Judge throws out indictment vs. captain in Conception boat fire that killed 34, including 6 from Santa Cruz County

The dive boat Conception smolders after it burned off Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2, 2019.
(Ventura County Fire Department via Los Angeles Times)

Three years to the day after the fatal blaze off the Santa Barbara Coast, a federal judge in Los Angeles tossed an indictment of seaman’s manslaughter against Jerry Boylan, saying prosecutors hadn’t properly specified gross negligence on the dive boat captain’s part.

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The federal case against the captain of a dive boat that caught fire off Santa Barbara in 2019, killing 34 people including six Santa Cruz County residents, took a hit Friday when a Los Angeles judge threw out an indictment of manslaughter against Jerry Boylan.

The move came three years to the day after the blaze that killed 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. They were among 33 divers and one crew member who perished after becoming trapped in the Conception’s bunk room when the nighttime fire broke out during a trip to the Channel Islands on Sept. 2, 2019.

Boylan, the 68-year-old who helmed the Conception, was accused of “misconduct, negligence and inattention” in training and preparing his Santa Barbara-based crew, the Associated Press reported, and of failing to follow safety rules. But in tossing the indictment, U.S. District Judge George Wu said federal prosecutors did not specify that Boylan acted with gross negligence, which per the AP is “a required element to prove the crime of seaman’s manslaughter and must be listed in the indictment.”

Boylan pleaded not guilty to the charges in February 2021; a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles said prosecutors will ask the Department of Justice for approval to appeal Friday’s ruling, and could also try for a new indictment that would include the charge of gross negligence.

Boylan was originally indicted on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter, which was reduced in July to a single count alleging his misconduct was to blame for all of the deaths. He could have faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted, the AP reported.

The summary of alleged failures mirrors findings by the National Transportation Safety Board, which concluded that not having a roving watchperson, among other lapses, prevented crew members from detecting the fire in time to save the passengers.

At a hearing in October 2020, NTSB investigators revealed that many of those trapped below deck were awake — some with their shoes on — as the fire engulfed the vessel about 3 a.m., but could not escape the bunk room and died of smoke inhalation.

The NTSB also faulted the company that owns and operates the boat, Truth Aquatics, for failing to adhere to various safety practices. Glen Fritzler, the company’s owner, and his attorneys have denied any wrongdoing.

Dive boat captain Jerry Boylan
Jerry Boylan, the captain of the Conception dive boat, is brought back to the U.S. Coast Guard station in Oxnard in October 2019.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The charge of seaman’s manslaughter has been used in other recent high-profile cases of negligence and misconduct at sea. In 2013, the oil company BP pleaded guilty to 11 counts of seaman’s manslaughter in connection with the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Federal prosecutors in Missouri charged a duck boat captain and two others with the crime after 17 people died from a boat capsizing in 2018.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.