El Cajon Woman Admits to Coordinating the Transportation of More than 75 Undocumented Immigrants and Collecting $1 Million in Payments
Assistant U. S. Attorneys C. Seth Askins (619) 546-6692 and Lyndzie M. Carter (619) 546-8780
NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – April 6, 2022
SAN DIEGO – Antonio Hurtado pleaded guilty in federal court today to charges stemming from a May 2, 2021, maritime smuggling incident in which three people aboard the vessel he was piloting died.
In a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge William V. Gallo, Hurtado admitted that on the evening of May 1, 2021, and into the following morning, he piloted a vessel from Mexico into the United States. Aboard the vessel were 32 individuals who had agreed to pay between $15,000 and $18,000 each to be brought into the United States illegally, including three unaccompanied minors.
Hurtado admitted in his plea agreement that during the journey, he repeatedly used controlled substances, to the point that he lost consciousness on at least one occasion, and the vessel drove in circles for more than an hour until the other people on board were able to wake him. At approximately 6:00 a.m., the vessel suffered engine failure, and the defendant was unable to restart the engine. The weather conditions that morning were rainy with large ocean swells, and the vessel began to drift toward land until it ran aground approximately 50 yards from shore near the Point Loma tidepools.
As the boat was struck by waves and began to list on its side, the defendant jumped into the water and made his way to shore, abandoning the vessel and its 32 occupants. The vessel quickly broke apart from the pounding of the surf, sending the individuals on board – almost all of whom had been hiding below deck and in the cabin at the defendant’s direction – into the cold and rough water. Personnel with the National Park Service, along with many civilians who were in the area, immediately began trying to help, and various agencies immediately responded to conduct a massive rescue operation. Unfortunately, three of the individuals – identified as Mexican citizens Maricela Hernandez-Sanchez, Victor Perez-Degollado, and Maria Eugenia Chavez-Segovia – died as a result of this incident.
After he was identified as the pilot of the vessel, Hurtado was taken to a local hospital for treatment and then transported to the Imperial Beach Border Patrol Station for processing. Hurtado admitted that while there, he assaulted a Border Patrol agent by striking the agent in the head with his knee while the agent was attempting to apply an ankle restraint.
The trial was scheduled to begin on May 3, 2021, one year and one day from the date of the incident. Instead, the defendant pleaded guilty to three counts of Attempted Bringing in Illegal Aliens Resulting in Death (each of which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison); three counts of Attempted Bringing in Illegal Aliens for Financial Gain (which carry a five-year mandatory minimum sentence); and one count of Assault on a Federal Officer.
“This was a horrific tragedy that never should have happened,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “Because of the incomprehensible and stunning recklessness of the defendant on that terrible day, three people died and many others had to be rescued from rough seas. 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. It was a shocking and callous series of events. If not for the heroism of stunned witnesses who swung into action, and that of first responders, others would have died. I have said it many times, and I will say it again: Never trust a smuggler. They care only about money. They care nothing for your safety. It’s not worth risking your life.” Grossman thanked the prosecution team and all the private citizens and members of local and federal agencies who participated in life-saving efforts on that terrible day, and also those who investigated the case to achieve justice.
“Callous disregard for migrant safety is a common trait among smugglers,” said Brandon Tucker, Director of Air and Marine Operations in San Diego. “All too often, these dangerous decisions have fatal consequences. I’ve made it my mission to go after the smugglers that put migrant lives at risk.”
“That unscrupulous smugglers put lives in danger to support their criminal activity is reprehensible,” said Chad Plantz, special agent in charge for HSI San Diego. “These deaths could have been prevented were it not for this individual concerned more for his own greed rather than the safety of others. HSI remains committed to working with our law enforcement partners, and utilizing our unique investigative authorities, to bring to justice those responsible for horrible tragedies like this.”
Hurtado is scheduled to be sentenced on July 1, 2022, at 9 a.m. before U.S. District Judge Janis L. Sammartino.
DEFENDANT Case Number 21-cr-01615
Antonio Hurtado Age: 40 San Diego, CA
SUMMARY OF CHARGES
Attempted Bringing in Illegal Aliens Resulting in Death and Aiding and Abetting
Title 8, U.S.C., Section 1324(a)(1)(A)(i), (v)(II), and (a)(1)(B)(iv)
Maximum penalty: Life in prison and $250,000 fine
Attempted Bringing in Illegal Aliens for Financial Gain and Aiding and Abetting
Title 8, U.S.C., Section 1324(a)(2)(B)(ii) and Title 18, U.S.C., Section 2
Maximum penalty: Fifteen years in prison and $250,000 fine
Assault on a Federal Officer
Title 8, U.S.C., Section 111(a)(1) and (b)
Maximum penalty: Twenty years in prison and $250,000 fine
Homeland Security Investigations
United States Border Patrol
Air and Marine Operations (CBP)
National Park Service
United States Coast Guard
San Diego Harbor Police Department
San Diego Fire-Rescue Department
San Diego Lifeguard Services