Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter title=
Photo of Conception’s burned hull at dawn on Sept. 2, 2019, prior to sinking. (Credit: Ventura County Fire Department)
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Source: Department of Justice

The captain of the P/V Conception, a Santa Barbara-based dive boat that caught fire last year near Santa Cruz Island, resulting in the deaths of 33 passengers and one crew member, was indicted today by a federal grand jury on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter.

Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, of Santa Barbara, was named in the indictment returned this afternoon by a federal grand jury that alleges Boylan, as the captain and master of the vessel, “was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers.”

Federal prosecutors informed Boylan’s attorneys of the indictment after it was filed, and the defendant is expected to self-surrender to federal authorities in the coming weeks.

            The indictment alleges that Boylan caused the deaths of 33 passengers and one crewmember “by his misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties.” 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 (CFR) and for over 20 years was a requirement in the Conception’s Certificate of Inspection issued by the United States 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.

The Conception was a 75-foot, wood-and-fiberglass passenger vessel that docked in Santa Barbara Harbor. During a Labor Day weekend dive trip last year, the boat carried 33 passengers and six crew members, including Boylan. During the early morning hours of September 2, 2019, 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.

“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 bunkroom with no means of escape,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “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.”

“Nothing will ever replace the 34 lives that were lost in the Conception tragedy,” said Special Agent in Charge Kelly S. Hoyle of the Coast Guard Investigative Service – Pacific Region. “Our hearts remain with the families as the Coast Guard continues to work with our partners in the Department of Justice on this investigation.”

“This tragedy forever altered the lives of so many families and loved ones, and it deeply affected members of the public who watched in horror. We continue to grieve with them,” said Kristi K. Johnson, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “The FBI provided extensive investigative and technical resources to the joint investigation, including expert divers and evidence recovery assets. Our hope is that this indictment leads to the prevention of boating accidents and the senseless destruction of lives through proper precautions and training.”

“This was a devastating and tragic loss of 34 lives,” said Monique Villegas, the Special Agent in Charge of the ATF’s Los Angeles Field Division. “Our condolences continue to go out to all the families that have suffered from this tragedy. ATF remains committed to working closely with our partners to investigate complex fire scenes such as this by providing our technical expertise in the area of fire investigation.”

Each charge of seaman’s manslaughter carries a statutory maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.

An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The ongoing investigation in this matter is being conducted by the FBI; Coast Guard Investigative Service; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is providing significant assistance and technical expertise.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Mark A. Williams, Joseph O. Johns and Diana Kwok of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section.

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ChemicalSuperFreak Dec 01, 2020 05:22 PM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

All the Truth boats are run exactly the same way. Based on these charges, can we expect that the captains of the two remaining vessels, and the owner, will be charged with the same three safety violations? Or you only get charged if someone dies?

forrealnews Dec 01, 2020 06:03 PM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

charges come from a negative outcome resulting from non-compliance. However, fines and some kinds of charges can result from inspections that show other crews not following regulation. One is not charged of manslaughter if manslaughter has not occured. In this case, it did.

ChemicalSuperFreak Dec 02, 2020 11:15 AM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

Not every trip, but I've done about 50 trips, mostly overnight, on all three vessels over 10 years. Never once was there a night watch when anchored. I know because I wake frequently during the night to get up and grab a snack from the salon or use the bathroom. I usually go out onto the rear deck and look around and then head back to my bunk. Many of the trips did involve overnight crossings, in which case some of the crew would be awake for those.

PitLocal Dec 02, 2020 10:18 AM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

I see this as a negative development in this matter. It's a tragic incident, but I feel that the divers themselves have some small degree of negligence/ culpability in this matter for overloading the boat's electrical system by charging all of their gadgets in the manner that they did. I don't think the captain's negligence amounts to criminal conduct. Civil liability? Sure. All day long. But to say that he was so wantonly negligent as to warrant criminal liability, I think that's a stretch. It's just keeping the wounds open.

Voice of Reason Dec 02, 2020 10:32 AM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

I'm not so sure Pitlocal. Maybe not criminal if they had procedures for a night watchman and the guy just fell asleep. But if a night watchman wasn't even part of their SOP with 30+ people in the hold it sure seems like a criminal violation of safety regulations.

