Rescued boat owners in hot water after insurance scam goes awry


Commander partially submerged after rescue of boat owners. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard.

Two men rescued from a sinking fishing boat last fall off Southern California admitted in court to conspiring to sink the vessel in the hope of collecting insurance money.

Captains Christopher Switzer and Mark Gillette were aboard the 57-foot Commander on Oct. 11, as it began to sink off Orange County. The men were rescued by the Coast Guard and Orange County sheriff’s deputies.

On Wednesday, both men pleaded guilty in San Diego federal court to conspiring to destroy the vessel for fraudulent reasons. (Switzer, 39, and Gillette, 37, are co-owners of the Commander and Eclipse – both based in San Diego.)

As part of their plea agreement, according to a news release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the two admitted to sabotaging the vessel during a voyage from San Diego to Long Beach.

“Switzer and Gillette admitted how they attempted to sink the Commander by destroying plastic PVC piping in the ship’s engine room, which caused sea water to flood into the vessel,” states the news release. “They also pumped sea water onto the vessel and punctured its bulkhead to let sea water spread faster throughout the boat.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune, citing a search warrant affidavit, reports that Gillette alerted the Coast Guard that water was flooding the engine room of the Commander, and that the boat was rapidly sinking. A helicopter and boats were used during the rescue.

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But the boat never fully sank. Divers re-floated the vessel using air bags, and towed it to San Diego. A salvage team reported that damage to water-delivery pipes appeared to be intentional.

The Union-Tribune reports that during the investigation, when an insurance adjuster arrived at the vessel, Gillette did not let the adjuster on the boat. Gillette later informed the Coast Guard that he wouldn’t be filing an insurance claim.

Gillette and Switzer acknowledged placing responders at risk, and admitted to filing false reports. They’re required to pay more than $15,000 to cover the rescue cost, and it remains unclear whether more serious penalties will be leveled during a sentencing hearing in March.

The Eclipse is one of Southern California’s premier sportfishing charter boats. Switzer and Gillette are listed as the two primary captains.

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