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Boat captain pleads guilty in three smuggling deaths in Point Loma crash

 The wreckage came from a boat that ran aground Sunday May 2, 2021.
National Park Service employees remove boat debris and wreckage from the tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument last May after three migrants died during an ocean-going smuggling attempt.
(Denis Poroy)

Antonio Hurtado admitted to being on drugs when he tried to smuggle 32 migrants aboard his boat, which capsized off the Cabrillo National Monument last May.

The man at the helm of a smuggling boat that capsized off Point Loma, resulting in the deaths of three migrants, pleaded guilty in federal court in San Diego to his role in the tragedy.

Antonio Hurtado, a 40-year-old U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty April 6 to felony charges of attempted human smuggling resulting in death and attempted human smuggling for financial gain relating to each of the migrants who died.

The plea came a month before the case was to go to trial.

Hurtado also pleaded guilty to assault on a federal officer, admitting to kneeing a Border Patrol agent in the head while shackles were being placed on an ankle when he was taken into custody.

Sentencing has been tentatively set for Friday, July 1.

Hurtado was trying to smuggle 32 migrants into the United States aboard his 40-foot trawler-style boat, the Salty Lady, when the wreck occurred May 2 about 50 feet off Point Loma. It was midmorning on a Sunday, and sightseers at Cabrillo National Monument and the tide pools below watched in horror as the boat capsized.

Antonio Hurtado does not cut the typical profile of a maritime smuggler. Yet he is accused of smashing a trawler onto the rocks off Point Loma, killing three of the 32 migrants aboard.

The journey had been problematic from the beginning. Hurtado admitted in his plea agreement to repeatedly using drugs during the trip north, passing out at least once. The boat sailed in circles for more than an hour until passengers were able to wake him, the plea states.

The seas were growing rough, and one passenger told Reuters that Hurtado had dropped anchor in an apparent attempt to steady the overloaded boat. After several hours, Hurtado tried to lift the anchor but struggled, and the passenger told Reuters that he leaned over and cut the anchor rope or chain with a saw.

Hurtado then tried to get back underway, but the motor died, according to the passenger. Large swells carried the boat toward shore, and it ran aground and began to list.

Hurtado jumped into the water and made it to land, abandoning his passengers, many of whom were huddled in the cabin. Surf pounded the boat, breaking it apart and sending the remaining migrants into the sea.

Bystanders, lifeguards and National Park Service employees rescued passengers from the waves. However, three migrants suffered blunt-force trauma and drowned: Victor Perez Degollado, 29; Maria Eugenia Chavez Segovia, 41; and Maricela Hernandez Sanchez, 35.

Maria Eugenia Chavez Segovia was among three Mexican nationals who drowned at sea when an overloaded trawler-style boat ran aground

The survivors told authorities that they had paid $15,000 to $18,000 to be smuggled into the country and identified Hurtado as the pilot of the boat, according to the criminal complaint.

U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman called Hurtado’s recklessness “incomprehensible and stunning.”

“The defendant’s boat was packed with way too many people, and he then repeatedly used illicit drugs to the point of losing consciousness,” Grossman said in a statement. “When the boat capsized and passengers were desperately trying to survive, the defendant swam to safety, leaving them all behind. It was a shocking and callous series of events.”

Hurtado, who struggled with drug addiction, was in debt and promising people that he would be paying them off just days before the wreck, acquaintances told The San Diego Union-Tribune. He lived on the boat at the Zuñiga Jetty Shoal, an unofficial long-term anchorage for liveaboard boaters outside the mouth of San Diego Bay.


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