Captain sentenced to 4 years in boat fire that killed 34 off Ventura coast; families heartbroken

Family of some of the victims expressed heartbreak following the sentencing, saying their loved ones' lives was were worth more.

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Thursday, May 2, 2024
Conception captain sentenced to 4 years in boat fire that killed 34
Family members of some of the victims expressed their heartbreak following the sentencing, saying their loved ones' lives were worth more than four years.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The captain of the dive boat Conception, which caught fire near Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day 2019, was sentenced Thursday to four years behind bars for gross negligence in the deaths of all 34 people on board.

Jerry Boylan, 70, was sentenced in downtown Los Angeles for the single charged count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, a pre-Civil War law also known as seaman's manslaughter. The defense unsuccessfully argued for a five-year probationary sentence, with three years to be served under house arrest.

The fire is considered the worst maritime disaster in modern California history.

U.S. District Judge George H. Wu set a restitution hearing for July 11, at which time -- or shortly thereafter -- Boylan was ordered to surrender to begin his sentence.

Victims' families speak out

More than 15 family members, many in tears, spoke at the nearly four-hour, impassioned hearing in Los Angeles federal court, providing memories of children, spouses, brothers and sisters who perished in the fire. Boylan, his head down, never looked at the speakers.

When one father of a lost child asked the judge to order the defendant to look at him as he spoke, Wu declined.

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.

Susana Solano, who lost three of her daughters and their father in the disaster, spoke of the agony and grief she has felt daily for nearly five years.

"The torture happens each and every day,'' she told the court. "I feel like a failure because I was unable to protect my children from harm.''

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?"

After the sentencing, family members of other victims spoke outside of the court house, expressing their heartbreak at what they described as an inadequate sentence.

"We're very relieved that this is finally over, but we really felt like our son's life, and those of the others, was certainly worth more than...48 months," said Kathleen McIlvain, family member of one of the victims, Charles McIlvain. "Our lives are changed forever, and I don't really know how we can go forward, but we'll give it a shot for Charlie."

McIlvain and Marybeth Guiney, both Santa Monica residents, were diving enthusiasts who lived in the same condominium complex.

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.

The charge of seaman's manslaughter carries a maximum guidelines range sentence of 10 years in prison, but Wu said he could not find legal precedent for such a penalty in Boylan's case. The judge said he took into consideration such mitigating factors as Boylan's age, health issues, lack of criminal intent or prior convictions in fashioning the four-year term.

Family members spoke of Boylan's apparent lack of remorse, but the judge said the defendant had filed a video expressing great contrition.

In a brief statement read aloud by his attorney, Boylan said, "It was my goal to bring everyone home safely -- and I failed.''

Along with the prison term, Wu ordered the defendant to serve three years of supervised release after his release, with the condition that he participate in mental health treatment.

The jury returned its guilty verdict on Nov. 6 at the end of the first day of deliberations.

Boylan's failure to organize required roving night patrols of the 75-foot vessel allowed the fire to spread unimpeded, killing victims whose ages ranged from 16 to the 60s.

Defense attorneys blamed the ship's owner, Glen Fritzler, for not insisting on roving night patrols or fire training for his fleet's captains and crews.

Boylan was the first to abandon ship and jump overboard. Four crew members also survived by jumping into the ocean in the predawn hours of Sept. 2, 2019.

Evidence showed Boylan failed to use firefighting equipment, including a fire ax and fire extinguisher that were next to him in the wheelhouse, to fight the fire or attempt to rescue trapped passengers.

Meanwhile, 33 passengers and one crew member were still alive and trapped below deck in the vessel's bunk room and in need of assistance to escape, prosecutors said.

The captain failed "to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire, even though he was uninjured'' and failed to use the boat's public address system to warn passengers and crew members about the blaze, according to court papers.

What happened on the night of the fire aboard Conception

Citing a confidential report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Los Angeles Times reported that the fire started in a plastic trash can on the boat's main deck and spread rapidly. The blaze blocked exits for those below deck, the report said.

According to evidence presented at the 10-day trial, Boylan, as captain of the Conception, committed a series of failures -- including abandoning his ship instead of rescuing passengers -- that resulted in the disaster. Such conduct constituted misconduct, gross negligence and inattention to his duties and led to the deaths of 34 victims, the jury found.

Evidence also showed that the dive boat was required by Coast Guard regulations to have a night patrol in case of fire or a person overboard. But Boylan did not use a roving patrol to protect the vessel while passengers and crew slept, prosecutors said.

The captain made a mayday call to the Coast Guard after seeing flames, but did not use the intercom system to communicate with the people below deck or attempt to fight the fire before jumping into the sea, the jury was told.

In one of the most harrowing parts of the trial, the jury was shown cellphone video taken by a passenger before she died showing those in the sleeping quarters as it was filling up with smoke.

"The passengers didn't know it, but their captain had already jumped overboard,'' a prosecutor said. "The crew had no idea what to do.''

It took rescue boats about an hour to reach the disaster. By that time, the Conception was totally engulfed in flames and all 34 victims had died.

"The key issue here is the defendant's duties as captain,'' according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The defense argued that the flames quickly closed in on Boylan, but he stayed aboard until he made the mayday call and only jumped when he was sure he would not live otherwise.

The fire broke out while the boat was anchored in Platt's Harbor near Santa Cruz Island.

Boylan was originally charged in December 2020 with 34 counts of seaman's manslaughter, but after the defense objected, prosecutors refiled an indictment on the single count covering all the deaths.

"Defendant has never apologized, much less taken any responsibility for the atrocity he caused,'' according to the prosecution's sentencing papers.

The fire prompted criminal and safety investigations. Victims' families have also filed claims against Fritzler and his company.

The company, in turn, filed a legal claim to shield it from damages under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners.

The families' suits contend that the 41-year-old Conception was in blatant violation of numerous Coast Guard regulations, including failing to maintain an overnight roving safety watch and failure to provide a safe means for storing and charging lithium-ion batteries, and that the below-deck passenger accommodations lacked emergency exits.

Boylan is free on a $75,000 bond pending his surrender.

City News Service and the Associated Press contributed to this report.