Four Americans, including Southern California couple, are killed by Somali pirates, U.S. officials say
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.”
“It has essentially led to an escalation of piracy,” said Adam Domanski, a legal specialist at Muse Professional Group, a company that provides escorts and on-board security in the Indian Ocean, almost entirely to cargo outfits.
The pirates also have developed a more acute understanding of the region’s sailing patterns — including the fact that to avoid monsoons and other dangerous conditions, pleasure-boat “cruisers” like the Adams must navigate the area in the early months of the year.
Still, few hostage incidents end in death, prompting speculation that something went wrong either because the pirates turned on each other or the Americans attempted to escape or fight their way to freedom.
The Adams were well aware of the piracy. Scott Adam had considered shipping their boat atop a cargo vessel to avoid the dangers, a friend said. And in January, the day before she flew to Thailand to rejoin her husband on their voyage, Jean Adam discussed piracy with an old friend over lunch at Lilly’s bistro in Venice.
“I said: ‘Aren’t you worried?’ ” said Marilyn Blacker, who worked as a dental hygienist in Jean Adam’s Santa Monica office for years. “She was very matter-of-fact. She said they were going with this rally, that they’ve done this before.”
Blacker and several other friends said they were mystified as to why the Adams would have splintered off from the convoy, known as Blue Water Rallies, on Feb. 15.
Scott Adam grew up in Chicago and worked for 30 years in episodic television and films, then left it behind in 1996 after undergoing a “mystical experience where God was calling him to ministry,” said Richard Peace, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and a close friend of Adam.
Scott Adam earned two master’s degrees at Fuller and was pursuing a doctorate. He was a mainstay at Fuller — and, since he was decades older than many of his classmates, a well-known character on campus.
In the late 1990s, he was introduced by a mutual friend to his future wife, then named Jean Savage. They were married soon after; both had children from a previous marriage.
The only woman in her dental class at UCLA, according to one friend, Jean had been a successful and popular dentist in Santa Monica. Jean Adam’s love of the open water was complicated compared with her husband. Although he had grown up around boats and seemed to understand their finer points intuitively, she initially suffered from severe seasickness, friends said.
But not only did she persevere, friends said, she recently earned a captain’s license of her own.
Eventually, their missionary work became intertwined with their love of sailing, Peace said; they began traveling the world with armloads of Bibles.
They had the Quest custom-built for them in New Zealand and sailed it home in 2002. The yacht had surpassed 50,000 nautical miles, they noted on one blog entry — to a dizzying number of ports.
Torgerson, of St. Monica church, offered two Masses in the Adams’ names Tuesday.
“They wanted to spend time … making loving disciples,” Torgerson said. “They felt they could bring the Scriptures to all parts of this far-flung world.”
Torgerson paraphrased a passage from Revelation 2:10: “If we are faithful, we will win the crown.”
The Adams, he said, “won the crown. They’re at peace.”
Times staff writers Tony Perry in San Diego, Tony Barboza, Esmeralda Bermudez, Nate Jackson and Corina Knoll in Los Angeles, Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem and correspondent Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed to this report.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.