Yeti Dec 02, 2020 12:22 PM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

Wow Pitlocal, this is a new low point.. blaming dead people for participating in an outing, while utilizing the boat's electrical system as permitted by the vessel's crew, obviously, and then dying as a result of the crew and captain's direct and proven negligence. You are just helping make a very sad situation worse.

Harbor_Seal Dec 02, 2020 07:26 PM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

It is criminal.

According to the NTSB report less than a year before the Conception fire, the sister boat Vision had a fire about 4AM in the galley and luckily a guest was awake to use a fire extinguisher to put the fire out... not an overloaded electrical system, a faulty Lithium Ion battery. No documentation of the fire in the captains log, no details about the repairs needed. I have no words.

A captain of a boat is responsible for the lives on the boat. Turning a blind-eye to a previous potentially disaster event event(s) is criminal.

Word on the street is the group which chartered the Vision trip included several LA Firefighters... shame on them for not insisting action.

PitMix Dec 03, 2020 07:45 AM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

Pitlocal is reminding us that the government isn't available to help us everywhere we go, so a healthy dose of reason and common sense will help to preserve you in your future endeavors. People plugging a bunch of electronic devices into an old outlet? Driving too fast in bad conditions? Doctors prescribing addictive drugs? Just say no and walk away.

a-1606953566 Dec 02, 2020 03:59 PM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

34 souls died because the most basic of maritime rules was disregarded.
• Small passenger vessels that carry overnight passengers are required by regulation to have a suitable number of watchmen on duty to guard against fire and other dangerous situations. A watchman can assist with lookout duties when they are not conducting their safety rounds.

Basicinfo805 Dec 02, 2020 07:53 PM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

03:59, that's exactly right. Every captain knows that. I'm a former USCG Captain's License holder, and I boat on the ocean very regularly. I can't imagine allowing everyone go to sleep while carrying passengers. He is at fault. It's sad, but true. The captain is responsible when the boat leaves the dock. Period. The boat owner may be liable as well, we'll see what happens with that.

Alexblue Dec 02, 2020 08:45 PM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

Also a Captain's license holder and although I am torn by the tragedy of it, you are correct. It doesn't matter if the laws on the book have been ignored for years and not enforced, they are there for a good reason and although having crew on anchor watch is a pain in the ass on a small boat like that with few crew, if you are responsible for others' lives, it is your duty as Captain to make it happen.

ZeroHawk Dec 03, 2020 10:16 AM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

this is very sad all around....i'm a sailor. i know some of the crew and have met Jerry. I know many that are close with him. I get it...captain is responsible. I feel the owners are ultimately at fault...not Jerry. But that's just my opinion. I do not dive, but am on the water regularly. My best friend works at the sea center and is a dive instructor. This event has hit all of us very hard. RIp for the lost souls. What does putting a 67 yo man in prison for his life going to do? How does that "fix" things? It doesn't. If you knew him, you would know he's already in his own private misery and hell. Fine him? How is that going to fix anything? He's a captain....not the owner. I'm not into the finger pointing game or blame game, but in my mind, the owner is always the top. So sad... :(

Alexblue Dec 03, 2020 10:49 AM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

Zerohawk--One could argue that putting a 67 year old man in prison and publicizing the hell out of it in the maritime community might actually do a lot to get the attention of owners and operators to the point that they check every single box when it comes to safety and the legal requirements under which they operate. I'll be honest, it has made me take a hard look at everything that I currently or might do. Before you ask if the deaths of the 34 victims didn't do that, I will tell you that it absolutely did--to be responsible for that magnitude of tragedy is indeed a private hell for any decent human being--but you have got to put it on the one responsible, the Captain of the vessel at sea, not the owner, so that it is crystal clear for all other operators and Captains.

NostraChumash Dec 03, 2020 11:04 AM
Federal Grand Jury Charges Conception Boat Captain with Manslaughter

Anyone remember Dutch Navarro?..
He was my Uncle & a merchant marine.
He said; "The Captain is Supreme commander of his vessel..
The job is tough, only for the toughest.
And yes, he WILL get out of his bunk once a night, or ten, to oversee & insure the safety & workings of his ship & crew".

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