Jerry Boylan was convicted by a federal jury in connection with the 2019 fire that killed 34 people on the Conception dive boat off the Santa Barbara coast. Six of the victims were from Santa Cruz County.
After a day of deliberations, a federal court jury in Los Angeles on Monday found former Conception dive boat captain Jerry Boylan guilty of gross negligence in the deaths of 34 people in the fiery maritime disaster.
The ship caught fire in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019, while it was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, trapping 33 passengers and one crew member in the bunk room. Among them were Kristy Finstad, 41, Carol Adamic, 60, Steve Salika, 55, Tia Salika, 17, and Berenice Felipe, 16 — all of Santa Cruz — and Vaidehi Campbell Williams, 41, of Felton.
Prosecutors said Boylan, who had been a captain for 34 years, was negligent in failing to appoint a night watch or to drill his crew in fire safety. When the fire broke out — possibly originating in a trash can — chaos ensued among Boylan’s inexperienced, ill-trained crew. In the bedlam, a crew member twice ran right by a 50-foot fire hose.
Boylan, then 66, woke up amid the smoke and flames, called in a mayday and jumped overboard, actions that prosecutors said amounted to abandoning his ship. The 34 people crowded in the windowless bunk room lived for minutes after he did so, but they had no exit — the stairs and the escape hatch were blocked by flames.
Boylan’s attorneys with the federal public defender’s office argued that there was little he could do by the time he woke up to “an unstoppable inferno,” and that the fire hoses were unusable because they were ablaze.
Defense attorneys said Boylan learned how to run a boat from Glen Fritzler, the owner of the Conception and the company Truth Aquatics, whose boats did not use an overnight watch.
Boylan, who had been with the company for decades, did not know that doing things “the Fritzler way” was endangering people, the defense attorneys argued.
Federal prosecutors derided the argument as the “blaming your boss” defense, and said he had “rolled the dice” with his passengers’ lives.
The courtroom was packed throughout the two-week trial by families of the fire victims, who have followed the case closely during the four years it took to reach trial.
After the verdict, the families wept and embraced in the hallway, saying “we did it” and “we got it.”
“We’ve waited four years for the guilty verdict, and it’s just a feeling like we can move forward a little with our lives,” said Susana Rosas, 65, who lost three daughters and her ex-husband in the fire.
Rosas sat in the ninth-floor courtroom in downtown Los Angeles for every day of the trial, at times listening to graphic testimony about the effort to recover the bodies from the charred wreck of the Conception, 56 feet below the surface.
She learned that one of her daughters, Evan Quitasol, a 37-year-old nurse, was found huddled tightly with two other victims, Charles McIlvain, 44, and Alexandra “Allie” Kurtz, 26.
“As hard as it was, it was comforting to know she died embracing someone else,” she said. “They weren’t alone. No one there was alone.”
Boylan, who did not testify, will remain free until U.S. District Judge George Wu sentences him on Feb. 8. He could face up to 10 years in federal prison.
Even the maximum sentence feels lenient for Boylan’s crime, Rosas said, adding that it seems “such a short amount of time for him to serve, for 34 people.” Boylan had ignored the Certificate of Inspection hanging in his own wheelhouse, which spelled out the need for an overnight watch in capital letters.
“He didn’t follow policies and protocols. Other captains in the area weren’t either. They thought it was OK to do that,” Rosas said. “We were the unlucky ones.”
As a result of the tragedy, the Coast Guard has tightened regulations, and more boats are implementing overnight watches. But “it’s too late for our families,” Rosas said.
Jurors deliberated all day while the victims’ families waited in the hallway, and a verdict finally came at 4:30 p.m.
“I was so worried because it went on so long today,” said McIlvain’s mother, Kathleen. “I couldn’t imagine how any jury wouldn’t know he was guilty.”
She said Boylan had failed the people who had entrusted him with their lives. “He didn’t do his duty as a captain,” she said. “He abandoned ship. He abandoned them, and we never did.”
She and other families are already trying to write their victim-impact statements, which they will deliver to the judge at Boylan’s sentencing next year. She said she doesn’t know how she will do it.
“They died such horrific deaths,” McIlvain said. “We couldn’t even see them. We didn’t want that to be the last memory of Charlie.”
Among the items recovered from the wreck was an iPhone with a 24-second video, recorded by one of the passengers in her final minutes as flames encroached on the bunk room. Prosecutors played it during the trial, but the FBI had allowed family members to see it long before.
On the video, McIlvain could hear her son exclaiming, “There’s got to be a way out!” and “There’s got to be more extinguishers!”
“The last voice I have of him is on the video in the bunk room, and he wasn’t giving up,” she said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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