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Home / Santa Cruz Island

Judge quashes boat fire indictment; federal prosecutors to appeal

A day after taking the defendant’s not-guilty plea in federal court, a Los Angeles judge dismissed the indictment Friday against the captain of the dive boat that caught fire on Labor Day weekend three years ago, killing 34 people near Santa Cruz Island.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge George H. Wu agreed with defense attorneys that the indictment alleging one count of seaman’s manslaughter against Jerry Nehl Boylan failed to allege gross negligence — which the judge said was an element required to prove the crime of seaman’s manslaughter and must be listed in the charging document.

“The United States Attorney’s Office will seek authorization from the Justice Department to appeal this order,” Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the prosecutors’ office, said Friday.

On Thursday, Boylan entered his plea of not guilty before Wu to the updated indictment alleging “misconduct, negligence and inattention” to duties leading to the fire during the predawn hours of Sept. 2, 2019. The single count covers all 34 deaths.

Wu dismissed the indictment the next day without prejudice, meaning it can be refiled at a later date.

The fire, which resulted in the deaths of all passengers and one crew member, is considered the worst maritime disaster in modern California history.

Among the nearly three dozen people trapped aboard the 75-foot passenger boat when it sank were two Santa Monica residents, Marybeth Guiney and Charles McIlvain, diving enthusiasts who lived in the same condominium complex.

The fire that broke out while the boat was anchored in Platt’s Harbor near Santa Cruz Island engulfed the ship and led to its sinking, resulting in the deaths of the 34 people who had been sleeping below deck. Boylan, 68, was among five crew members who were able to escape and jump into the water.

In his order, Wu vacated the Oct. 4 trial date and set a status conference for Oct. 6. It was not immediately known when federal prosecutors would file its appeal of Wu’s order.

Boylan was originally charged in December 2020 with 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter, but after the defense objected, prosecutors refiled an indictment in July on a single count covering all the deaths.

The fire prompted criminal and safety investigations. Victims’ families have also filed claims against the boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler and Truth Aquatics.

The company, in turn, filed a legal claim to shield them from damages under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners.

The families’ suits allege that the 41-year-old Conception was in blatant violation of numerous Coast Guard regulations, including failing to maintain an overnight “roving” safety watch and failure to provide a safe means for storing and charging lithium-ion batteries, and that the below-deck passenger accommodations lacked emergency exits.

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