LOS ANGELES – 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 bluewater 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 across Southern California, in the array of communities they touched – at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, where Scott Adam was a longtime student; in the television industry, where he had worked in production and direction; among patients Jean Adam had treated as a dentist; and in Los Angeles’ Marina del Rey section, 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 in Santa Monica, 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, were also 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 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 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 USS Sterett, a guided missile destroyer.
Then, on Tuesday morning, the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Sterret, 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 Barack 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 had already been shot. Some were still alive and were given medical treatment, but all died, U.S. officials said. Their bodies were taken aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and were expected to be transported to the United States.
The pirates offered a different account. Liban Muse, a member of the pirate group involved in the incident, told the Los Angeles 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 indeed 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 have also responded with increased sophistication, improving communication and buying larger vessels that serve as “mother ships,” floating headquarters of sorts.
“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 have also 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. A U.S. military official, however, said there was no indication that the hostages had attempted to overpower the pirates.
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 the Venice section of Los Angeles.
“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. “It’s just beyond me,” Blacker said. “That was their safety net.”
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