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Captain sentenced to 4 years in fiery deaths of 34 aboard scuba boat in California

Defendant Jerry Boylan, captain of the Conception, leaves federal court in Los Angeles on Thursday.
Richard Vogel
Defendant Jerry Boylan, captain of the Conception, leaves federal court in Los Angeles on Thursday.

LOS ANGELES — A federal judge in Los Angeles on Thursday sentenced a scuba dive boat captain to four years in prison and three years supervised release for criminal negligence after 34 people died in a fire aboard the vessel.

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

Captain Jerry Boylan was found guilty of one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer last year. The charge 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 pleaded with U.S. District Judge George Wu to give Boylan the maximum 10-year sentence in an impassioned hearing. Many cried, and Robert Kurtz, father of the sole deckhand killed, Alexandra Kurtz, brought a small container with him up to the lectern to address Boylan and the court.

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

Yadira Alvarez is the mother of 16-year-old Berenice Felipe, who volunteered at an animal shelter and dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, and was the youngest of the 34 victims killed on the boat.

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

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

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.

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

In determining a sentence, 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 behavior 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 defense had asked the judge to sentence Boylan to a five-year probationary sentence, with three years to be served under house arrest.

Boylan's 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."

U.S. 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. Boylan's attorneys 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.

In 2022, Wu dismissed the superseding indictment, saying it failed to specify that Boylan acted with gross negligence. Prosecutors were then forced to go before a grand jury again.

Although the exact cause of the blaze aboard the Conception remains undetermined, the prosecutors and defense 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 (23-meter) 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 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.

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

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

Three days after the fire, Truth Aquatics filed suit under a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law that allows it to limit its liability to the value of the remains of the boat, which was a total loss. The time-tested legal maneuver has been successfully employed by the owners of the Titanic and other vessels, and requires the Fritzlers to show they were not at fault.

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

After the sentencing 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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The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]