Captain sentenced to 4 years in prison for scuba boat fire that killed 34: NPR

Concepcion captain Jerry Boylan walks out of federal court in Los Angeles on Thursday.

Richard Vogel/AP

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Richard Vogel/AP

Concepcion captain Jerry Boylan walks out of federal court in Los Angeles on Thursday.

Richard Vogel/AP

LOS ANGELES – A federal judge in Los Angeles on Thursday sentenced a scuba dive boat captain to four years in prison and three years of supervised release for criminal negligence in a fire that killed 34 people aboard.

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

Captain Jerry Boylan was found guilty last year of one count of misconduct or neglect of a ship’s officer. The charge was a pre-Civil War statute, colloquially known as Seaman’s Massacre, designed to hold steamboat captains and crews responsible for maritime disasters.

Family members pleaded with U.S. District Judge George Wu to give Boylan the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison in an emotional trial. Many cried, and Robert Kurtz, father of the only slain deckhand, Alexandra Kurtz, brought Boylan and a small container to the lectern to address the court.

“This is what I have for my daughter,” she said.

Yadira Alvarez was 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 people killed on the boat.

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“He’s not a victim. He’s responsible for my daughter not being here,” Alvarez sobbed 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 at dawn on the final day of a three-day cruise and sank 100 feet (30 meters) from shore.

Thirty-three passengers and one crewman died trapped in a bunkroom below deck. Among the dead Techhand, landed his dream job; An environmental scientist who conducted research in Antarctica; Couple rocking a globe; Singapore Data Scientist; and a family consisting of three sisters, their father and his wife.

Boylan was the first to abandon ship and jump ship. All four crew members who were with him survived.

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

“I wish everyone was brought home safely,” the statement said. “I’m so sorry.”

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

He said even if Boylan’s behavior was reckless, the sentencing guidelines did not warrant a 10-year sentence.

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

The defense asked the judge to sentence Boylan to five years of probation and three years of house arrest.

Boylan’s appeal is ongoing.

Hank Garcia, whose son Daniel was among the victims, said he’s not one to seek revenge, but he and other family members don’t want something like this to happen again.

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

U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement: “Today’s sentence cannot fully heal their wounds, and we hope our efforts to bring this defendant to justice will bring some healing to the families.”

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

In 2020 a grand jury initially indicted Boylan on 34 counts of Seaman’s murder, meaning he could have spent a total of 340 years behind bars. Boylan’s attorneys argued that the deaths were the result of one incident and not separate crimes, so prosecutors charged Boylan with only one count.

In 2022, Wu denied charges of violating it Failed to mention that Boylan acted with gross negligence. Then the lawyers were forced Go before a grand jury again.

Although the exact cause of the fire aboard the Concepcion was never determined, prosecutors and the defense tried to pin the blame throughout a 10-day trial last year.

The government said Boylan failed to post a required roving night watch and did not properly train his crew in firefighting. Lacking a roving watch, the fire spread undetected in the 75-foot (23-meter) boat.

But Boylan’s lawyers tried to plead guilty Glenn Fritzler, with his wife, owns Truth Aquatics Inc., which operates the Conception and two other scuba dive boats frequently around the Channel Islands. They argued that Fritzler was responsible Failure to train crews in firefighting and other security measures, as well as creating a lax maritime culture known as the “Fritzler Way,” in which no captain who worked for him posted a watch.

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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 never responded to The Associated Press’ requests for comment.

With the criminal case over, attention has turned to several ongoing cases.

Three days after the fire, Truth Aquatics sued Under a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law that allows its liability to be limited to the value of the vessel’s remains, it is a total loss. Time-tested legal maneuvering has been used successfully by owners of the Titanic and other ships, and the Fritzlers need to show they’re not at fault.

That lawsuit is pending, along with others filed by the victims’ families against the Coast Guard alleging lax enforcement of the roving watch requirement.

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

“I’m very disappointed,” he said. “It’s just mind-blowing.”

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