A photo collage of the 34 victims of the Sept. 2, 2019 fire aboard the dive boat, Conception, at Santa Cruz Island, is held by a family member arriving at federal court in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 2023. (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)
LOS ANGELES—The captain of the Conception dive boat that caught fire near Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day 2019 was convicted Nov. 6 of criminal negligence in the deaths of all 33 passengers and a crew member.
Jerry Boylan faces up to 10 years in federal prison at sentencing on Feb. 8, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The jury returned its verdict on the single charged count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, a pre-Civil War law also known as seaman’s manslaughter, at the end of the first day of deliberations.
The fire is considered the worst maritime disaster in modern California history.
“This ship captain’s unpardonable cowardice led to the deaths of 34 lives on Labor Day 2019,” U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement. “As the jury found, this tragedy could have been avoided had Mr. Boylan simply performed the duties he was entrusted to carry out. We hope that today’s verdict brings some solace and closure to the victims’ loved ones.”
Defendant, Conception's captain Jerry Boylan (R), arrives in federal court in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 2023. (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)
The Los Angeles federal jury heard that Mr. 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.
Mr. Boylan, 69, 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.
The jury found that Mr. 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, the indictment states.
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 fire, according to a federal prosecutor.
The burned hull of the dive boat Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2019. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via AP)
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, Mr. 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.
The jury heard evidence that the dive boat was required by Coast Guard regulations to have a night patrol in case of fire or a person overboard. But Mr. Boylan “did not use a roving patrol” while passengers and crew slept, a prosecutor 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 a cell phone 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,” the lead prosecutor said. “The crew had no idea what to do.”
FBI personnel gather on a jetty by FBI Dive Team boats in Santa Barbara Harbor in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Sept. 4, 2019. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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 Mr. Boylan, but he stayed aboard until he made the mayday call and only jumped when he was sure he would not live otherwise.
Among the nearly three dozen people trapped aboard the passenger boat when it sank were two Santa Monica residents, Marybeth Guiney and Charles McIlvain, diving enthusiasts who lived in the same condominium complex.
The fire broke out while the boat was anchored in Platt’s Harbor near Santa Cruz Island.
A Coast Guard crew leaves the U.S. Coast Guard Station Channel Islands as they head out to the scene of the boat that burned and sank off the Santa Cruz islands early in the morning at the Coast Guard base in Oxnard, Calif., on Sept. 2, 2019. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
Mr. 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.
The fire prompted criminal and safety investigations. Victims’ families have also filed claims against Mr. 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.
Mr. Boylan is free on a $75,000 bond pending sentencing.