Two San Diego Ship Owners Plead Guilty After Intentional Sinking for Insurance Money
Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Ari D. Fitzwater (619) 546-8756 and Assistant U. S. Attorney Patrick J. Bumatay (619) 546-8450
NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – February 1, 2017
SAN DIEGO – Christopher Switzer and Mark Gillette pleaded guilty in federal court today to conspiring to destroy their own vessel, the “Commander,” a 57-ft boat used for charter sport-fishing trips, in order to fraudulently collect an insurance payout.
According to their plea agreement, on October 11, 2016, Switzer and Gillette headed out to sea on the Commander from its homeport in Mission Bay and headed toward Long Beach. The two had planned to intentionally sink the Commander and submit a claim to their insurance company.
Switzer and Gillette admitted how they attempted to sink the Commander while off the coast of California by destroying plastic PVC piping in the ship’s engine room, which caused sea water to flood into the vessel. They also pumped sea water onto the vessel and punctured its bulkhead to let sea water spread faster throughout the boat.
After sea water had flooded the Commander and as it was starting to go under, Switzer and Gillette called the United States Coast Guard for help which promptly launched a helicopter to find the two. A Dana Point Harbor Patrol rescue fireboat later found the two boatmen atop the partially submerged ship. As part of their plea agreement, Switzer and Gillette acknowledged that their actions subjected themselves and the emergency responders to the risk of death or serious injury.
Upon their rescue, Switzer and Gillette gave a series of false statements to officials to cover their plot to sink the Commander for insurance money. They indicated the first sign of a problem on the Commander was a power failure and they could not figure out why the vessel was flooding.
Switzer and Gillette’s actions failed to completely sink the Commander and it was found adrift near Dana Point, California the next day. A commercial salvage company was able to successfully tow the Commander back to San Diego Bay, California, where investigators uncovered the scheme to intentionally sink the ship.
Switzer and Gillette pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jill L. Burkhardt. They face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine. As part of their plea, they are required to reimburse the U.S. Coast Guard over $15,000 for the price of launching the rescue helicopter and other costs.
Sentencing is scheduled for March 6, 2017 at 9 a.m. before U.S. District Judge Michael M. Anello.
DEFENDANTS Case Number 17cr0251-MMA
Christopher Switzer Age: 39
Mark Gillette Age: 37
SUMMARY OF CHARGES
Conspiracy to Destroy Vessels – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 2271
U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service