Captain jailed for four years over California dive boat blaze that killed 34

Captain Jerry Boylan was found guilty of one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, a charge colloquially known as ‘seaman’s manslaughter’, last year

Mike Bedigan
Los Angeles
Friday 03 May 2024 02:11 BST
Related video: Bodies found after scuba dive boat catches fire off California

A scuba dive boat captain found guilty of so-called “seaman’s manslaughter” has been sentenced to four years behind bars in Los Angeles after 34 people died in a fire onboard his vessel.

Captain Jerry Boylan was found guilty of one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer last year. As well as the four-year custodial sentence he will also face three years of supervised release for criminal negligence.

The blaze on 2 September 2019 was the deadliest maritime disaster in recent US history and prompted changes to maritime regulations, congressional reform and several ongoing lawsuits.

The charge of misconduct or neglect of ship officer last year is a pre-Civil War statute colloquially known as seaman’s manslaughter. It was designed to hold steamboat captains and crew responsible for maritime disasters.

Family members had pleaded with US District Judge George Wu to give Boylan the maximum 10-year sentence, with many tears and impassioned speeches.

Captain Jerry Boylan was the first to abandon ship on September 2 2019, leaving 33 passengers and one crewmember to die onboard the Conception dive boat
Captain Jerry Boylan was the first to abandon ship on September 2 2019, leaving 33 passengers and one crewmember to die onboard the Conception dive boat (AP)

The vessel – named the Conception – was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, when it caught fire before dawn on the final day of a three-day excursion, sinking less than 100 feet from shore.

Thirty-three passengers and a crew member died, trapped in a bunkroom below deck. Among the dead were the deckhand, who had landed her dream job; an environmental scientist who conducted research in Antarctica; a globe-trotting couple; a Singaporean data scientist; and a family of three sisters, their father and his wife.

Robert Kurtz, father of the deckhand, Alexandra Kurtz, brought a small container with him up to the lectern to address Boylan and the court on Thursday. “This is all I have of my daughter,” he said.

Yadira Alvarez, the mother of 16-year-old Berenice Felipe, who volunteered at an animal shelter and dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, was the youngest of the victims killed on the boat.

“He’s not a victim. He is responsible for my daughter not being here,” Ms Alvarez said while sobbing in court. “Can you imagine my pain?”

Prosecutors said that Boylan was the first to abandon ship and jump overboard. Four crew members who joined him also survived.

During the hearing, Boylan’s attorney read a statement aloud to the court in which he expressed his condolences and said he has cried every day since the fire.

Susana Solano-Rosas, left, who lost three of her daughters and their father on the boat said she was ‘extremely disappointed’ by the sentence on Thursday
Susana Solano-Rosas, left, who lost three of her daughters and their father on the boat said she was ‘extremely disappointed’ by the sentence on Thursday (AP)

“I wish I could have brought everyone home safe,” the statement said. “I am so sorry.”

In determining a sentence, Judge Wu said he took into account Boylan’s age, health, the unlikelihood of recurrence and the need for deterrence and punishment. He said while Boylan’s behaviour was reckless, the guidelines for sentencing would not warrant a 10-year sentence.

“This is not a situation where the defendant intended to do something bad,” Wu said.

The defence had asked the judge to sentence Boylan to a five-year probationary sentence, with three years to be served under house arrest. His appeal is ongoing.

Hank Garcia, whose son Daniel was among the victims, said he is not a vengeful person but he and other family members don’t want something like this to ever happen again.

“We all have a life sentence,” he told the court. “We are having a life sentence without these people that we love.”

US Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement: “While today’s sentence cannot fully heal their wounds, we hope that our efforts to hold this defendant criminally accountable brings some measure of healing to the families.”

Thursday’s sentencing was the final step in a fraught prosecution that’s lasted nearly five years and repeatedly frustrated the victims’ families.

A grand jury in 2020 initially indicted Boylan on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter, meaning he could have faced a total of 340 years behind bars.

Family members of the 34 people who died during the Conception dive boat fire in 2019 hold photos of their loved ones outside the US Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles
Family members of the 34 people who died during the Conception dive boat fire in 2019 hold photos of their loved ones outside the US Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles (AP)

Boylan’s attorneys successfully argued the deaths were the result of a single incident and not separate crimes, so prosecutors got a superseding indictment charging Boylan with only one count.

Although the exact cause of the blaze aboard the Conception remains undetermined, the prosecutors and defence sought to assign blame throughout the 10-day trial last year.

The government said Boylan failed to post the required roving night watch and never properly trained his crew in firefighting. The lack of the roving watch meant the fire was able to spread undetected across the 75-foot boat.

But Boylan’s attorneys sought to pin blame on Glen Fritzler, who, with his wife, owns Truth Aquatics Inc., which operated the Conception and two other scuba dive boats, often around the Channel Islands.

They argued that Mr Fritzler was responsible for failing to train the crew in firefighting and other safety measures, as well as creating a lax seafaring culture they called “the Fritzler way,” in which no captain who worked for him posted a roving watch.

Attention will now turn to several ongoing lawsuits.

Cases filed by victims’ families against the Coast Guard for what they allege was lax enforcement of the roving watch requirement are all pending.

After the sentencing on Thursday, Susana Solano, who lost three of her daughters and their father on the boat, said she and the other family members hoped the judge would listen to their pleas.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” she said. “It’s just heartwrenching.”

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