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NORFOLK, Va. — A Somali pirate leader and an armed guard aboard a yacht where all four Americans aboard were killed off the coast of Africa were sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday.
The owners of 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 hundreds of miles south of Oman.
They were the first Americans killed in a wave of piracy that has plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years.
Mohamud Salad Ali and Ahmed Sala Ali Burale are the fifth and sixth men who have pleaded guilty to piracy in the case to be sentenced. Ali received a second life sentence that he will serve concurrently with the other one because he also pleaded guilty to hostage taking resulting in death.
That charge carried the possibility of the death penalty, but prosecutors agreed to the lesser sentence as part of a plea deal. Ali has detailed for investigators how piracy operations in Somalia work and has agreed to help prosecutors as they pursue charges against other men.
Of the 19 men who originally boarded Quest, 11 have pleaded guilty, four were killed, three are facing murder charges and one was released because he was a juvenile. Another man who served as a land-based negotiator also faces piracy charges in the case.
Ali's attorney, David Bouchard, told U.S. District Judge Mark Davis that Ali had told the other pirates not to harm the Americans before and after he boarded a U.S. Navy warship that had begun shadowing Quest after the hijacking. Ali was one of two men who went aboard the Navy ship to negotiate with federal officials.
Bouchard said video evidence that will likely be shown in the murder trials proves that under Ali's leadership the Americans were treated well. He said the Americans were never tied up, were allowed to sleep in their own beds and cook their own meals. He said the video showed that before the U.S. warships arrived that everyone seemed to get along and they all drank alcohol together.
Ali — a former policeman who recruited men for the expedition — was on board one of the Navy warships when the killings occurred. The Navy had offered to let the pirates take the 58-foot sailboat in exchange for the hostages, but the men refused because they wouldn't get the kind of money they wanted. Hostages are typically ransomed for millions of dollars.
"Mohamud Salad Ali led the pirate attack, and his refusal to release the four Americans — even with the opportunity to proceed to Somalia with the Quest — reveals the callous regard that Somali pirates have for their hostages and the threat they pose to any U.S. vessel on the high seas," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement.
During sentencing in federal court, Ali said through an interpreter that it was not his intention for anyone to get hurt.
"I'm very sorry being part of this horrible incident," Ali said.
Burale said he tried to stop the shooting on board the yacht once it began and surrendered once the military boarded the boat. He and Ali both expressed their condolences to the victims' families. He also said through an interpreter that he wanted to help the U.S. stop piracy in Somalia. His attorney, Melinda Ruth Glaubke, said the 22-year-old father of five also had told his probation officer that he would regret his involvement in the episode for the rest of his life.
It's still not immediately clear why the shooting started, although it began after a rocket propelled grenade was fired at one of the U.S. ships. Court records say some of the men had threatened to kill the hostages to get the Navy to go away.
She said that while Burale was unable to save the American boaters' lives once the shooting began, disarming one of the men may have helped stop further violence as the military boarded.