A federal judge sentenced a San Diego man to 18 years in prison Friday for piloting a small vessel overloaded with 32 migrants that smashed apart in powerful surf off San Diego's coast last year, killing three people.
U.S. District Judge Janis L. Sammartino called it "the most egregious case I've ever had in my courtroom in over 15 years in the Southern District of California" before sentencing 40-year-old Antonio Hurtado.
Prosecutors say Hurtado was high on drugs when he drove the migrants into rough, stormy seas in the dark on May 2021. As 5-to-8-foot (1.5-2.4-meter) waves pounded the vessel, he jumped overboard and swam to shore, abandoning the passengers he had told to hide in the cabin and under deck. The boat capsized and broke apart as they were hurled into the treacherous early morning waters. Hurtado's lawyer 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 San Diego coast, prosecutors said.
High on drugs, Hurtado passed out for an hour before passengers were able to wake him, prosecutors say. Then the vessel's engine failed but Hurtado ignored his passengers' pleas to call the U.S. Coast Guard for help.
Instead, he jumped overboard as the boat began to list on its side and swam to shore.
Rangers at Cabrillo National Park saw the boat capsize and called the U.S. Coast Guard, one of many federal and local agencies that responded, along with hikers. In the end, 29 people were rescued. Three migrants, Maricela Hernandez-Sanchez, Victor Perez-Degollado, and Maria Eugenia Chavez-Segovia, sustained blunt force trauma and drowned, according to the medical examiner's report.
Hurtado was identified by the migrants as being the captain and taken into custody. He told authorities he was "coming down" from drugs and was taken to a hospital to detox.
He also kneed a U.S. Border Patrol agent in the face as he attempted to put an ankle restraint on him before transporting him, according to the investigation.
"This sentence recognizes the serious nature of these crimes and stands as a stern warning to smugglers: your profit-driven 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.