SAN DIEGO (AP) — A federal judge on Friday sentenced a San Diego man to 18 years in prison for piloting an overloaded small vessel of 32 migrants that broke up in powerful waves off the coast of San Diego l year, killing three people.
U.S. District Judge Janis L. Sammartino called it “the most egregious case I’ve had in my courtroom in over 15 years in the Southern District of California” before sentencing Antonio Hurtado, 40 years.
Prosecutors say Hurtado was drugged when he led the migrants through rough, stormy seas in the dark in May 2021. As waves of 5 to 8 feet (1.5 to 2.4 meters) pounded the ship, he jumped overboard and swam ashore, abandoning the passengers he had told to hide in the cabin and below deck. The boat capsized and broke apart as they were tossed through the treacherous early morning waters. Hurtado’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
More than two dozen people were injured, including a 15-year-old Mexican boy and a 15-year-old Mexican girl.
The 32 migrants – all but one from Mexico – had agreed to pay between $15,000 and $18,000 to be smuggled into the United States.
They boarded the first boat in the small fishing village of Puerto Neuvo, Baja California, Mexico, according to the investigation. From there, they traveled about two hours offshore near the Coronado Islands where Hurtado and his 40-foot boat – named the “Salty Lady” – were waiting to pick them up and take them to the coast of San Diego, prosecutors said.
Drugged, Hurtado passed out for an hour before passengers could wake him, prosecutors said. Then the ship’s engine failed, but Hurtado ignored pleas from his passengers to call the U.S. Coast Guard for help.
Instead, he jumped overboard when the boat began to list on its side and swam to shore.
Cabrillo National Park Rangers saw the boat capsize and called the U.S. Coast Guard, one of several federal and local agencies that responded, along with the hikers. In the end, 29 people were rescued. Three migrants, Maricela Hernandez-Sanchez, Victor Perez-Degollado and Maria Eugenia Chavez-Segovia, suffered blunt force trauma and drowned, according to the medical examiner’s report.
Hurtado was identified by the migrants as the captain and taken into custody. He told authorities he was “coming down” from drugs and was taken to hospital for detox.
He also kneed a US Border Patrol agent in the face as he attempted to ankle him before transporting him, the inquest heard.
“This conviction recognizes the gravity of these crimes and comes as a stark warning to smugglers: your for-profit schemes will fail; we will prosecute you for your crimes; and we will obtain justice for your victims,” U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said in a statement.