Los Angeles, November 7, 2023
Jerry Boylan, the captain of the ill-fated dive boat Conception, has been found guilty of criminal negligence in connection with the catastrophic fire that claimed the lives of 34 people in 2019. This tragic incident is considered the deadliest maritime disaster in the recent history of U.S.
Following a 10-day trial held in federal court in downtown Los Angeles, Jerry Boylan, 69, was convicted of one count of misconduct or neglect of a ship officer. This allegation, commonly referred to as seaman’s manslaughter, originates from a law predating the Civil War, with the intention of making steamboat captains and crew responsible for maritime calamities.
Boylan stands as the sole individual to face criminal charges related to the Conception fire. While he faces a potential 10-year prison sentence when he is sentenced on February 8, 2024, he retains the right to appeal. Boylan’s public defenders refrained from making any statements as they exited the courthouse.
The verdict arrives over four years after the tragic event that occurred on September 2, 2019, leading to significant changes in maritime regulations, congressional reforms, and a slew of ongoing civil lawsuits.
Family members of the victims embraced one another and shed tears outside the courtroom on Monday after the verdict was pronounced. Clark and Kathleen McIlvain, whose 44-year-old son Charles was among those who lost their lives, expressed their relief at the accountability imposed for their loss.
“We are very happy that the world knows that Jerry Boylan was responsible for this and has been found guilty,” said Clark McIlvain.
Families of the victims also gathered outside the courthouse to applaud and cheer when federal prosecutors arrived for a news conference to discuss the case.
The exact cause of the devastating fire on the Conception remains undetermined, but both the prosecution and the defense attempted to assign blame during the trial.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office argued that Boylan failed to establish the required roving night watch and failed to provide adequate training to his crew in firefighting procedures. The absence of a roving watch allowed the fire to spread undetected throughout the 75-foot (23-meter) boat.
Boylan’s defense team, however, sought to place responsibility on boat owner Glen Fritzler, who, along with his wife, owns Truth Aquatics Inc., the company that operated the Conception and two other scuba dive boats in the vicinity of the Channel Islands. They contended that Fritzler was responsible for the crew’s lack of firefighting training and other safety measures, as well as for fostering a lax maritime culture referred to as “the Fritzler way,” which didn’t require captains to establish a roving watch.
The Fritzlers have remained publicly silent about the tragedy since an interview with a local TV station shortly after the fire. Their attorneys have not responded to requests for comments from The Associated Press, including on Monday.
Kendra Chan, 26, and her father, Raymond “Scott” Chan, 59, were among the victims of the Conception fire. Vicki Moore, Raymond’s wife, and Kendra’s mother, expressed her satisfaction with the verdict, stating that justice had been served.
“A strong message came through that if you are the captain of a boat, you are truly responsible, and there are consequences if you don’t follow the law,” Moore said.
While the criminal trial has concluded, several civil lawsuits remain ongoing. Three days after the fire, Truth Aquatics filed a suit under a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law, which permits them to limit their liability to the value of the boat’s remains, as it was deemed a total loss. This legal maneuver, successfully used by the owners of the Titanic and other vessels, requires the Fritzlers to demonstrate that they were not at fault. This case is pending, along with others filed by victims’ families against the Coast Guard for alleged lax enforcement of the roving watch requirement.
The Channel Islands remain a popular destination for boaters, scuba divers, and hikers. Five of the eight Channel Islands make up the national park, with Santa Cruz being the largest within the park, spanning approximately 96 square miles.