California Boat Captain Is Sentenced to 4 Years in Fire That Killed 34


The captain of a dive boat that caught fire off the coast of Southern California in 2019, killing all 33 of its passengers and a crew member, was sentenced on Thursday to four years in prison after a lengthy hearing that included emotional testimony from relatives of the victims.

A federal jury in November found the captain, Jerry Nehl Boylan, guilty of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, a crime also known as “seaman’s manslaughter.”

Mr. Boylan, 70, of Santa Barbara, Calif., was the captain of the Conception, a commercial scuba diving vessel, when a fire broke out in the early hours of Sept. 2, 2019, while the ship was anchored near Santa Cruz Island, according to prosecutors.

Mr. Boylan and four other crew members were able to escape the fire, but the 33 passengers, who were sleeping below deck, died, prosecutors said. One crew member also was killed. Prosecutors said Mr. Boylan failed to try to save them.

U.S. District Judge George H. Wu of the Central District of California sentenced Mr. Boylan to four years in prison at a hearing in Los Angeles on Thursday. When he delivered the sentence, Judge Wu said that he had considered Mr. Boylan’s age and health issues, including chronic back pain and high blood pressure, describing it as “one of the most difficult” sentences he has had to determine.

Mr. Boylan could also be ordered to pay restitution. Judge Wu scheduled a hearing for July 11 to discuss an amount.

Before he was sentenced on Thursday, lawyers for Mr. Boylan said that he was sleeping when the fire broke out and that the ship was not running. Judge Wu said that even though he was sleeping and the ship was docked, the ship was still under his command.

The judge on Thursday heard from 17 people whose loved ones died in the fire. Their statements were emotional and detailed a sense of their loss. Many delivered their comments through tears, including one woman who shouted at Mr. Boylan.

Barbara Chan said her brother, Raymond Chan, 59, and a niece, Kendra Chan, 26, died on the boat while on a father-daughter trip. Ms. Chan described having to tell her parents the news and her emotional struggles since then.

“I cannot erase the terror that engulfed me,” she said. “Despair and anxiety became my constant companions.”

Mr. Boylan did not address the court. In a brief statement read aloud by one of his lawyers, he said that he had cried almost every day since the fire.

“I failed,” he said in the statement said. “I am so sorry.”

Lawyers for Mr. Boylan did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Martin Estrada, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, said in a statement on Thursday that Mr. Boylan’s “cowardice and repeated failures caused the horrific deaths of 34 people.”

“The victims’ families will be forever devastated by this needless tragedy,” he said. “While today’s sentence cannot fully heal their wounds, we hope that our efforts to hold this defendant criminally accountable brings some measure of healing to the families.”

Prosecutors said Mr. Boylan failed to carry out his duties the night of the fire by not having a night watch, not attempting to save lives or fight the fire even though he was uninjured, and not using the ship’s public address system to alert those on board about the fire.

Mr. Boylan was the first crew member to flee the ship, even though the passengers were still alive and in need of help to escape, prosecutors said.

A cause of the fire has not been determined. The National Transportation Safety Board said in 2020 that the lack of a required night patrol aboard the boat, along with a lack of smoke detectors, delayed the response to the fire and contributed to the high death toll.

The fire was one of California’s worst maritime disasters, and it led to a new federal fire safety rules for small boats as well as a number of lawsuits, including a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the victims’ families that accused the U.S. Coast Guard of failing to enforce regulations and allowing the boat to operate with substandard electrical and safety systems.

Mr. Boylan was initially indicted by a federal grand jury in 2020 on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter, but a federal judge dismissed the indictment because the judge said it failed to allege “gross negligence.”

In October 2022, an indictment of one count of seaman’s manslaughter was reinstated. By fleeing the ship, it said, Mr. Boylan’s “misconduct, gross negligence and inattention to his duties” led to the deaths of 34 people.

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