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Conception Boat Captain Indicted Again in California Federal Court for 2019 Fire That Killed 34 People

A candle vigil for victims of a fatal boat fire

Candles are lit in Santa Barbara Harbor at a makeshift memorial for victims of the Conception boat fire on September 3, 2019 in Santa Barbara, California. 

Federal prosecutors are again pursuing criminal charges against the captain of a diving boat over a fire in 2019 that killed 34 people.

A grand jury returned a new indictment against Jerry Nehl Boylan on Tuesday, about six weeks after U.S. District Judge George H. Wu in Los Angeles dismissed the original criminal case against him because prosecutors didn’t accuse Boylan of acting with gross negligence.

The charge is the same: seaman’s manslaughter brought under U.S. Code 1115, which criminalizes misconduct or neglect of ship officers. It comes as the U.S. Attorney’s Office is appealing Wu’s dismissal order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

A press release announcing the new indictment offered no details about why prosecutors are pursuing the same charge Wu said wasn’t legally justified. But it says 68-year-old Boylan alleges a series of failures and the abandoning of his ship, which constituted “misconduct, gross negligence, and inattention to his duties” and led to the 34 deaths. The crime carries a maximum 10 years in prison if convicted.

Wu had dismissed the previous indictment without prejudice, which meant prosecutors could seek another indictment. His analysis of the significance of gross negligence, however, didn’t appear to bode well for the fate of the new indictment if it had gone to him, but the new case was instead randomly assigned to U.S. District Judge Percy A. Anderson.

Wu dismissed the case on the eve of the third anniversary of the tragedy, which occurred on Sept. 2, 2019 as the boat was anchored overnight at a harbor on Santa Cruz Island, near Santa Barbara. Tuesday’s press release outlines the allegations:

  • 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 “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.”

A crew member awoke to the fire after going to bed around 2:30 a.m. Boylan is said to have yelled “abandon ship” or “everybody out” as four crew members struggled to access a fire extinguisher and access the sleeping area where their coworker and 33 passengers had been sleeping.

Documents describe various missteps such as a crew member passing by a fire hose twice but not realizing it was there.

Boylan placed two distress calls to the U.S. Coast Guard at 3:14 a.m., then “was the first to jump in the water; he did not lower himself onto the main deck, but instead jumped directly from the wheelhouse,” according to prosecutor’s opposition to the dismissal motion. “There is no evidence that defendant ever attempted to grab the fire ax or fire extinguisher in the wheelhouse or otherwise attempt to fight the fire before abandoning ship. Nor did defendant use the Conception’s PA system to alert the passengers about the fire.”

The other crew members, one of whom had broken his leg, jumped into the ocean after seeing Boylan abandon the ship, prosecutors said. One crew member lowered a skiff rescue boat that the men piloted toward a sailboat called the Grape Escape, which had people onboard who helped them.

The boat eventually sank, and rescuers spent several days retrieving the victims’ remains. All died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The victims were:

  • Carol Diana Adamic, 60, of Santa Cruz
  • Tia Salika-Adamic, 17, of Santa Cruz
  • Neal Gustav Baltz, 42, of Phoenix, Arizona
  • Patricia Ann Beitzinger, 48, of Chandler, Arizona
  • Vaidehi Campbell, 41, of Felton
  • Kendra Chan, 26, of Oxnard
  • Raymond “Scott”Chan, 59, of Los Altos
  • Andrew Fritz, 40, of Sacramento
  • Daniel Garcia, 46, of Berkeley
  • Justin Carroll Dignam, 58, of Anaheim
  • Marybeth Guiney, 51, of Santa Monica
  • Yulia Krashennaya, 40, of Berkeley
  • Alexandra Kurtz, 26, of Santa Barbara
  • Charles McIlvain, 44, of Santa Monica
  • Caroline McLaughlin, 35, of Oakland
  • Angela Rose Quitasol, 28, of Stockton
  • Evan Michel Quitasol, 37, of Stockton
  • Nicole Storm Quitasol, 31, of Imperial Beach
  • Michael Quitasol, 62, of Stockton
  • Steven Salika, 55, of Santa Cruz
  • Ted Strom, 62, of Germantown, Tennessee
  • Wei Tan, 26, of Goleta
  • Adrian Dahood-Fritz, 40, of Sacramento
  • Lisa Fiedler, 52, of Mill Valley
  • Kristina “Kristy” Finstad, 41, of Santa Cruz
  • Fernisa Sison, 57, of Stockton
  • Kristian Takvam, 34, of San Francisco.
  • Juha Pekka Ahopelto, 50, of Sunnyvale
  • Berenice Felipe, 16, of Santa Cruz
  • Xiang Lin, 45, of Fremont
  • Sanjeeri DeoPujari (Nirmal), 31, of Stamford, Connecticut
  • Sumil Sandhu, 45, of Half Moon Bay
  • Kaustubh Nirmal, 33, of Stamford, Connecticut
  • Yuko Hatano, 39, of San Jose

[Image: Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]

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A graduate of the University of Oregon, Meghann worked at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho, before moving to California in 2013 to work at the Orange County Register. She spent four years as a litigation reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and one year as a California-based editor and reporter for and associated publications such as The National Law Journal and New York Law Journal before joining Law & Crime News. Meghann has written for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Bloomberg Law, ABA Journal, The Forward, Los Angeles Business Journal and the Laguna Beach Independent. Her Twitter coverage of federal court hearings in a lawsuit over homelessness in Los Angeles placed 1st in the Los Angeles Press Club's Southern California Journalism Awards for Best Use of Social Media by an Independent Journalist in 2021. An article she freelanced for Los Angeles Times Community News about a debate among federal judges regarding the safety of jury trials during COVID also placed 1st in the Orange County Press Club Awards for Best Pandemic News Story in 2021.