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Judge tosses 34 manslaughter charges for boat fire that killed six Santa Cruz County residents

WASHINGTON D.C. (KION-TV) UPDATE September 2, 2022, at 12:37 p.m.- A Los Angeles federal judge threw out an indictment Friday charging a dive boat captain with manslaughter in the deaths of 34 people in a 2019 fire aboard a vessel anchored off the Southern California coast.

The people killed also included some Santa Cruz County Residents:

  • 60-year-old Carol Diana Adamic of Santa Cruz
  • 41-year-old Vaidehi Campbell of Felton
  • 16-year-old Berenice Felipe of Santa Cruz
  • 41-year-old Kristina “Kristy” Finstad of Santa Cruz
  • 55-year-old Steven Salika of Santa Cruz
  • 17-year-old Tia Salika-Adamic of Santa Cruz, CA

Friday marks the third anniversary of the disaster, as the Conception went down on Sept. 2, 2019, near an island off the coast of Santa Barbara. All 33 passengers and a crew member trapped in a bunk room below deck died of smoke inhalation.

Federal prosecutors said that Captain Jerry Boylan, 68, failed to follow safety rules. He was accused of “misconduct, negligence, and inattention” by not training his crew, conduct fire drills, and not having a night watchman on the boat at the time of the incident.

The indictment failed to specify that Boylan acted with gross negligence, which U.S. District Judge George Wu said was required to prove manslaughter and must be listed in the indictment.

According to Thom Mrozek, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, prosecutors will seek approval to appeal the ruling. They can also seek a new indictment alleging gross negligence.

Boylan and four other crew members, who had all been sleeping on an upper deck, escaped the burning boat after the captain made a panicked mayday call.

Surviving crew members said the blaze prevented them from reaching people trapped in the bunk room. Officials said flames blocked a stairwell and a small hatch that were the only exits from below deck.

The ruling is the second recent blow to prosecutors in the case.

Boylan was initially indicted on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter, the charges carry possible prison terms of 10 years if convicted per death. Defense lawyers sought to dismiss those charges because they argued the deaths were all the result of a single incident, not separate crimes.

Before that issue could be argued in court, prosecutors got a superseding indictment in July charging Boylan only with one count of seaman’s manslaughter that alleged his negligence caused all 34 deaths.

The defense also argued that the single-count indictment should be thrown out because it did not allege Boylan acted with gross negligence.

Federal prosecutors countered that under the pre-Civil War statute designed to hold steamboat captains and crew responsible for maritime disasters, they only needed to show Boylan acted with simple negligence, a unique standard for a felony.

Prosecutors cited the statute's language that says captains and other boat employees can face up to 10 years in prison for “misconduct, negligence, or inattention to his duties on such vessel the life of any person is destroyed.”

Wu said the case law on seaman’s manslaughter was inconsistent in appellate courts. Only a New Orleans appeals court had upheld the requirement that only simple negligence needed to be proven to win a conviction.

Robert Weisberg, a criminal law professor at Stanford University, blamed Congress partly for writing the law in an “ad hoc and inconsistent” manner.

The judge’s ruling was sensible for relying on other appellate opinions that found gross negligence was a required element for the similar crime of involuntary manslaughter cases, Weisberg said. California and many other state courts also require proof of gross negligence for involuntary manslaughter.

The difference between the two types of negligence is often viewed as whether someone should be slapped with civil damages or criminally punished for their behavior.

Simple negligence would be if someone caused harm without ever considering their risks. It would be gross negligence if they considered the possible consequences but acted anyway. Gross negligence often incorporates an element of recklessness.

“Defendant has presented persuasive reasons for why the statute should be read to require gross negligence as an element necessary for conviction (and indictment), and the government’s reasons to the contrary do not convince the court otherwise,” Wu wrote.

As a homicide case with a possible 10-year sentence, Wu noted that the Supreme Court has been reluctant to allow prosecutors to show negligence instead of the more demanding standard of establishing a defendant acted with criminal intent.

Federal safety investigators blamed the vessel's owners, Truth Aquatics Inc., for 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 victims' families. Family members of the dead have filed claims against boat owners Glen, Dana Fritzler, and the company.

This article was written with help from the Associated Press.

NTSB: Some safety measures still not being met three years after deadly Conception dive boat fire

Three years after a deadly dive boat fire south of Santa Barbara claimed the lives of 34 people, the National Transportation Safety Board said some of their recommendations made in the aftermath of the fire have not been met by multiple groups.

In a statement released Thursday, the NTSB said only the Passenger Vessel Association has worked to satisfy NTSB recommendations.

It's one of three associations with members operating small passenger vessels with overnight accommodations.

The NTSB said the Sportfishing Association of California and the National Association of Charterboat Operators have not responded to NTSB recommendations.

September 2nd marks three years since the deadly boat fire saw 34 people killed, including some who were teenagers.

The people killed also included some Santa Cruz County Residents:

  • 60-year-old Carol Diana Adamic of Santa Cruz
  • 41-year-old Vaidehi Campbell of Felton
  • 16-year-old Berenice Felipe of Santa Cruz
  • 41-year-old Kristina “Kristy” Finstad of Santa Cruz
  • 55-year-old Steven Salika of Santa Cruz
  • 17-year-old Tia Salika-Adamic of Santa Cruz, CA

The cause of the actual fire is unknown, however the NTSB said the tragedy could have been prevented if Truth Aquatics Inc., who operated the Conception dive boat that caught fire, didn't fail to "provide effective oversight of its vessel and crewmember operations, including requirements to ensure that a roving patrol was maintained."

NTSB officials said this allowed the fire to grow, undetected, near the main deck. NTSB said the fire also went undetected because there wasn't a U.S. Coast Guard regulatory requirement for smoke detection, plus emergency escape arrangements from the vessel's bunkroom were "inadequate."

The U.S. Coast Guard was sued by family members of the victims in 2021 for allegedly providing similar boats prone to devastating fires certification to keep operating.

As for the recommendations, Congress passed the Elijah E. Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act in 2020 that requires the U.S. Coast Guard to carry out all of the NTSB recommendations issued as a result of the Conception investigation.

“We appreciate Congress addressing these safety issues in legislation, and for the cooperation and partnership of the Coast Guard,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “But this shouldn’t have taken an act of Congress to improve safety. Passenger vessel owners and operators should act now to ensure no one else loses a loved one in another tragedy on our waterways.”

These are the recommendations the NTSB is encourages at this time for operators of vessels with overnight accommodations:

  • ​​Install smoke detectors in all accommodation spaces and ensure they are interconnected so when one detector goes off, they all do. While the Conception berthing space did have smoke detectors, they were the only ones on the vessel and would only alarm locally in the berthing space and not throughout the entire vessel. 
  • Ensure that the primary and secondary emergency escape paths do not lead to the same space, which can be blocked by a single hazard. The Conception had two means of escape from the lower deck bunk room, but both led into the salon on the deck above, which was filled with heavy smoke and fire. Tragically, the salon compartment was the only escape path to the outside weather deck. Because there was fire in the salon, the passengers and a crew member were trapped below. 
  • Vessel owners and operators should review the requirements of the Certificate of Inspection (COI) and ensure they adhere to the conditions of operation such as designating and maintaining roving patrols at all times when bunks or berthing spaces are occupied. Our investigation found that the Conception fire was uncontrollable by the time it was discovered because no crew members were assigned roving patrol duties on board the Conception, even though it was a condition of operation on their COI.
  • Keep escape routes unobstructed at all times.
  • Implement a safety management system. Had an SMS been implemented, Truth Aquatics could have identified unsafe practices and fire risks on the Conception and taken corrective action before the tragedy occurred.
Article Topic Follows: News
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Victor Guzman

Victor Guzman is the Assistant News Director at KION News Channel 5/46.

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Ricardo Tovar

Assignment/ Web Manager for KION News Channel 5/46 and Telemundo 23

The Associated Press

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