Two men pleaded guilty in federal court in San Diego on Wednesday to conspiring to sink their 57ft sport fishing boat in an insurance scam.
Christopher Switzer, co-owner of Mission Bay-based Eclipse Sportfishing, and Mark Gillette, co-owner of the boat named Commander, were rescued from the sinking vessel on October 11, about seven miles south of Dana Point.
Gillette told rescuers the boat was taking on water quickly and the pumps couldn’t keep up, according to a search warrant affidavit. He estimated the boat would be underwater in an hour. The Coast Guard launched a helicopter and the men were eventually picked up by Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies in a boat.
The next day, divers with an at-sea rescue unit inspected the boat in the open sea. The divers noticed that in four places in the engine room, the PVC pipes that supplied water to the bait tanks and bilges to fish were broken, according to the affidavit. The line valves were also in the open position.
The divers were able to close the valves and use pumps and air bags to float the boat. It was towed to San Diego.
Salvage experts told the Coast Guard that the damage appeared to be intentional, according to the affidavit.
A few days later, an investigator on the boat overheard an argument between Gillette and an insurance adjuster who had arrived to inspect the damage. Gillette said he didn’t want the surveyor on the boat because the surveyor used accusatory language, according to the affidavit.
A few days later, Gillette informed the Coast Guard that he would not be filing an insurance claim.
In their guilty pleas, Gillette, 37, and Switzer, 39, admitted trying to sink the boat by destroying PVC piping, pumping seawater onto the boat and puncturing the bulkhead. They made several false statements to authorities, including that their first sign that something was wrong was an unexplained loss of power and that they did not know why their boat was flooded, according to the plea agreement.
They also acknowledged that their actions put rescuers at risk. They agreed to reimburse the Coast Guard over $15,000 for the salvage and other costs.