Captain sentenced to 4 years for criminal negligence in fiery deaths of 34 aboard scuba boat

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

THE September 2, 2019, fire It was the deadliest maritime disaster in recent U.S. history and resulted in changes to maritime regulations, congressional reform, and several ongoing lawsuits.

Capt. Jerry Boylan was convicted of one count of misconduct or neglect of the ship’s officer last year. The charge is a pre-Civil War law, colloquially known as seaman’s manslaughter. It was designed to hold steamboat captains and crews responsible for maritime disasters.

Boylan’s appeal is pending. He faced up to 10 years in prison.

The defense had asked the judge to give Boylan a five-year suspended sentence, including three years of house arrest.

“While the loss of life here is staggering, there is no doubt that Mr. Boylan did not intend for anyone to die,” his lawyers wrote in a sentencing memo. “Indeed, Mr. Boylan lives with great grief, remorse and trauma following the deaths of his passengers and crew.”

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

Thirty-three passengers and one crew member died, trapped in a dormitory below deck. Among the dead were deckhand, who had landed his 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.

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

In 2020, a grand jury initially indicted Boylan on 34 counts of manslaughter of a mariner, meaning he could have faced a total of 340 years in prison. 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 I 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 fire aboard the Conception remains undetermined, prosecutors and the defense have sought to assign blame throughout the 10-day trial last year.

The government said Boylan failed to work the required roving night shift and never properly trained his team how to fight fires. The lack of roving surveillance allowed the fire to spread undetected on the 75-foot (23-meter) boat.

But Boylan’s lawyers sought to shift the blame to Glen Fritzler, who with his wife owns Truth Aquatics Inc., which operated the Conception and two other scuba diving boats, often around the Channel Islands. They maintained that Fritzler was responsible for not having trained the crew in firefighting and other safety measures, as well as the creation of a lax maritime 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 television station days after the fire. Their 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 filed a complaint under a provision of pre-Civil War maritime law that allows him to limit his liability to the value of the boat’s remains, which constituted a total loss. This tried-and-true legal maneuver was used successfully by the owners of the Titanic and other ships, and requires the Fritzlers to demonstrate that they were not at fault.

That case is ongoing, along with others filed by victims’ families against the Coast Guard for what they claim was lax enforcement of the roving surveillance requirement.

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