SAN DIEGO — The captain of an overloaded smuggling boat that crashed into rocks and broke up off the San Diego coast last year, killing three immigrants, pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges.
Antonio Hurtado, 40, of San Diego entered pleas to felony counts of attempted human smuggling resulting in death and attempted human smuggling for financial gain. He could face up to life in prison when he is sentenced in July.
Prosecutors say Hurtado, a United States citizen, was carrying 32 immigrants from Mexico into the United States last May. The boat was traveling in the dark, in rainy weather with large ocean swells.
In a plea agreement, Hurtado said that he used drugs during the journey and at one point lost consciousness and the vessel drove in circles for more than an hour until the other people on board were able to wake him, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office.
At around 6 a.m. on May 2, the boat's engine died and Hurtado couldn't restart it. The 40-foot (12-meter) trawler-style boat drifted and was about 50 feet (15 meters) from shore when it ran aground and broke apart in the pounding surf off Cabrillo National Monument.
Hurtado jumped out and swam to shore, while the other passengers were flung into the water when the boat was smashed, prosecutors said.
People in the area, including a Navy rescue swimmer and National Park Service employees, tried to rescue them.
However, Maria Eugenia Chavez Segovia, 41, Maricela Hernandez Sanchez, 35, and Victor Perez Degollado, 29, drowned after suffering blunt-force injuries to their heads, according the San Diego County medical examiner's office.
The surviving migrants told investigators they paid between $15,000 and $18,000 each to be smuggled into the U.S. on the boat. All but one were Mexican citizens, including a 15-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl who were traveling alone.
"This was a horrific tragedy that never should have happened," U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said in a statement. "It was a shocking and callous series of events. ... I have said it many times, and I will say it again: Never trust a smuggler. They care only about money."
Hurtado also pleaded guilty to assault on a federal officer. He kneed a U.S. Border Patrol agent in the face who was trying to put a leg shackle on him on the beach, authorities said. The agent wasn't seriously hurt.
The cross-border smuggling attempt was one of several last year that ended in disaster. A few weeks after the accident, one person was killed and eight injured in a smuggling attempt off San Diego's tony La Jolla coast. Days earlier, 23 people had to be rescued in another incident when their boat got stuck in the surf.
In March 2021, an SUV packed with migrants collided with a tractor-trailer in the farming community of Holtville, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of San Diego. The crash killed 13 of the 25 people inside a 1997 Ford Expedition, including the driver, in one of the deadliest border-related crashes in U.S. history.
WATCH RELATED: Three victims identified in suspected smuggling boat crash off San Diego coast (May 2021).