The captain of a Santa Barbara-based dive boat that caught fire near Santa Cruz Island, resulting in the deaths of all 33 passengers and one crew member, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Los Angeles to federal charges.
Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, of Santa Barbara, was released on a $250,000 bond following his arraignment. A March 30 trial was scheduled before U.S. District Judge George H. Wu.
Each of the 34 little-used seaman’s manslaughter counts that Boylan faces carries a penalty of up to 10 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
As the captain and master of the Conception, a 75-foot, wood-and-fiberglass passenger vessel that docked in Santa Barbara Harbor, Boylan “was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers,” according to an indictment filed in December.
The indictment alleges that Boylan caused the Sept. 2, 2019, deaths of 33 passengers — including two Santa Monica residents — and one crew member “by his misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties.”
Marybeth Guiney and Charles McIlvain, diving enthusiasts who lived in the same Santa Monica condominium complex, were among the nearly three dozen people trapped aboard the Conception when it sank amid a three-day Labor Day weekend diving trip to the Channel Islands.
The indictment cites three specific safety violations: failing to have a night watch or roving patrol, which was required by the Code of Federal Regulations and for over 20 years was a requirement in the Conception’s Certificate of Inspection issued by the U.S. Coast Guard; failing to conduct sufficient fire drills, which are mandated in the CFR; and failing to conduct sufficient crew training, which was also required by the CFR.
During the predawn hours, a fire broke out while the boat was anchored in Platt’s Harbor near Santa Cruz Island. The fire, which engulfed the boat and led to its sinking, resulted in the deaths of 34 people who had been sleeping below deck. Boylan was among five crew members who were able to escape and jump into the water.
“As a result of the alleged failures of Captain Boylan to follow well-established safety rules, a pleasant holiday dive trip turned into a hellish nightmare as passengers and one crew member found themselves trapped in a fiery bunk room with no means of escape,” then-U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said when the indictment was handed down. “The loss of life that day will forever impact the families of the 34 victims. With this indictment and our commitment to vigorously prosecute the case, we seek a small measure of justice for the victims and their loved ones.”
The fire aboard the Conception is one of California’s deadliest maritime disasters, prompting criminal and safety investigations. The families of victims have filed claims against the boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler and Truth Aquatics, and the Fritzlers and the company, in turn, filed a legal claim to shield them from damages under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners.
The families’ suits allege 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-decks passenger accommodations lacked emergency exits.
“Nothing will ever replace the 34 lives that were lost in the Conception tragedy,” Special Agent in Charge Kelly S. Hoyle of the Coast Guard Investigative Service-Pacific Region said in December. “Our hearts remain with the families as the Coast Guard continues to work with our partners in the Department of Justice on this investigation.”
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