First Responders

Meth-Addict Skipper Leaves Migrants To Die in Sinking Boat

August 15, 2022Carl Prine
Undocumented migrants abandon the sinking Lucky Lady, a 40-foot fishing boat that wrecked on the reef off California's Point Loma on May 2, 2021. US Department of Justice photo.

Undocumented migrants abandon the sinking Lucky Lady, a 40-foot fishing boat that wrecked on the reef off California's Point Loma on May 2, 2021. US Department of Justice photo.

A lifelong meth addict who abandoned dozens of migrants in the hold of a sinking boat is going to stay in prison for a very long time.

While rescuers saved 29 migrants after the reef tore apart the fishing boat Salty Lady off California’s Point Loma on May 2, 2021, three undocumented passengers drowned.

Before sentencing the San Diego skipper, Antonio Hurtado, to 18 years in prison, US District Court Judge Janis L. Sammartino dubbed it “the most egregious case I’ve ever had in my courtroom in over 15 years in the Southern District of California.”

“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,” US Attorney Randy Grossman said in a prepared statement released in the wake of Sammartino’s Friday, Aug. 12, hearing.

Hurtado, 40, had faced up to a lifetime sentence. In a plea deal inked with federal prosecutors on April 5, Hurtado confessed to three counts of attempting to bring in illegal aliens and aiding and abetting in their deaths; three counts of attempting to smuggle in the migrants for financial gain; and one count of assaulting a federal agent.

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Undocumented migrants jump from the sinking 40-foot fishing boat Salty Lady after it wrecked on the reef off California's Point Loma on May 2, 2021. US Department of Justice photo.

On May 1, 2021, Mexican smugglers left Baja California’s Puerto Nova in panga boats for a rendezvous with the Salty Lady in off the Coronado Islands.

Hurtado’s job was to pilot the 40-foot fishing boat to the California coast, using the black night and storms as cover. Each passenger had paid between $15,000 and $18,000 for their one-way ticket.

The seas were rough. Stuffed in the overcrowded hold, the migrants became sick. Hurtado tried to stay on course by using a GPS function on his cell phone, but he began taking drugs. Some passengers later said he was smoking something. Others swore they saw him injecting a narcotic.

Whatever he was on, Hurtado passed out. But his boat continued on, making circles in the chopping waves while the migrants desperately tried to awaken him.

Shortly before dawn on May 2, 2021, the Salty Lady’s engine failed and the boat was at the mercy of sea currents, which brought it toward land.

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The Salty Lady, a 40-foot fishing boat, wrecked on the reef off California's Point Loma on May 2, 2021. US Department of Justice photo.

Hurtado awakened and feverishly tried to restart the engine but couldn’t. The migrants urged him to call the US Coast Guard for help, but he instead rang someone to arrange for a tow.

He ordered the passengers to huddle in the hold, out of sight.

Although a tow was tried, the sea was too stormy, and the Salty Lady had drifted too close to the reef. Roughly five hours after the engine failed, the boat scraped rocks off Point Loma, about 150 feet from the beach.

The Salty Lady listed to its port side, winds and waves battering its hull. Hurtado was the first person to abandon the boat. Inside the hold he left behind, tables smashed into bulkheads, pinning people as the ocean rushed in.

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Rescuers saved 29 undocumented migrants who abandoned the Salty Lady, a fishing boat that wrecked on the reef off California's Point Loma on May 2, 2021. Three passengers drowned. US Department of Justice photo.

For those who scrambled out of the cabin, there weren’t enough life vests to go around. The boat broke apart, and survivors were dumped into the water.

Park rangers at nearby Cabrillo National Monument saw the tragedy unfolding and called the US Coast Guard.

Watchstanders scrambled everyone available, reaching out to US Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Branch, US Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations, and San Diego’s Harbor Police, Fire-Rescue, and Lifeguard Services.

They fished 29 people out of the water. They also brought in the bodies of Maricela Hernandez-Sanchez, Victor Perez-Degollado, and Maria Eugenia Chavez-Segovia.

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A debris field bobs in the Pacific Ocean after the Salty Lady, a 40-foot fishing boat, wrecked on the reef off California’s Point Loma on May 2, 2021. US Department of Justice photo.

Because Hurtado was coming down from his high, US Border Patrol agents realized they’d need to take him to a local hospital to detox. At the station, Agent Xalic Castorena knelt down to place the ankle restraint on Hurtado so they could transport him.

Hurtado scanned the room, turned to his left, and then rammed his right knee into Castorena’s face.

Judge Sammartino called the attack on the agent both “violent” and “awful.”

But it also wasn’t Hurtado’s first brush with violence. In 2017, he pleaded guilty in San Bernardino County to brandishing a machete and beating a woman to snatch her phone during an argument over a drug deal.

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Station-house camera footage captured Antonio Hurtado kicking the face of US Border Patrol Agent Xalic Castorena on May 2, 2021. Screenshot via US Border Patrol footage.

With Hurtado’s plea agreement cementing his guilt, debate between his criminal defense attorney, Melissa Bobrow, and prosecutors devolved into sparring over how long he’d stay in prison.

A key question emerged over how to classify the 2017 conviction. Bobrow argued it really wasn’t very violent and resembled the rest of his rap sheet, which dated to 2003 and included multiple arrests for drug possession, failing to appear for trial, and driving while intoxicated.

“Prescribed Ritalin at age 3, his brain developed on methamphetamine. Taken off of his medication as he began puberty, he quickly turned to street drugs to keep himself ‘normal,’” Bobrow wrote in a sentencing memorandum to the judge.

She said Hurtado’s decision to pilot the Salty Lady for smugglers was an aberration in an adult life of steady employment mixed with petty crimes tied to addiction. She partly blamed his brief and tragic human trafficking career on a delay in getting unemployment benefits after he lost a job.

“Mr. Hurtado accepts the role he played in that. He wishes he could go back in time and do a lot of things differently, from the days leading up to the minutes before the tragedy,” Bobrow wrote.

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The Salty Lady, a 40-foot fishing boat, wrecked on the reef off California's Point Loma on May 2, 2021. US Department of Justice photo.

Bobrow didn't respond to Coffee or Die Magazine's messages seeking comment. In her brief to the judge, she urged lenience and asked her to sentence Hurtado to a little more than 12 years in prison.

Prosecutors asked for at least 17 years behind bars.

The judge gave him 18.

“This extremely unfortunate case highlights that smuggling operations are inherently dangerous and sometimes deadly when people put their safety in the hands of those that do not have their best interest in mind,” said Cmdr. Ray A. Slapkunas, the deputy commander of US Coast Guard Sector San Diego, in a prepared statement.

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Carl Prine
Carl Prine

Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

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