NEW YORK — Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse grew up destitute in Somalia, the oldest of 12 kids and the product of a violent, lawless nation where his parents scraped together a few dollars a day selling milk and tending to a small herd of camels, cows and goats.
He eventually joined a gang of pirates who laid siege to an American cargo ship on April 8 and took the captain hostage before three of them were killed by Navy snipers. Muse survived but was stabbed in the hand, telling a crew member after the attack that it was always his dream to come to America.
On Tuesday, the teenager made it to America under circumstances far from idyllic, appearing in a packed federal courtroom in New York on what are believed to be the first piracy charges in the United States in more than a century.
Prosecutors portrayed him as the brazen ringleader of the pirates who shot at the ship's captain and bragged about prior acts of piracy.
But the bravado authorities say Muse displayed as the first pirate to board the Maersk Alabama on April 8 had evaporated by the time he entered the courtroom.
The 5-foot-2 Muse looked bewildered and so scrawny that his prison clothes were several sizes too big. He had a frayed white bandage where he was stabbed.
When his court-appointed lawyer said Muse's father would be interviewed in Somalia to verify his birth date, Muse put his head in his hand and broke down in tears. When the judge asked him if he understood that court-appointed lawyers would represent him, the teenager responded through a translator: "I understand. I don't have any money."
Muse was charged with piracy, conspiracy and brandishing and firing a gun during a conspiracy. The most serious count carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
The government says he is 18. A federal judge agreed Tuesday, ruling that Muse is an adult and that the case can proceed in open court. But his lawyers said they are going to continue to investigate his age and believe that he will ultimately be exonerated.
Defense lawyer Deirdre von Dornum said she has had to reassure Muse that the American justice system is fair because he knows only the anarchy that has ruled Somalia. She said he smiled before a gaggle of news cameras upon his arrival to New York on Monday only because he had never seen a camera in his life.
"As you can tell, he's extremely young, injured and terrified," von Dornum said.
The crew member who stabbed Muse said Tuesday that the teenager counted himself lucky to raid a U.S. ship.
"He was surprised he was on a U.S. ship. He kept asking, 'You all come from America?' Then he claps and cheers and smiles. He caught himself a big fish," said crew member ATM "Zahid" Reza. Muse planned to demand at least $3 million, Reza said.
Reza said Muse told him it was his dream to come to America. "His dreams come true, but he comes to the U.S. Not as a visitor, but as a prisoner," Reza said.