The captain of the P/V Conception – a Santa Barbara-based dive boat that caught fire and sank near Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day in 2019, resulting in the deaths of 33 passengers and one crew member – was found guilty by a jury late Monday afternoon of a federal felony offense.
Jerry Nehl Boylan, 69, of Santa Barbara, was found guilty of one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer – an offense commonly called “seaman’s manslaughter” – a crime punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison.
The Conception was a 75-foot, wood-and-fiberglass passenger vessel that docked in Santa Barbara Harbor. During a dive trip on September 2, 2019, the boat carried 33 passengers and six crew members, including Boylan.
In the early morning 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. Five crewmembers, including Boylan, were able to escape and survived.
“This ship captain’s unpardonable cowardice led to the deaths of 34 lives on Labor Day 2019,” said United States Attorney Martin Estrada. “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.”
“Mr. Boylan’s failure to carry out his duties as Captain of the Conception led to the catastrophic loss of 34 victims who suffered a horrifying death and perished needlessly in the end,” said Donald Alway, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “Ultimately, the hard work by the investigators from multiple agencies led to today’s outcome and now the victims’ families can continue their healing process. Let this tragedy be a lesson to anyone who commands a boat with vulnerable passengers that proper training, diligence and life saving measures – when called for – are necessary to safeguard those left in one’s charge.”
The exact cause of the blaze remains undetermined but prosecutors and defense attempted to assign blame during the trial.
Boylan’s attorneys pinned their blame on the owners of the boat, Glen and Dana Fritzler, and their company Truth Aquatics Inc., which operated the Conception and two other scuba dive boats out of the Santa Barbara Harbor.
The defense argued the Fritzlers were responsible for failing to train the crew in firefighting and safety measures, as well as creating a lax seafaring culture dubbed “the Fritzler way,” in which no captain who worked for them posted a roving watch.
Three days after the fire, Truth Aquatics filed suit under a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law that allows it to limit its liability to the value of the remains of the boat, which was a total loss. The filing has been successfully employed by the owners of the Titanic and other vessels, and requires the Fritzlers to show they were not at fault.
That case is pending, as well as others filed by victims’ families against the Coast Guard for alleged lax enforcement of the roving watch requirement.
During Boylan’s 10-day trial, the jury found he committed a series of failures – including abandoning his ship instead of rescuing passengers – that resulted in the disaster and led to the deaths of 34 victims.
The jury found as the ship’s captain, Boylan was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its passengers, and its crew; and he failed in his responsibilities in several ways, including by:
- failing to have a night watch or roving patrol;
- failing to conduct sufficient fire drills and crew training;
- failing to provide firefighting instructions or directions to crewmembers after the fire started;
- failing 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;
- failing to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire, even though he was uninjured;
- failing to use the boat’s public address system to warn passengers and crewmembers about the fire; and
- becoming the first crewmember to abandon ship even though 33 passengers and one crewmember were still alive and trapped below deck in the vessel’s bunkroom and in need of assistance to escape.
“In the court of justice, a guilty verdict echoes the collective grief and loss of 34 souls that perished in this tragedy. It serves as a solemn reminder of the great duty a master owes his passengers and crew. This verdict stands as a testament to our commitment to seek justice, hold accountable those responsible, and honor the memory of those lost,” said Coast Guard Investigative Service Director, Jeremy Gauthier. “This is also a testament to the hard work and dedication of our Special Agents, working side-by-side with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, to uncover evidence critical to bringing the defendant to justice.”
“No verdict can bring back the lives lost in this tragedy,” said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Los Angeles Field Division Special Agent in Charge Christopher Bombardiere. “Our condolences go out to all the families still struggling to deal with the catastrophic event that occurred in the early morning hours on the Conception dive boat. Hopefully today’s guilty decision provides some much-needed closure for the families. For more than 50 years, ATF has developed scientifically proven investigative capabilities, expertise, and resources that have positioned ATF as the nation’s primary source for fire investigative knowledge and assistance. ATF’s National Response Team stands ready to provide resources and assist local agencies find answers.”
United States District Judge George H. Wu scheduled a February 8, 2024, sentencing hearing in this case. Boylan is free on a $75,000 bond.
The FBI, Coast Guard Investigative Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigated this matter.
Assistant United States Attorneys Mark A. Williams, Matthew W. O’Brien, and Juan M. Rodríguez of the Environmental Crimes and Consumer Protection Section along with Assistant United States Attorney Brian R. Faerstein of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section are prosecuting this case.