Conception boat fire trial: Jury chosen; opening statements to begin

A jury was chosen Wednesday in the federal criminal trial of Jerry Boylan, the captain of the Conception dive boat that caught fire near Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day 2019, killing all 33 passengers -- including two Santa Monica residents -- and a crew member.

Opening statements are expected Wednesday afternoon for Boylan, 69, of Santa Barbara, who faces one federal count of misconduct or neglect by a ship officer.

Boylan is accused of "misconduct, gross negligence, and inattention to his duties" that caused the 34 deaths, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.


The fire is considered the worst maritime disaster in modern California history.

The trial before U.S. District Judge George Wu is expected to touch on Boylan's alleged failure to organize roving night patrols of the 75-foot vessel.

In the charge, prosecutors contend that Boylan "was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers" and made a series of errors, including failure to have a night watch or roving patrol, to conduct sufficient fire drills and crew training, and to provide firefighting instructions or directions to the crew after the fire started in the predawn hours of Sept. 2, 2019.

Boylan's attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.

In this handout provided by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the 75-foot Conception, based in Santa Barbara Harbor, burns after catching fire early September 2, 2019 anchored off Santa Cruz Island, California. (Photo by Santa Barbara County Fire

The indictment alleges that Boylan failed 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, failed "to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire, even though he was uninjured" and failed to use the boat's public address system to warn passengers and crew members about the fire.

Federal prosecutors contend Boylan was the first crew member to abandon ship "even though 33 passengers and one crew member were still alive and trapped below deck in the vessel's bunkroom and in need of assistance to escape," the indictment states.

Citing a confidential report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Los Angeles Times reported last month that the fire started in a plastic trash can on the boat's main deck and spread rapidly. The blaze blocked exits for those sleeping below deck, the report said.

The charge of misconduct or neglect of ship officer carries a penalty of up to 10 years in federal prison.

Among the nearly three dozen people trapped aboard the 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 was among five crew members who were able to escape and jump into the water.

People embrace at Santa Barbara Harbor at a makeshift memorial for victims of the Conception boat fire on September 3, 2019 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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 it 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.