Boat Owners Plead Guilty In Insurance Fraud

Two men pleaded guilty in San Diego federal court Wednesday to conspiring to sink their 57-foot sportfishing charter boat in an insurance scam.

Christopher Switzer, co-owner of Eclipse Sportfishing based in Mission Bay, and Mark Gillette, co-owner of the boat named Commander, were rescued from the sinking vessel on Oct. 11, about seven miles south of Dana Point.

 MV Commander Insurance FraudGillette told rescuers the boat was rapidly taking on water 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 a marine salvage unit inspected the boat in open sea. The divers noticed that in four locations in the engine room PVC pipes that supply water to the bait tanks and fish holds were broken, according to the affidavit. The valves to the pipes were also in the open position.

Divers were able to close valves and used pumps and air bags to float the boat. It was towed back to San Diego.

The salvage experts told the Coast Guard the damage appeared to be intentional, the affidavit said.

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 adjuster on the boat because the adjuster was using accusatory language, the affidavit said.

A few days later, Gillette notified the Coast Guard he would not be filing an insurance claim.

In their guilty pleas, Gillette, 37, and Switzer, 39, admitted to trying to sink the boat by destroying the PVC piping, pumping sea water 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 didn’t know why their boat was flooding, the plea agreement said.

They also acknowledged their actions put rescuers at risk. They have agreed to reimburse the Coast Guard more than $15,000 for the rescue and other costs.