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Smuggling boat captain pleads guilty in capsizing that killed three migrants off San Diego

People stand on a rocky shoreline next to debris from a wrecked boat
National Park Service employees remove boat wreckage and debris from the tidepools at Cabrillo National Monument on May 3, 2021. Three migrants died in the smuggling attempt.
(Denis Poroy)
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The man at the helm of a smuggling boat that capsized off San Diego last year, ending in the deaths of three migrants, pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to his role in the tragedy.

Antonio Hurtado, a 40-year-old U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty 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 one month before the case was set to go to trial in San Diego.

Hurtado was trying to smuggle 32 migrants into the U.S. aboard his black 40-foot trawler-style boat, the Salty Lady, when the wreck occurred May 2 about 50 feet off Point Loma.

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Many passengers identified Antonio Hurtado in a photo lineup as the person who piloted the vessel, according to court records

May 5, 2021

It was midmorning on a Sunday, and sightseers at Cabrillo National Monument and the tidepools below watched the boat capsize.

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 drove 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 to the side.

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

A Navy airman on a hike with his family dived into the chilly waters and helped save several migrants who were pitched into the sea from a sinking smuggling boat off San Diego.

May 4, 2021

Bystanders, lifeguards and National Park Service employees sprang into action, rescuing migrants from the waves. Three Mexican migrants suffered blunt-force trauma and drowned: Victor Perez Degollado, 29; Maria Eugenia Chavez Segovia, 41; and Maricela Hernandez Sanchez, 35.

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

U.S. Atty. 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. When the boat capsized and passengers were desperately trying to survive, the defendant swam to safety, leaving them all behind,” he said in a statement. “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.

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He lived on the boat at the Zuñiga Jetty Shoal, an unofficial long-term anchorage for live-aboard boaters outside the mouth of San Diego Bay.

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 July 1.

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