Point Loma

Man Accused of Piloting Human Smuggling Boat That Crashed, Killed 3 Appears in Court

Officials confirmed 32 people were aboard the boat when it crashed in the rough waters off Point Loma in San Diego on May 2

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A man who authorities say captained a boat filled with dozens of migrants that crashed in coastal waters near Point Loma, killing three people, made his first appearance in federal court Thursday on charges related to the suspected human smuggling operation.

Antonio Hurtado, 39, a U.S. citizen, was manning a 40-foot trawler-style vessel illegally carrying 31 Mexican migrants and 1 Guatemalan migrant into the United States before the boat capsized in rugged waters off the coast of Point Loma, a peninsula in San Diego, Sunday morning, according to federal prosecutors.

Hurtado appeared in front of a judge via closed-circuit television wearing a tan-colored jumpsuit and a face mask to face charges of harboring non-citizens of the U.S. and assaulting a U.S. Border Patrol officer as he was being taken into custody, prosecutors said.

During the court appearance, a U.S. prosecutor called Hurtado a flight risk and a danger to the community. A bail review hearing was set for next Tuesday and an arraignment was scheduled for May 27.

Hurtado courtroom sketch
Krentz Johnson
Hurtado courtroom sketch

On Sunday at about 10 a.m., witnesses reported the overturned vessel near the Cabrillo National Monument and Point Loma Tide Pools and initially saw only one person on board. But when the U.S. Coast Guard and San Diego lifeguards arrived, they noticed a dire situation -- people were drowning in choppy waves 5 to 6 feet high, SDFD Lifeguard Lt. Rick Romero said.

The vessel had crashed along the rocky ocean bottom. All the occupants jumped in the water as the boat slowly disintegrated, a bystander's video showed.

Warning: The video below may contain graphic imagery

The boat, which did not look like pangas often used in human smuggling operations, likely blended in with other commercial boats as it made its way along San Diego's coast, according to Jeff Stephenson, a supervising agent with U.S. Border Patrol.

Video shows a vessel overturned and broken apart that was carrying 30 people in a possible human smuggling operation, officials said.

Bystanders, including a U.S. Navy swimmer, jumped in the water to try to help rescue crews pull people from the tides. Several migrants were rescued and others were able to make it to shore on their own.

Three people drowned, according to the Medical Examiner's Office. They were 41-year-old Maria Eugenia Chavez-Segovia, 29-year-old Victor Perez Degollado and 35-year-old Maricela Hernandez Sanchez, all citizens of Mexico.

CBP said one of the 28 undocumented survivors was an unaccompanied 15-year-old boy. The ages of the rest of the undocumented survivors -- 21 men and six women -- range from 18 to 39, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said.

Mexico's Foreign Relations Secretary said Mexican passengers were being turned over to U.S. immigration authorities to be returned to Mexico.

Hurtado and 29 others were taken to hospitals for treatment.

The filing also alleged that while Border Patrol agents attempted to shackle Hurtado's ankle at the Imperial Beach Border Patrol Station, he struck an agent in the head with his knee, leaving the agent with "slight redness on his forehead and a burning sensation.''

The boat crash is the latest deadly accident to highlight the perils of human smuggling. Smugglers often take great and dangerous lengths to get migrants into the U.S. for profit.

According to an affidavit, 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.

In March, 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.

USBP said as warmer weather comes to San Diego, there is a misperception that it will make illegal crossings safer or easier. The agency had recently seen an increase in the number of illegal crossings at sea. As a result, the weekend of the deadly boat crash, patrols were ramped up in San Diego.

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