Pictured: The remains of the Conception on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019 before it sank. Photo by Ventura County Fire Department. 

by Kimberly Rivers

kimberly@vcreporter.com

On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California announced 34 charges of seaman’s manslaughter against the captain of the Conception, a recreational dive boat that caught fire and burned in September 2019 in the waters near Santa Cruz Island, killing all 33 passengers and one crew member. The captain and members of the crew survived after jumping overboard. 

According to the statement released by the U.S. Attorney, a federal grand jury is alleging that Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67 of Santa Barbara, in his role “as the captain and master of the vessel, ‘was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers.’”

“The loss of life that day will forever impact the families of the 34 victims. With this indictment and our commitment to vigorously prosecute the case, we seek a small measure of justice for the victims and their loved ones,” said Nick Hanna, United States Attorney.

The grand jury’s indictment lists three specific violations of the Code of Federal Regulations. It is alleged that Boylan failed to implement a night watch or any kind of roving patrol on the boat when passengers were in their bunks, which is also a requirement of the United States Coast Guard. The grand jury also charges that he failed to conduct fire drills or ensure the crew was properly trained to respond to emergencies. 

Each charge of seaman’s manslaughter carries a statutory maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison, meaning if Boylan is found guilty on all charges, he could face up to 340 years in prison. 

The threshold to convict someone of seaman’s manslaughter under maritime law is different than under common law, which requires gross negligence, referring to a mental state of the accused. With seaman’s manslaughter, a person only needs to be found to have violated the standard of care or breached their duty. (1)

The law relating to seaman’s manslaughter (18 U.S. Code, Sect. 1115, Misconduct or neglect of ship officers) states, “Every captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel, by whose misconduct, negligence, or inattention to his duties on such vessel the life of any person is destroyed, and every owner, charterer, inspector, or other public officer, through whose fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct, or violation of law the life of any person is destroyed, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”

The code also states, “When the owner or charterer of any steamboat or vessel is a corporation, any executive officer of such corporation, for the time being actually charged with the control and management of the operation, equipment, or navigation of such steamboat or vessel, who has knowingly and willfully caused or allowed such fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct, or violation of law, by which the life of any person is destroyed, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”

The investigation conducted by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) and the final report adopted by the board in Oct. 2020 found that the lack of a night watch allowed the fire to spread without notice and trap the passengers. But the NTSB did not find a conclusive cause of the fire. (2) That report also identified safety issues and included recommendations for changes to passenger vessel construction requirements and management procedures for companies operating these vessels, such as the lack of requirements for smoke detectors in all accommodation spaces, inadequacy of requirements for means of escape from areas below deck and ineffective company oversight. In all, 10 new safety recommendations were made to the U.S. Coast Guard and associations for companies that operate passenger vessels, including the company that owned the Conception, Truth Aquatics. 

The NTSB also noted that the U.S. Coast Guard has failed to cite any vessel since 1991 for not having the required night watch and recommends stronger enforcement of that requirement. 

No charges have been filed against Truth Aquatics, the Santa Barbara-based commercial diving boat business that owned the Conception, nor against Worldwide Diving Adventures, which had chartered the boat and is owned by Santa Cruz residents Dan Chua and Kristy Finstad. Finstad perished in the fire. Chua was not on board.

Truth Aquatics does face civil lawsuits filed by families of the victims of the fire. 

Boylan’s attorneys were notified and he is expected to “self surrender” to federal authorities in the coming weeks.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Mark A. Williams, Joseph O. Johns and Diana Kwok of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section and the ongoing investigation is being conducted by the FBI; Coast Guard Investigative Service; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

  1. Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seaman%27s_Manslaughter_Statute
  2. NTSB final report on Conception incident, adopted Oct. 2020: https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/MAR2003.aspx