Captain sentenced to four years in prison for deadly boat fire


(SANTA CRUZ, Calif.) — The captain of a scuba dive boat that caught fire off the California coast in 2019, killing 34 people, was sentenced to four years in federal prison on Thursday, the Department of Justice said.

A federal jury found Jerry Boylan, 70, of Santa Barbara, guilty of seaman’s manslaughter in November 2023 in connection with the deadly boat fire.

Boylan was the captain of the Conception, a 75-foot boat that caught fire while it was docked at Platt’s Harbor near Santa Cruz Island during a scuba diving excursion in the early morning hours on Sept. 2, 2019, while passengers and crew members were sleeping. One crew member and 33 passengers died, while Boylan and four other crew members jumped overboard and survived.

U.S. District Judge George Wu issued the sentence after hearing more than a dozen victim impact statements.

The sentence also included three years of supervised release, according to ABC Los Angeles station KABC.

A restitution hearing was scheduled for July 11. Boylan was ordered to surrender on that date or shortly thereafter to begin serving his sentence, KABC reported.

“The defendant’s cowardice and repeated failures caused the horrific deaths of 34 people,” U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement following the sentencing. “The victims’ families will be forever devastated by this needless tragedy. 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.”

A federal grand jury initially indicted Boylan on 34 counts of misconduct or neglect of ship officer — commonly known as seaman’s manslaughter — in 2020. He faced a maximum of 340 years in prison if convicted. His attorneys argued that the deaths were the result of a single incident — not separate crimes — and he was subsequently charged with only one count, which carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Family members of some of the victims urged the judge to impose the maximum sentence during the hearing.

“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” the 48-month sentence, Kathleen McIlvain, the mother of one of the victims, Charles McIlvain, told reporters outside the courthouse. “Our lives are changed forever. I don’t really know how we can go forward, but we’ll give it a shot for Charlie.”

Federal prosecutors also sought the maximum sentence, arguing in a court document filed last month ahead of sentencing that the seasoned captain set sail with the “full knowledge of the potentially catastrophic consequences of his reckless conduct.”

“He knew that his crew was inexperienced and that he had not trained them to fight a fire. He knew that he had never conducted a single fire drill with his crew. He knew that he habitually ignored the most basic tenet of maritime fire safety in failing to maintain a roving patrol at night,” prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors further claimed that Boylan “has never apologized, much less taken any responsibility for the atrocity he caused,” and did not attempt any rescue during the fire and instead saved himself.

“He was the first to abandon ship. He instructed his crew to do the same, multiple times. In so doing, he left all 34 victims onboard the Conception to die,” prosecutors wrote.

Boylan’s attorneys argued for five years of probation, including three years of home incarceration, citing the captain’s age, “significant” health issues and the “profound grief, remorse, and emotional despair” he has felt since the accident. They also pushed back at the prosecutors’ portrayal of him as “callous and uncaring.”

“That insensitive portrayal is based on nothing but a cruel caricature,” his attorneys wrote in a court document filed last month ahead of the sentencing. “It in no way reflects the real person who continues to suffer on a daily basis since the day of the horrible Conception accident in which he nearly lost his own life.”

His attorneys argued Boylan did not “abandon” the vessel but alerted the Coast Guard, jumped out of the burning wheelhouse “only at the last possible second” and helped rescue the surviving crew in the ocean, among other efforts.

His attorneys also cited a National Transportation Safety Board report that determined that the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the Conception’s owner and operator, Truth Aquatics, to “provide effective oversight of its vessel and crewmember operations, including requirements to ensure that a roving patrol was maintained, which allowed a fire of unknown cause to grow, undetected, in the vicinity of the aft salon on the main deck.”

The cause for the fire could not be identified due to the boat burning and sinking, though it started in the rear of the main back salon where the passengers had plugged in their phones and other devices before going to sleep, the NTSB report said.

The owner of Truth Aquatics, Glen Fritzler, has not commented on the NTSB report or Boylan’s case.

In a statement days after the incident, Fritzler said he was “utterly crushed” and “devastated” by the accident.

“Our lives have been irreversibly changed by this tragedy and the sorrow it has caused,” he said. “The families and friends of the victims and survivors are now, and forever, in our thoughts and prayers.”

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