Prosecutors try again with new indictment over fatal fire against Conception dive boat captain

LOS ANGELES — A federal grant jury issued a new indictment Tuesday against a dive boat captain, alleging that he acted with gross negligence when a 2019 fire aboard his vessel led to the deaths of 34 people off the Southern California coast.

The new indictment comes more than a month after a judge threw out the original case because it failed to specify that Capt. Jerry Boylan acted with gross negligence aboard the Conception during one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent U.S. history.

Boylan, 68, is again charged with a single count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, a pre-Civil War statute colloquially known as “seaman’s manslaughter” that was designed to hold steamboat captains and crew responsible for maritime disasters. He faces 10 years in prison and is expected to be arraigned in the coming weeks. His federal public defenders did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.

Families of 11 victims praised the new charge against Boylan.

“This tragedy was totally preventable and due to his negligence and inaction 34 lives were lost and our lives changed forever,” the families said in a statement.

The Conception went down in flames on Sept. 2, 2019, near an island off the coast of Santa Barbara. All 33 passengers and a crew member who were trapped in a bunk room below deck died. Boylan and four other crew members escaped.

Tuesday’s indictment alleges that Boylan “acted with a wanton or reckless disregard for human life by engaging in misconduct, gross negligence and inattention to his duties.” He is accused of failing to train his crew, conduct fire drills and post a roving night watchman on the boat when the fire ignited.

Although federal safety investigators never found the cause of the fire, officials blamed the owners of the vessel, Truth Aquatics Inc., for a lack of oversight, though they were not charged with a crime.

Truth Aquatics sued in federal court under a provision in maritime law to avoid payouts to the families of the victims. Family members of the dead have filed claims against boat owners Glen and Dana Fritzler and the company, and have sued the U.S. Coast Guard.

Boylan originally was indicted on 34 counts of misconduct or neglect of ship officer — which the initial indictment called seaman’s manslaughter — in 2020, with each carrying a possible prison term of 10 years if he was convicted. Defense lawyers sought to dismiss those charges because they argued the deaths were the result of a single incident and not separate crimes.

Before that issue could be argued in court, prosecutors got a superseding indictment this summer charging Boylan with only one count alleging his negligence caused all 34 deaths. If convicted, he would have faced a maximum of 10 years in prison.

But in September, on the third anniversary of the tragedy, U.S. District Judge George Wu said that indictment did not mention gross negligence, which he said was a required element to prove the crime of seaman’s manslaughter.

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