ship and fell into the sea.
Then, defense attorneys say, Navy snipers aboard the destroyer fired at the sailboat. That triggered furious gunfire in the cockpit, where the four hostages were held. Each suffered multiple gunshot wounds.
Navy Cmdr. Darren McPherson, the Sterett’s commander, denied Friday that anyone aboard his ship, including Navy snipers, had fired their weapons. He said that all of the shooting was aboard the sailboat.
McPherson said he had ordered his crew “not to fire on the Quest even if fired upon” out of concern for the hostages’ safety.