Captain gets four-year sentence for Conception boat disaster

profile photo
By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Jerry Boylan, the captain of the Conception dive boat where 34 people died amid smoke and flame over Labor Day weekend in 2019, was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison for negligence that contributed to the disaster.

U.S. District Judge George Wu said he found Boylan “incredibly remorseful” and that he had not “intended to do something bad.”

The judge called it “one of the most difficult sentencings I’ve ever done” and said he was taking the 70-year-old Boylan’s age and health into account, as well as the unlikelihood that he would re-offend.

The judge also rejected the prosecution’s claim that Boylan had abandoned his ship.

Hearing those words, Boylan began to tremble and wipe away tears. He could have received up to 10 years in federal prison for his conviction on what is colloquially called seaman’s manslaughter.

The lighter sentence — and the fact that the judge is allowing Boylan to remain free until after a restitution hearing — left many of the victims’ family members furious.

“There’s no justice,” said Robert Kurtz, the father of one of the victims. “He’s not even being remanded. He’s still free.”

After a two-week trial, a federal jury in November found Boylan committed gross negligence in the deaths of the 33 passengers and one crew member who were trapped in a windowless bunk room when the boat caught fire before dawn on Sept. 2, 2019, off Santa Cruz Island.

Boylan had been a captain for 34 years but failed to appoint an overnight watch, ignoring the Certificate of Inspection requirements hanging in his own wheelhouse.

Nor did he institute adequate fire safety drills. Prosecutors argued that this left his poorly trained, panic-stricken crew effectively useless amid the fire, which possibly originated in a trash can sometime after 2:35 a.m.

As the flames spread, blocking the exits for those crowded in the bunk room below, a member of Boylan’s crew twice ran right by a 50-foot fire hose overhead. Boylan himself called in a Mayday at 3:14 a.m. and jumped overboard, which prosecutors described as abandoning ship.

But Boylan’s attorneys with the federal public defender’s office called it “an unstoppable inferno” and said there was little he could have done after waking amid the flames. His attorneys also argued that Boylan, in failing to use an overnight watch, was merely following the custom of the company that owned the boat, Truth Aquatics, and did not know that he was imperiling passengers. Prosecutors called it the “blaming your boss” defense.

Families of the fire victims packed the ninth-floor courtroom in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday. Many came with posters of their loved ones, and some wore shirts that said “34 fearless divers” and “forever remembered.” For nearly two hours, families read victim impact statements to the judge.

Yadira Alvarez said her 16-year-old daughter, Berenice Felipe, who died on the boat, was in her last year of high school.

“Her wings were cut,” Alvarez said. As she displayed photos of her daughter on the screen, Boylan kept his head bowed. She demanded the maximum 10-year sentence for Boylan, even though “10 years for him is nothing,” adding: “He is not a victim.”

During the trial, the families endured graphic testimony about the effort to recover the bodies from the charred boat 56 feet below the surface. They watched a 24-second video, found on an iPhone recovered from the wreck, recording the victims’ last moments alive.

On the tape, voices could be heard exclaiming, “There’s got to be a way out!” and “There’s got to be more extinguishers!” and “We’re gonna die …!”

Boylan did not testify and has remained free since his conviction. Prosecutors said he was guilty of manslaughter if his negligence caused even one of the 34 deaths.

Boylan’s lawyers, and his supporters, pleaded for leniency before the sentencing.

“There’s no way to undo this tragedy,” said defense attorney Georgina Wakefield. “Mr. Boylan is not a bad man. He wishes every day that he could go back in time and change what happened. … I’ve never represented anybody who is as grief-stricken.”

Defense attorneys argued that none of the Truth Aquatics boats, nor any other boat in the waters off Santa Barbara, used a roving night watch at the time, and that it was unfair “to punish him for the failings of an entire industry.”

Giving Boylan a stiff prison term would not serve to deter further catastrophes like this one, the attorneys argued, since the dive boat industry has already implemented safety reforms as a result of the Conception fire.

Defense attorneys asked the judge to sentence Boylan to house arrest and community service, characterizing him as a man with “almost no family” whose “job was his life.” He was now an isolated 70-year-old man who sleeps 1½ hours most nights, rarely leaves home and “has been crippled with pain and guilt in the years since the accident,” according to a pre-sentencing defense memo.

The memo said Boylan, who was making a wage of around $44,000 after decades as a boat captain, now survives on Social Security and can’t afford payments on the trailer where he lives.

Baron Kelly, who worked on Boylan’s crews and considered him a mentor in seamanship, described him as among “the most conservative” of the Truth Aquatics captains, a skipper who drilled his crews in how to handle dive-related emergencies.

“I have spoken with Jerry many times since the accident and his grief is colossal,” Kelly wrote in a letter to the judge. “At one point he told me he was sleeping in his living room because his bedroom didn’t have enough emergency exits. Some days when I would reach out, he was too distraught by grief to speak at all.”

Another of Boylan’s former crew members, Shannan Johnson, described him as “one of the company’s most reliable and responsible captains.”

“Jerry is a good man. He did his best and then some,” Johnson wrote to the judge. “Yet that night the negligence was trusting that what had been safe and successful for 30 years all of a sudden wasn’t.”

More to Read

author photo
About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.