NORFOLK, Va. – Federal prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty against three Somalis charged with murder in the fatal shooting of four Americans aboard a hijacked yacht last year, according to a court document unsealed Tuesday.
Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar could also face the death penalty on numerous other charges related to the February, 2011 hijacking. They include hostage taking resulting in death, violence against maritime navigation resulting in death and kidnapping resulting in death. In total, 22 of the 26 counts the defendants are charged with are death-eligible offenses.
The decision to seek the death penalty is made by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Prosecutors were required to tell the court if they planned to seek the death penalty before the Somalis' trial started. A status hearing to set a trial date is scheduled for May 22. Each of the men have pleaded not guilty.
The court filing outlines the reasons behind the decision to seek the death penalty. Among them, prosecutors say the men killed or attempted to kill more than one person during a single episode. It also says their actions endangered the U.S. military and that the Americans were killed "in an especially wanton and gratuitous manner."
In the case of Salad, the filing says he has demonstrated a lack of remorse in the Americans' deaths and made boastful statements about them.
The owners of the yacht Quest, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were the first Americans to be killed in a wave of pirate attacks off the coast of east Africa despite an international flotilla of warships that regularly patrol the area. The Adamses had been sailing full-time on their 58-foot yacht since December 2004 after retiring when their boat was boarded by 19 men several hundred miles south of Oman.
Ships and their crews are typically targeted by pirates in hopes of securing multi-million dollar ransoms.
Pirates had been hoping to bring the Americans back to Somalia to conduct ransom negotiations, but that plan fell apart when U.S. Navy warships began shadowing the Quest. The Navy had told the pirates that they could keep the yacht in exchange for the hostages, but they refused to take the deal because they didn't believe they would get enough money. The only person authorized to negotiate the Americans' release was also based in Somalia.
The destroyer USS Sterett was maneuvering between the Quest and the Somali coast when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at it. Soon after, shots were fired on board the Quest.
Court documents say the Americans were being held in the yacht's steering wheel house by seven men when the Americans were fired upon. Other pirates have said they tried to stop the shooting once it started. By the time Navy SEALs scrambled aboard the yacht, each of the Americans had already been wounded.
Four of the hijackers died on board — including two who have also been identified in court records as those who shot at the Americans. One person was released by authorities because he is a juvenile. Eleven other men have pleaded guilty to piracy and been sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the case. However, their sentences could eventually be reduced for cooperating with authorities as they prosecute others.
A 12th man who never boarded the Quest and was identified as the lead hostage negotiator was convicted of piracy on Friday. He also faces a mandatory life sentence.
Prosecutors wanted to wait until that case was over before unsealing their filing to seek the death penalty involving the three Somalis because they were concerned about publicity.
Online: Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis