Point Loma

Boat Captain Admits Passing Out En Route, Role in 3 Human Smuggling Deaths Off Point Loma

Thirty-two people were aboard the boat last May when it crashed in rough waters off San Diego

NBC Universal, Inc.

The pilot of a boat that crashed and broke up off Point Loma last year with more than 30 people aboard pleaded guilty Wednesday to three federal charges connected to human smuggling resulting in death, each of which carries a potential life sentence.

Dozens of people were also hurt in the wreck involving boat captain Antonio Hurtado, 40, who has admitted responsibility in the May 2, 2021, crash that killed 41-year-old Maria Eugenia Chavez-Segovia, 35-year-old Maricela Hernandez Sanchez and 29-year-old Victor Perez Degollado.

After the incident, the county medical examiner's office cited the cause of death in each case as drowning.

NBC 7's Nicole Gomez shares updates on the investigation into the capsized boat in Point Loma. Four people died during what officials believe was a human smuggling operation, which more than two dozen others were hurt, but survived.

Contributing conditions for Chavez-Segovia’s death included injuries to her head and chest. Perez Degollado and Hernandez Sanchez each also suffered injuries to the head, the reports said.

The reports said Chavez-Segovia died at UC San Diego Medical Center; Perez Degollado and Hernandez Sanchez died at the Shelter Island Harbor Police Dock.

The 40-foot cabin cruiser was heading toward the surf near the Cabrillo National Monument Tidepools when it overturned and broke apart along a reef.

“This was a horrific tragedy that never should have happened,” U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said, in part, in a news release issued after Wednesday's guilty pleas. “Because of the incomprehensible and stunning recklessness of the defendant on that terrible day, three people died and many others had to be rescued from rough seas. The defendant’s boat was packed with way too many people, and he then repeatedly used illicit drugs to the point of losing consciousness."

After Hurtado passed out, the boat ran in circles for over an hour while the people on board tried to rouse him, according to prosecutors, who added that the boat's engine gave out at about 6 a.m., and Hurtado was unable to restart it.

Eventually it drifted toward shore, running aground about 50 yards offshore from the tidepools. When high surf crashed into the watercraft and caused it to list, officials, said, Hurtado leapt overboard, leaving virtually all his crew and passengers — who he had directed to hide below deck and in his cabin — to fend for themselves.

"When the boat capsized and passengers were desperately trying to survive, the defendant swam to safety, leaving them all behind," Grossman is quoted as saying in the news release. "It was a shocking and callous series of events."

Boat Was 'Severely Overcrowded' When It Capsized: Officials

U.S. Custom and Border Protection officials said in May the boat was “severely overcrowded” and was being used as a vessel to traffic undocumented migrants into the U.S.

The boat didn’t look like a typical panga used for these sorts of operations and it likely blended in with other commercial boats as it made its way along San Diego’s coast Sunday morning, said Jeff Stephenson, a supervising agent with U.S. Border Patrol.

NBC 7's Lauren Coronado is at UC San Diego Hospital where nearly a third of those injured in the suspected smuggling boat.

At least 32 people were aboard, including the three people who were killed.

The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department said lifeguards were first alerted of the boat crash at around 10 a.m.

SDFD Lifeguard Lt. Rick Romero was the first to respond and sent out a rescue boat. Romero soon realized the capsized boat had broken apart against the rocks inside the surf line and there were dozens of passengers on board.

Romero said the waves were rough and 5-6 feet in height.

“There are people in the water, drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there,” Romero explained.

NBC 7's Amber Frias spoke to a witness, a local assemblymember, who saw the incident unfold.

CBP officials were called to take over the investigation alongside other federal, state and local authorities.

The CBP said its officers, plus Air and Marine agents, and U.S. Border Patrol agents traveled with the passengers as they were taken to local hospitals.

The CBP deployed a helicopter and vessel to search the waters for additional survivors; as of Monday morning, the search was called off for additional potential victims.

Officials confirmed 29 people were found alive and three victims had died.

The CBP said preliminary checks by U.S. Border Patrol agents confirmed that all but two people on the boat were “Mexican nationals with no legal status to enter the U.S.”

One of the two non-Mexican nationals was from Guatemala, with no legal status to enter the U.S. The final person was Hurtado, the captain of the boat – a U.S. citizen – who was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, the CBP confirmed.

One of the survivors was an unaccompanied 15-year-old boy, the CBP said. The other 28 passengers were 21 men and six women, all between the ages of 18 and 39, according to the CBP.

NBC 7's Dave Summers spoke to a Navy rescue swimmer who was on a hike when he saw dozens of boat passengers in need of help.

The Mexican Consulate said that as the survivors are released from the hospital, they were expected to be placed into the custody of immigration authorities.

"The consulate is in direct contact with the victims and will assist them in their return to Mexico once their processes conclude, giving priority to people who, due to their health condition, present a higher state of vulnerability," the consulate said in a statement.

NBC 7's Allie Raffa has the latest details on the incident off the Point Loma coast.

Days before this deadly boat crash, USBP Chief Agent Aaron M. Heitke said the agency had been seeing an increase in the number of illegal crossings at sea and would be ramping up coastal patrols this weekend as a result.

As warmer weather comes to San Diego, there is a misperception that it will make illegal crossings safer or easier, the agency said in a statement.

In March 2021, 13 people were killed and 13 others were injured when an SUV suspected to be used for human smuggling collided with a semi-truck hauling gravel near the U.S.-Mexico Border in Imperial County east of San Diego County. It was one of the deadliest border-related crashes in U.S. history.

According to court documents, migrants who were aboard the boat said they paid between $15,000 and $18,500 to be smuggled into the United States and identified Hurtado as the vessel's captain.

On Wednesday in court, Hurtado also pleaded guilty to three counts connected to human smuggling for financial gain as well as one count of assault on a federal officer for striking a Border Patrol agent in the head with his knee while the agent was attempting to put an ankle restraint on Hurtado.

Hurtado is due back in court for sentencing on July 1, 2022.

Contact Us