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Four Americans, including Southern California couple, are killed by Somali pirates, U.S. officials say

Jean and Scott Adam were on a voyage with two friends from Seattle when pirates boarded their yacht on Friday. Naval officials negotiated without success for their release.

February 23, 2011|By Scott Gold, Martha Groves and David S. Cloud, Los Angeles Times
  • Southern California residents Jean Adam, 66, and her husband, Scott, 70, were in the seventh year of an off-and-on, round-the-world trip on their beloved sloop, Quest.
Southern California residents Jean Adam, 66, and her husband, Scott, 70,… (Del Rey Yacht Club )

Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington — Jean and Scott Adam traipsed the globe the way Georges Seurat painted an afternoon at the park — point by point or, in their case, port by port.

Aboard their 58-foot yacht, the couple sailed for months at a time, patching together an enviable life of exotic sights and blue-water adventure, imbued with devout faith. For every busted alternator or arduous dive to wipe muck from the propeller, there was a breathless report to friends from another remote locale — Kota Kinabalu, Micronesian archipelagos. They were determined to explore Fiji, they wrote, "like petals on a flower."

But beneath that veneer of whim and wonder, a hard and dark reality loomed. The couple was on year seven of an off-and-on, round-the-world trip, and, at some point, that would mean crossing through the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden — a shipping route known as "Pirates Alley."

On Tuesday, in a chaotic storm of grenades, gunfire and hand-to-hand combat, the couple were killed aboard their beloved sloop, Quest, by Somali pirates, according to the U.S. military. He was 70; she was 66.

Such a jarring end to what had seemed a charmed life devastated scores of people around Southern California, in the array of communities they touched — at Fuller Theological Seminary, where Scott Adam was a long-time student; in the television industry, where he had worked in production and direction; among patients Jean Adam had treated as a dentist; and in Marina del Rey, where the couple hosted deck-top dinners and holiday parties with Christmas lights wound through the rigging of their yacht.

At St. Monica Catholic Church, where the Adams were members and where they were married in the late 1990s, Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson said he could only take solace in the notion that "they died doing what they wanted to do."

"They found so much joy in doing it," he said.

Friends from Seattle, Phyllis Macay, 59, and Robert Riggle, 67, also were killed, as were four of the pirates. At least 13 pirates were taken into U.S. custody and are expected to face prosecution.

Accounts of the killings varied Tuesday, and could take some time to sort out.

The Adams were headed toward the Red Sea and then the Greek islands on Friday when, according to U.S. military officials, pirates boarded the Quest off the coast of Oman.

Almost immediately, U.S. naval vessels began shadowing the yacht, negotiating for the Americans' release as the vessels made their way south toward Somalia, said Lt. Col. Mike Lawhorn, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, part of an international coalition of anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

There were signs of dissent among the pirates. On Monday, two of them abandoned the yacht and came aboard the guided missile destroyer Sterett.

Then, on Tuesday morning, the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Sterett, which missed, according to the U.S. military. As some pirates came on deck with hands raised, as if trying to surrender, a team of 15 Navy SEALs boarded the yacht amid small-arms fire. President Obama had authorized the use of force if the military determined that the hostages' lives were in imminent danger, the White House said.

"The intent always had been that this would be a negotiated process and not ever go into a point where we actually had gunfire," said Vice Admiral Mark Fox, commander of U.S. naval forces in the region.

When the U.S. forces boarded the yacht, they found two of the pirates already dead; military forces killed two others, one with a gun and one with a knife. All four hostages already had been shot. Some were still alive and given medical treatment, but all died, U.S. officials said. Their bodies were taken aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise and were expected to be taken to the United States.

The pirates offered a different account.

Liban Muse, a member of the pirate group involved in the incident, told The Times in a telephone interview from the Somali coast that the U.S. military fired first.

"We had no intention of killing the hostages until the Americans began shooting at us," Muse said. "Our preference is only to take ships and ransom money, not to kill. But governments are targeting and killing our people."

Lawhorn dismissed those claims.

Piracy has exploded in the Gulf of Aden in the last decade, impeding goods delivery in a vital shipping corridor and driving up costs. Over the last four years, a coalition of two dozen governments has pieced together a robust military response, with mixed results.

Many areas of the Gulf have become safer. But pirates — driven largely by ransoms, but also by a sense of nationalism and protectionism — have responded by expanding their operations into once-safe pockets of the Indian Ocean. Some also have responded with increased sophistication, improving communication and buying larger vessels that serve as "mother ships."

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