NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The former commander of the USS Sterett said Friday that his orders were to prevent a band of Somali pirates from taking four American hostages with them from their yacht to shore, but that his crew wasn't authorized to use lethal force.
All four hostages onboard the Quest were eventually shot and killed by the pirates as the Sterett attempted to position itself between the yacht and the Somali coast. Three of the 19 men who boarded the Quest now face multiple charges in the shooting deaths. They could face the death penalty if convicted.
The yacht's owners, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and their friends, Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were the first Americans killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean in recent years. Pirates typically ransom ships and hostages for millions of dollars.
Scott Adam's daughter, Elizabeth Sem, testified that her father had attended a meeting in December 2010 specifically to go over safety concerns affiliated with pirates. She said her father had sailed more than 100,000 miles, but had never navigated the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden. A Danish warship had also warned the Quest about the dangers they were facing as they made their way from India to Oman the day before they were hijacked in February 2011.
The pirates' plans fell through after four U.S. warships responded to the hijacking as the pirates began making their way back to Somalia.
"They were not going to get to Somalia with those hostages," Cmdr. Darren McPherson, the former commanding officer of the Sterett, said in federal court in Norfolk.
McPherson said that he specifically told his crew not to shoot at the Quest - even if fired upon - because the risk of injuring one of the four Americans onboard was too great.
Defense attorneys for the three men in the case have acknowledged that while one of the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Sterett as it maneuvered around the Quest, a Navy sniper returned fire. Seconds later, shots rang out aboard the Quest. The Americans were shot multiple times.
McPherson repeatedly said Friday that no shots came from aboard his ship. At the time, there were also Navy SEALs in small boats in the water and there was also a helicopter in the air. The Sterett was also using a loud noise projection device.
Defense attorneys have suggested that the Navy unnecessarily escalated tensions and ignored requests from Scott Adam to position the Sterett farther away from the Quest because the pirates were getting nervous. The SEAL commander was in charge of negotiations and McPherson said the Navy offered everything it could to get the Americans released, even offering to allow the pirates to take two of its small boats in addition to the Quest. McPherson said the pirates rejected each offer.
While McPherson was in command of the Sterett, he said he was primarily acting in a support role for the SEAL team that had taken the lead in the crisis response. He said the SEAL commander onboard the Sterett was taking orders from an unspecified person at a headquarters elsewhere. While the SEALs aboard the ship were not under McPherson's command, he reiterated that he heard no shots come from any SEAL snipers on board his ship.
Prosecutors have said the only shots by the Navy came about 10 minutes after the RPG was fired at the Sterett and gunfire was heard aboard the Quest. That's when a group of SEALs boarded the Quest, shooting one pirate who didn't surrender and stabbing another to death. Two other pirates had already been shot by other pirates and the other 15 people onboard surrendered when the SEALs arrived.
McPherson later boarded the Quest and described it as a "gruesome" scene with lots of blood. The trial is expected to last up to six weeks.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis