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Virginia grand jury indicts 14 in fatal hijacking of American yacht

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 6:31 PM

A federal grand jury in Norfolk indicted 14 men from Somalia and Yemen on piracy charges Thursday, alleging that the men hijacked a yacht, took four U.S. citizens hostage, held them for four days and killed them off the Oman coast in the Arabian Sea.

The men, including 13 Somalis, face life in prison if convicted. According to court documents, the group took over a 54-foot yacht called the Quest last month and killed the Americans before a U.S. Navy ship could rescue them.

U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride called it a "heinous and horrific crime" that involved the "slaughter of American citizens."

"They seized the ship, armed with rocket-propelled grenades, and held them at gunpoint for four or five days, and without provocation executed them," MacBride said. "The alleged pirates will now face justice in an American courtroom."

According to the indictment, the men took over the yacht Feb. 18 armed with guns and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The U.S. military tried to negotiate with the group to free the hostages. On Feb. 21, one of the alleged pirates came off the yacht and boarded the USS Sterett, a Navy warship, to represent the group in negotiations.

But a day later, someone aboard the Quest fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the naval ship and at least three of the pirates on the Quest fatally shot the four Americans, according to court documents.

Authorities said the pirates tried to get rid of their weapons by throwing them into the ocean before being taken into custody. When U.S. forces boarded the yacht, several pirates moved up to the bow with their hands in the air in surrender, according to Navy officials. Several AK-47s and other assault rifles were found onboard, and the Special Operations forces found the dead Americans.

The Americans who were killed were Phyllis Macay and Robert A. Riggle of Seattle and Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, near Los Angeles.

Jean Adam, a retired dentist, and her husband were experienced sailors who kept a blog about their travels. Earlier this year, they had sailed from Thailand to Sri Lanka and India. When their yacht was hijacked, they were headed to Salalah in the small Arab kingdom of Oman.

Pirates have been able to evade capture, even though the U.S. Navy and its allies have tried to secure shipping lanes throughout the Horn of Africa and Arabian Sea. Warnings had been sent out for mariners not to pass through the area where the Quest was seized, but most of the attacks had been on large tankers. Friends of the four Americans said they probably thought they were not in danger.

Nineteen pirates were involved in the incident aboard the Quest, according to Navy officials. When U.S. forces boarded the yacht, they found two dead pirates. Two others were killed as they tried to clear the vessel.

Fourteen of the alleged pirates were turned over to the Justice Department on Wednesday after being held aboard a Navy ship since the Feb. 22 shooting. One of the alleged pirates is a juvenile. Because of his age and purportedly limited role in the incident, he is not being charged, according to the U.S. attorney's office. The U.S. military is reuniting him with his family in Somalia.

The 14 made their initial appearance Thursday afternoon before a magistrate judge.

Each of them has been charged with three counts of piracy, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and using a rocket-propelled grenade in an act of violence, according to the indictment. The charge of conspiracy to commit kidnapping carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. The charge related to rocket-propelled grenades carries a mandatory minimum of 30 years in prison.

MacBride said that the investigation is ongoing and that "additional charges are possible."

This is the third piracy case prosecuted by the U.S. attorney's office in Norfolk since April. It is the first case in which hostages were killed.

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