A federal grand jury has indicted 13 suspected pirates from Somalia and one from Yemen in the February hijacking of a yacht that left four Americans dead, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday.
The men face piracy, kidnapping and firearms charges stemming from their efforts to hold the Americans for ransom, according to the indictment.
"The indictment alleges a heinous, horrific crime involving the armed hijacking of an American vessel and the slaughter of American citizens. The alleged pirates will now face justice in an American courthouse," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said.
If convicted of the piracy charges, the men face mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole. They could also face life sentences on the kidnapping charges.
MacBride said more charges could be filed and that a 15th suspected Somali pirate was not charged because he was a juvenile and had a limited role in the hijacking.
The suspected pirates made their first court appearances Thursday in Norfolk, which last year was the site of the first successful U.S. piracy prosecution in almost 200 years.
One of the men, identified by the U.S. Attorney's Office as Jilani Abdiali, said through a Somali translator he wanted to thank Magistrate Judge Tommy Miller and make a request.
"We are in the hand of the most powerful country on the planet," he said, while three of the other charged men sat quietly to his left. "My future is dark."
Miller cut the man off before his request could be made and told him he should make any requests through his court-appointed attorney, which Miller said he would arrange for each of the men because they entered the country without any money or even their own clothes. Each was dressed in a nondescript, loose-fitting navy blue sweatsuit.
A detention hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
The yacht's owners, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were shot to death after pirates took them hostage several hundred miles south of Oman.
It was the first time U.S. citizens have been killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years. The pirates are typically motivated by the potential for millions of dollars in ransom money.
The Adams, who were retired, had been sailing full-time on their 58-foot yacht, the Quest, delivering Bibles around the world. The indictment accuses at least three of the indicted men of shooting and killing the four Americans without provocation.
"I'm very glad they'll be held accountable for this horrendous crime," said Richard Peace, a theology professor at Fuller Seminary who was Scott Adam's doctorate adviser. "This will not bring back Scott or Jean or their two friends, but if it serves to deter piracy in that part of the ocean, then justice will have been served."
A funeral for the Adams was held Saturday at St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica, Calif., where they were longtime parishioners.
They died less than a week after a Somali pirate was sentenced to more than 33 years in prison by a New York court for the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. That hijacking ended when Navy sharpshooters killed two pirates holding the ship's American captain.
Pirates have increased attacks off the coast of East Africa despite an international flotilla of warships dedicated to protecting vessels and stopping the pirate assaults.
U.S. naval forces were tracking the Americans' captured yacht with unmanned aerial vehicles and four warships, and negotiations were under way when the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade.
Then gunfire was heard aboard the yacht. Special forces boarded the vessel and found the Americans had been shot, according to the military. Pirates have blamed the deaths of the American hostages on the U.S. Navy, saying the pirates felt under attack.
The group is the latest to be brought to Norfolk to face charges.
Last April, a federal grand jury indicted 11 in separate attacks on two U.S. Navy ships, the USS Ashland and the USS Nicholas. The Virginia-based ships were part of an international flotilla protecting shipping in the pirate-infested waters off Africa.
In November, five Somali men were convicted on federal piracy charges related to the attack on the USS Nicholas. They are expected to be sentenced this month.
A sixth pleaded guilty. Trials for the remaining five are pending. Oral arguments are scheduled for March 25 on the definition of piracy.
Associated Press writer Christina Hoag contributed to this report from Los Angeles