Ship captain sentenced to 4 years for the deaths of 34 people


A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a dive boat captain to four years in prison and three years of supervised release for criminal negligence after 34 people died in a fire aboard the boat.

The fire on September 2, 2019 was the deadliest maritime disaster in recent United States history and led to changes in maritime regulations, congressional reforms and several ongoing lawsuits.

Capt. Jerry Boylan was found guilty of one count of misconduct or negligence toward a ship’s officer last year. The charge is a pre-Civil War statute known colloquially as seaman’s manslaughter. It was designed to hold steamship captains and crew members responsible for maritime disasters.

Relatives asked Judge George Wu to give Boylan the maximum 10-year sentence in an impassioned hearing. Many cried, and Robert Kurtz, father of the only sailor killed, Alexandra Kurtz, carried a small container to the lectern to address Boylan and the court.

“This is all I have of my daughter,” he said.

Yadira Álvarez is the mother of 16-year-old Berenice Felipe, who was a volunteer at an animal shelter and dreamed of being a marine biologist, and was the youngest of the 34 victims who died on the ship.

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

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

“I wish I could have brought everyone home safely,” the statement said. “Very sorry.”

In determining the sentence, Wu said he took into account Boylan’s age, his health, the likelihood of recurrence and the need for deterrence and punishment.

He said that while Boylan’s behavior was reckless, sentencing guidelines would not justify a 10-year sentence.

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

The defense had asked the judge to sentence Boylan to five years of probation, three years of which he would serve under house arrest.

Boylan’s appeal continues.

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 happen again.

“We all have life sentences,” he told the court. “We are serving life sentences without these people we love.”

The Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Santa Barbara, when it caught fire before dawn on the last day of a three-day excursion, sinking less than 30 meters (100 feet). ) of the coast.

Thirty-three passengers and one crew member died trapped in a cabin below deck. Among the dead was the sailor, who had gotten his dream job; an environmental scientist who conducted research in Antarctica; a globetrotting couple; a data scientist from Singapore; and a family of three sisters, his father and his wife.

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

“While today’s sentencing cannot completely heal their wounds, we hope that our efforts to hold this defendant criminally accountable will bring some degree of healing to the families,” U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement.

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

In 2020, a grand jury initially indicted Boylan on 34 counts of sailor manslaughter, meaning he could have faced a total of 340 years behind bars. Boylan’s attorneys argued that the deaths were the result of a single incident and not separate crimes, so prosecutors obtained a superseding indictment charging Boylan with a single count.

In 2022, U.S. District Judge George Wu dismissed the superseding indictment, saying it did not specify that Boylan acted with gross negligence. Prosecutors were then forced to appear before a grand jury again.

Although the exact cause of the fire aboard the Conception remains undetermined, prosecutors and the defense attempted to identify the culprits during the 10-day trial last year.

The government said Boylan failed to post the required roving night watch and never properly trained his team in firefighting. The lack of roving surveillance meant that the fire was able to spread undetected along the 75-foot (23-meter) ship.

But Boylan’s lawyers tried to blame Glen Fritzler, who with his wife owns Truth Aquatics Inc., which operated the Conception and two other dive boats, often around the Channel Islands. They argued that Fritzler was responsible for failing to train the crew in firefighting and other safety measures, as well as creating a lax maritime culture they called “the Fritzler way,” in which no captain working for him performed a roving watch.

The Fritzlers have not spoken publicly about the tragedy since an interview with a local television station a few days after the fire. His lawyers never responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

With the conclusion of the criminal case, attention now turns to several ongoing trials.

Three days after the fire, Truth Aquatics sued under a provision of pre-Civil War maritime law that allows it to limit its liability to the value of the ship’s wreckage, which was a total loss. The time-tested legal maneuver has been used successfully by the owners of the Titanic and other ships, and requires the Fritzlers to prove they were not at fault.

That case is pending, as are others filed by victims’ families against the Coast Guard for what they allege was lax enforcement of the roving surveillance requirement.

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

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