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Department of Justice

U.S. Attorney's Office
Central District of California
For Immediate Release
Martin E. Estrada, United States Attorney
www.justice.gov/usao-cdca
Monday, November 6, 2023

Captain of Santa Barbara-Based Dive Boat that Burned and Sank, Resulting in 34 Deaths, Found Guilty of Felony Federal Offense

LOS ANGELES — The captain of the PV Conception – a Santa Barbara-based dive boat that caught fire and sank near Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day in 2019, resulting in the deaths of 33 passengers and one crew member – was found guilty by a jury late this afternoon of a federal felony offense.

Jerry Nehl Boylan, 69, of Santa Barbara, was found guilty of one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer – an offense commonly called “seaman’s manslaughter” – a crime punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison.

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

During the early morning hours of Sept. 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.

“This ship captain’s unpardonable cowardice led to the deaths of 34 lives on Labor Day 2019,” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada. “As the jury found, this tragedy could have been avoided had Mr. Boylan simply performed the duties he was entrusted to carry out. We hope that today’s verdict brings some solace and closure to the victims’ loved ones.”

“Mr. Boylan’s failure to carry out his duties as Captain of the Conception led to the catastrophic loss of 34 victims who suffered a horrifying death and perished needlessly in the end,” said Donald Alway, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “Ultimately, the hard work by the investigators from multiple agencies led to today’s outcome and now the victims’ families can continue their healing process. Let this tragedy be a lesson to anyone who commands a boat with vulnerable passengers that proper training, diligence and life saving measures – when called for – are necessary to safeguard those left in one’s charge.”

According to evidence presented at a 10-day trial, Boylan, as captain of the Conception, committed a series of failures – including abandoning his ship instead of rescuing passengers – that resulted in the disaster. Such conduct constituted misconduct, gross negligence and inattention to his duties and led to the deaths of 34 victims, the jury found.

As the ship’s captain, Boylan was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its passengers and its crew. The jury found he failed in his responsibilities in several ways, including by:

  • 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 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.
  • 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.

“In the court of justice, a guilty verdict echoes the collective grief and loss of 34 souls that perished in this tragedy. It serves as a solemn reminder of the great duty a master owes his passengers and crew. This verdict stands as a testament to our commitment to seek justice, hold accountable those responsible and honor the memory of those lost,” said Coast Guard Investigative Service Director, Jeremy Gauthier. “This is also a testament to the hard work and dedication of our Special Agents, working side-by-side with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, to uncover evidence critical to bringing the defendant to justice.”

“No verdict can bring back the lives lost in this tragedy,” said ATF, Los Angeles Field Division, Special Agent in Charge Christopher Bombardiere. “Our condolences go out to all the families still struggling to deal with the catastrophic event that occurred in the early morning hours on the Conception dive boat. Hopefully today’s guilty decision provides some much-needed closure for the families. For more than 50 years, ATF has developed scientifically proven investigative capabilities, expertise and resources that have positioned ATF as the nation’s primary source for fire investigative knowledge and assistance. ATF’s National Response Team stands ready to provide resources and assist local agencies find answers.”

US. District Judge George H. Wu scheduled a Feb. 8, 2024, sentencing hearing in this case. Boylan is free on a $75,000 bond.

The FBI, Coast Guard Investigative Service and ATF investigated this matter.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mark A. Williams, Matthew W. O’Brien and Juan M. Rodríguez of the Environmental Crimes and Consumer Protection Section, along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian R. Faerstein of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section, are prosecuting this case.

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